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Texts by Elisabetta D'Errico
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Typical handicraft in Salento
The art of papier-mâché - Pietra Leccese - Terracotta - The embroidery art - The art of working canes
The art of papier-mâché
It is worthy to know that the statues of Saints and Madonnas which you will see in the churches of Salento and other towns in Southern Italy are made by artisans from Lecce and Salento. They are made of a particular material called papier-mâché.
This art dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the number of churches and monuments increased. In that period, in fact, little artisans opened up workshops where they worked out statues representing Madonnas, Jesus and Saints to carry on procession during religious celebrations. Some of them were commissioned too by the aristocratic families of the time, just to embellish their elegant palaces. Our artisans did not have many precious materials, so they had to use poor things such as straw, chalk, paper and old clothes to give vent to their artistic vein. During the centuries the art of papier-mâché has declined a little but in the last decades it has grown so much and with it the number of workshops.
The technique is very simple: on a structure made of wire and straw the artisans put some layers of paper soaked in water. Then they glue them together using water and flour to make vases, bunches of flowers, little statues and other objects. Papier-mâché is used for clothes and flowers and “terracotta” for faces or arms. Before being painted in various colours the objects are put in the oven at a high temperature.
Pietra Leccese
Most churches and buildings in Lecce and Salento are built in “pietra leccese”, a natural stone composed of calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, clay and sand, famous for its light yellow colour, its thickness and malleability. The most famous artists (called “scalpellini”) used it to create beautiful works of art: churches, palaces and engraved decorations. The stone is very much influenced by atmospheric agents and wet, therefore lots of palaces and churches have been ruined in the centuries, Luana Pascaliand most of them have been restored. In fact in the past, the “scalpellini” protected the stone with milk; the blocks of stone were dipped into milk which seeped into the rock and created a waterproof layer. This kept it unchanged.
The main quarries of “pietra leccese” are around Maglie and close to the Gallipoli – Alezio road, but there are others around Cutrofiano and Aradeo.
The stone is a kind of limestone (the Miocenic type) which contains sea fossils, especially shells. There are different kinds of “pietra leccese” and it goes under different names according to its origin, texture and colour; it may be soft, hard, white and black. The “pietra di Cursi” (Cursi stone) “chianche” are made from it. Another variety is “carparo”, a bit thicker and harder, of a dark yellow colour. Almost all the historical town centres were built in “pietra leccese”, before cement and perforated bricks were used. Nowadays it is also used for interior design, gifts and other objects, such as clocks and statues, which have given expression to a new form of contemporary art.
The famous "terracotta"
coliweb.comAnother material used by artisans to make plates, glasses and any other ornament is “terracotta”, one of the oldest craftmade artistic tradition. It was already used by the Messapians, as we see from the “trozzelle” and the pots found out in the area around Otranto. During the years, earthenware has grown into a real art, and today it produces more and more complex items, both simple and beautifully decorated. These handmade products are modelled out of clay and water (in fact Salento is a very clayey ground) and then dried in the sunshine. Once dried, they are put in the oven at different temperatures and clay becomes ceramics. The last step is the decoration, an operation which requires patience and precision. But our artisans are masters of that. The output includes kitchenware, whistles, vases, little statues for Christmas and other souvenirs of Salento.
In Salento it is a habit to pass the art from fathers to sons in small-size or large-size workshops. Cutrofiano, for example, is full of workshops, the most famous of which are “Fratelli Colì”. Other towns where “terracotta” is famous are S. Pietro in Lama, Ruffano, Galatina and Lequile. Wherever you go you will see ancient “capase” (in the past they were used to keep olive oil or wine) or plates decorated by hand with the typical little flower (it is almost an emblem of Salento) and the cockerel pattern.
The embroidery art
This art has a very long tradition and everywhere you can see looms and crochet, laces, linen or cotton works on tableclothes for trousseaus. In the past women and young girls worked in workshops or factories, but still nowadays many women work at home during the winter evenings.They weave carpets and curtains or embroider initials on towels, sheets and whatever else for the house. Little or large factories are in the areas around Maglie and Leuca: here embroider and lace decorate doilies, bedcovers and linen. In the past women made the lace rosettes which then embellished towels or sheets; or they made the pillow laces, sewn on a round support, called “tombolo”, using needles, bobbins and crochet, weaving strips of silk, linen or cotton.
The art of working canes
This art is well developed in Gallipoli, a real secret among fishermen, who use canes for making “nasse” (bell-shaped cages used to capture fish). In Salento there are very few craftsmen of this art but few of them still work in their workshops in the old part of Gallipoli making big and small “nasse” and even souvenirs.
Canes are used in the dairy industry too, to make the “fiscelle”, little baskets to keep cheese and especially the “ricotta”, a soft cheese. These “fiscelle” are made following the same technique as “nasse”, but the holes are smaller, to let the liquid drop out. Another typical cheese, the “giuncata”, is produced using canes: in fact it is a very fresh cheese made out of milk that, once curdled, drains on a bundle of canes.
You will see canes also in baskets, called “panari”, used to contain olives or fruit.

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