10. Lecce: Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate
Shrouded in mystery and immersed in the olive groves that cover the area outside the city of Lecce, the origins of the abbey complex can be traced back to Tancred, King of Sicily who, legend has it, was visited here by an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In more concrete terms, the story of Cerrate began under the Norman prince Bohemond I of Antioch who, some time between the 11th and 12th centuries, founded a monastery there of Basilian monks of the Greek Orthodox rite, who turned it into one of the most important hubs for the propagation of culture in southern Italy, thanks to its library and flourishing scriptorium, where the monks would transcribe ancient texts.Over subsequent centuries, the abbey grew in size and prestige, complementing its religious role with farming, but in 1711 an attack by Turkish pirates resulted in it falling into a state of complete abandonment, interrupted only in 1965 by an initial restoration commissioned by the Province of Lecce, which in 2012 entrusted to FAI a new salvage operation geared towards opening the property to the public.
Today, the restoration is ongoing, but this situation does not prevent visits to what is a wonderful example of Puglian Romanesque, embellished with Byzantine 13th-century frescoes and flanked by an elegant 16th-century well and a 13th-century loggia with beautiful capitals sculpted from white Leccese stone – a true masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture. The agricultural vocation of the site, given over to the processing of olives, wheat and tobacco, emerges from the workplaces and from the farmhouse, the stables and the underground mills with their grindstones, presses and tanks. These are all pieces of a complex mosaic to be restored and reconstructed, but already capable of recounting a chapter of the history of the Salento area.