Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Postcard from Salento

Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, Leuca, Salento
Photo N Nowakowska
           Salento is one of Europe’s many evocative ‘finis terrae’ – places where the land just runs into the sea, like Portugal’s Sagres, Brittany’s Finisterre, England’s Land’s End. Salento is the far tip of Puglia, the stiletto point on the heel of Italy, and its Cape Leuca overlooks the spot where the postcard-blue Adriatic meets the darker Ionian Sea. Even on a hazy August day, at Leuca you can see Albania to the east, like a mirage. With its ancient Greek heritage and Greek-speaking villages, olive groves with clumps of prickly pear, and ruins of the local Messapian civilisation, Salento has often claimed itself to be a distinct region of Italy, historically separate even from Puglia, whose regional capital lies 200km north in Bari.
            Whatever I had expected as a historian to find in Salento – a traditionally agricultural and poor part of Europe, ‘Maldive-like’ beaches which attract Italian holidaymakers in their thousands, local black widow spiders – wasn’t quite what we saw. Over Salento’s rural emptiness, there is a strong veneer of design chic. Baking hot Otranto, famous for being sacked by the Ottomans in 1480, has medieval alleys bursting with high-end boutiques:  designer bikinis, designer lights. It was clear from fabulous coffee-table books widely on sale that there is a trendy Salento style… white wash, white linen, ironwork furniture, the essential rustic farmhouse vibe. The cover story of one of Italy’s national interior design magazines, this summer, was the Salento look.
            It was also striking how strong a narrative of its own identity Salento can project. I picked up a little book by Pierfranceso Pacoda about the Night of Tarantella, the hugely successful folk festival centred around Salento’s dionsyian, dervish-like ‘tarantella’ dance: the dance you danced if bitten by venomous local arachnids. Pacoda, and other local intellectuals, argue that international interest in the dance and its pizzica music has sparked pride in popular Salento culture, given its populace back a firm sense of place and identity. If Salento could not have actual automony of government, they wrote, it could at least create its own ‘autonomy of imagination’. These writers spoke of Salento as typifying the Mediterranean dilemma: for so long the centre of the world, over slow centuries coming to terms with becoming a backwater. Salento, they write, can renew itself by reclaiming its own distinctive cultural outputs.    
        This lively debating of past and present is manifest in Salento’s impressive local museums. In Ugento, the town museum (pointed out with great pride by locals, who approached us in the street full of civic enthusiasm) is an imaginative museum-within-a-museum: an early modern monastic house, with many frescoed side-chapels in tact, in which Messapian artefacts are carefully displayed. The Ugento museum tells its ancient, and 17C, histories together, cleverly interweaving them. And in the Greek-founded port of Gallipoli, the medieval castle, jutting into the harbour, has been restored as both heritage site, architectural academy and contemporary art space. Walking through its dim corridors, you are greeting with glass-and-LED tortoises and installations made from the lifejackets of Mediterranean refugees, while in the courtyard Anthony-Gormley-style humanoid sculptures peer down from the ramparts. Gallipoli castle’s bookshop was a treasure trove of publications on Salento: everything from colouring books to collections of late medieval documents. Salento has a lot of problems, but it has a tangible energy and self-assertion too, presenting itself not as periphery, but one of Europe’s historic cultural crossroads. Finisterrae: where the land ends, and the story begins.

Gallipoli Castle
Photo N Nowakowska