The Norman conquest of southern Italy was one of the most remarkable episodes in mediaeval history. Whereas England was subjugated by a sizeable and highly organised Norman army, the ‘Kingdom in the Sun’ was won by small bands of soldiers of fortune. They trickled in during the eleventh century when the tangled political situation and incessant feuding made the area ripe for exploitation by ambitious knights in search of adventure and personal gain.
By the end of the century they had expelled the Byzantines from the mainland and the Saracens from Sicily, and by 1127 all Sicily and southern Italy was ruled by one Norman king.
This cosmopolitan kingdom was one of the best administered and most culturally sophisticated in Europe. As in England, in the wake of conquest there arose splendid new churches of unprecedented size and grandeur. A mixture of French, Lombard, Byzantine, Saracenic and ancient Roman elements, south Italian Romanesque is one of the most distinct and beautiful of the variants of this truly international style.
Prosperity and creativity continued after the extinction of the Norman dynasty in 1194 by the Hohenstaufen from Germany. In the first half of the thirteenth century the region was dominated by the extraordinary Emperor Frederick II, ‘Stupor Mundi’, ‘Wonder of the World’. He was as courageous and ambitious in artistic and intellectual spheres as he was in administration, diplomacy and war.
Much later there was another artistic outburst, appropriately international but characteristically idiosyncratic: a highly elaborate version of Baroque architecture and decoration.
The heel and spur of boot-shaped Italy, Puglia is remote from the better-known parts of the peninsula, and its raw limestone landscape wholly different from the silky richness of central and northern Italy. The last day of the tour is spent across the Apennines in Campania. This region presents another face of Italy, distinctly southern but with an equally cosmopolitan and pan-Mediterranean cultural history.
Fly at c. 11.00am (Alitalia) from London City to Brindisi, via Rome (March), or at c.9.00am via Milan (October) and drive on to Lecce where the first three nights are spent.
Squinzano, Gallipoli, Otranto. Explore the Salentine Peninsula, the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy. Visit the Abbey of Sta. Maria di Cerrate, a 12th-century Romanesque complex. Gallipoli was the centre of Byzantine Italy until conquered by the Normans in 1071; the old town is on an off-shore island. Otranto, captured by Normans in 1068, has a cathedral with outstanding 12th-century floor mosaics.
Lecce. Lecce is distinguished by an elaborate style of Baroque and Rococo decoration wrought in the soft, honey-coloured tufa of the region, an outstanding example being the church of Sta. Croce. See also the Norman church of SS. Niccolò e Cataldo, founded by Tancred. Some free time.
Brindisi, Bitonto. Possessing the safest natural harbour on the Adriatic, the provincial capital of Brindisi has been of intermittent strategic importance for over 24 centuries. Visit S. Benedetto, with its Romanesque bell tower. Bitonto has one of the finest of Romanesque cathedrals with good sculpture and an Early Christian lower church. Continue to Trani where the next four nights are spent.
Bari, Trani. Bari, capital of Puglia, has an extensive and unspoilt mediaeval quarter beside the sea. The Basilica di S. Nicola, begun in 1087, is not only the first but also the greatest of Puglian Romanesque churches; the episcopal throne here is remarkable. Also visit the cathedral (1170) and later mediaeval Angevin castle. Back in Trani, visit the magically beautiful Romanesque cathedral on the waterfront.
Castel del Monte, Barletta. Castel del Monte, situated on an isolated peak, is Frederick II’s extraordinarily sophisticated hunting lodge and one of the most intriguing secular buildings of the Middle Ages. The castle at Barletta houses a bust of Frederick II.
Canosa, Melfi, Venosa. Canosa di Puglia has an 11th-century cathedral. Continue to the hilltop town of Melfi in Basilicata, which was for a while the main centre of Norman power in Italy. The impressive but unfinished Abbazia della SS. Trinità at Venosa was built from the 12th-century over an early Christian church. Return to Puglia for the final night in Trani.
Benevento, Salerno. Cross the Apennines to Campania. Benevento was a strategic Roman colonia, Lombard Duchy and Norman from 1081. The Arch of Trajan is one of the finest surviving Roman triumphal arches. Sta. Sofia has a magnificent 12th-century cloister. The seaport of Salerno has an 11th-century cathedral with a fine sculpted portal and a 12th-century ivory altarpiece. Overnight in Seiano.
Sant’Angelo in Formis. The Basilica di S. Angelo in Formis has outstanding 11th-century frescoes. Fly from Rome to London Heathrow, arriving at c. 7.15pm.
Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on mediaeval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Patrons and Processes – was published in 2018. He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.
Dr Richard Plant
Architectural historian and lecturer specialising in the Middle Ages with a strong interest in the modern. He studied at Cambridge, followed by the Courtauld, where he obtained his PhD. He was Deputy Academic Director at Christie’s Education and has published on English and German architecture.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,720 or £2,500 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,030 or £2,810 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with Alitalia (aircraft: Airbus 320/Embraer 90/Embraer 75); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all taxes; all tips; the services of the lecturer.
Patria Palace Hotel, Lecce: stylish 5-star hotel in an excellent location near the church of Sta. Croce in the historic centre. Hotel San Paolo al Convento, Trani: charming 4-star hotel converted from a 15th-century convent. Grand Hotel Angiolieri, Seiano: modern 5-star hotel in the village of Seiano, close to the town of Vico Equense. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
The tour involves a lot of walking on uneven pavement in archaeological sites as well as in the town centres where vehicular access is restricted. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Fitness is essential. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 99 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'I loved every minute - even though we visited many places we did not seem rushed - the pace was perfect.'
'The choice of itinerary was brilliant – a wonderful tour of Byzantine and Norman churches. The lecturer was impressively expert and willing to chat and answer questions. Excellent.'
'The lecturer was very informative and good company too. I enjoyed his talks immensely. The tour manager was a great asset.'