Papier-mâché or cartapesta is a craft that is unique to Lecce in the Salento region of Puglia. The origins of papier-mâché are in the Middle and Far East but, through trade, the technique eventually found its way here.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, both cartapesta and Baroque were embraced and flourished in this region, especially in Lecce. This resulted in requests to provide religious statues for local churches and monuments within a rather short time frame. Not having access to the preferred (and more expensive) materials, e.g., marble and bronze, or the tools to work with them, artisans were compelled to find a new method. Cartapesta was the perfect solution and became the artistic medium of choice.
Requiring little space and few tools, talented artisans could use whatever was at hand. Working with old rags, straw, paper, etc. they could easily fold, manipulate and sculpt the papier-mâché into exquisite statues of saints and religious figures that looked like marble and bronze but were less expensive, faster to produce, and easier to transport and carry in processions.
You will see exquisite examples when you visit the Chiesa di Santa Chiara with its ceiling and statues of papier-mâché and the Museo della Cartapesta. Thanks to a resurgence, cartapesta can also be enjoyed and appreciated today in shops throughout Lecce.
If possible find a shop where you can watch a cartapesta artisan demonstrate their skills. We visited Antonio and Rosaria at La Cartapesta di Pallara e Caricato in Lecce’s main old town and were delighted to watch Antonio, using a few basic stock forms and tools with a special paper and paste, practice the craft he has perfected over 30 years.
Leave room in your suitcase – you’ll want to take one these treasures home!
Visit Antonio and Rosaria at La Cartapesa di Pallara e Caricato, Lecce, Puglia