Acaya is a short drive away from our Puglia holiday villas and a definite must see. The castle has now been fully restored and there are some very good restaurants in the fortified city.
The ancient medieval district of Segine belonged to the Count of Lecce in 12th century when it was donated to the Angevin Convent of San Giovanni Evangilista of Lecce. In 1294 it was granted as a fiefdom by Carlo II d’Angio to Gervasio Acaya. The Acaya family held the fiefdom for three centuries.
A unique example of a fortified city of Southern Italy, Acaya survived unscathed for many centuries and was typical of an ideal Renaissance city.
The castle and town of Acaya represent an extraordinary example of the work of an important architectural engineer, a master royal engineer to Carlo V, Gian Giacome dell’Acaya. The castle is a tangible testimony to feudal power, contributing to the history of its population, one of great but dignified poverty.
The city assumed the name of Acaya in 1535 when the great master Gian Giacomo of Acaya, royal military engineer to Carlo V, built the city walls that still circle the town today, adding bastions and ramparts and the moat to the castle that was built by his father 29 years before. Such was Gian Giacomo’s love for and commitment to the city, he placed himself as head of this estate, removing the ancient name of Salaypa and Segine and renaming it ACAYA.
Gian Giacomo was born in Naples around 1500, an architect and royal military engineer, he designed and built many great houses all over the region of Naples. Gian Giacom inherited the city of Acaya from his father Alfonso. His life and building experiences in a multi-faceted culture led him to conceive and carry out the restoration and building of the fortified city of Acaya, as a model of an “ideal” city (a utopian model of the Renaissance). Acaya was built half way between Otranto and Lecce following the traditional rules for ideal cities laid down in the essays about architecture of the period.
He was also designer of the castle in Lecce where he ended up spending many years as a prisoner having been found guilty of embezzlements related to public buildings. He died in great misery in the castle jail that he designed in December 1570.
Gian Giacomo, like his father before him, was consumed with the desire to rebuild and consolidate Acaya, to provide an answer to a number of needs, primarily defensive. The perfectly rectangular surrounding walls were strengthened at three corners with three big ramparts/bastions being built into the perimeter walls of the city. One facing San Cataldo Marina, one facing Lecce and the third facing the small centres of Acquarica, Vanze, Strudà, Pisignano. At the fourth corner, Giacomo constructed the castle. Along the higher part of these walls is a walkway for the guards, and it is completely surrounded by a moat.
Work on the castle, a trapezoid structure with open vistas to the south and east, was completed in 1535/36. It is the castle that completed the fortification of the walls surrounding the town, providing protection for the “white village” and adjacent countryside.
The castle is connected with the village and the surrounding area by a single bridge. The fortified walls are delimited to the south east and north west by two circular towers. The east corner is a revival by Gian Giacomo of a pre-existing structure built by his ancestors in the manner of the defensive system of the age. The north side of the castle, the far limit fo the wall, was planned by the architect to be area where essential services, managed by his vassels, were carried out. Here were the ovens and the mill and also the Chapel used to worship by the Baron and his followers.
The citadel was constructed with a rigorous geometric structure, concieved by Gian Giacomo, and made up of seven perpendicular roads from North to South and intersected by three others running from east to west, dividing the low blocks equally.
In the city of Acaya Gian Giacomo completely restored the original parish church and the bell tower and built what was the Convent of Sant’Antonio. In the planning phase of the town (but still in military fashion, in the manner of the ancient defensive positions of the Roman era) the architect’s ideas matured to create a structure able to support a complete population of “300 fire(side)s”, which must correspond to about 1400/1500 inhabitants. The idea being that such a population would guarantee the unskilled workers necessary to sustain a siege of some weeks while waiting for reinforcements. The provision of security for the village united the efforts of the population engaged in both agricultural and pastoral activities, with the citadel, “built for the people” achieving economic splendor and full population around the middle of the XVI century.
With the death of Gian Giacomo in 1570 and the final sale of the fiefdom a period of irreversible decline began for the fortified citadel of Acaya. In 1714 the castle and town were ransacked by the Turks, with the whole Vernole area ruined. After this the “ideal city” slowly declined. However, now Acaya is a the centre of intensive restoration and recovery and a reclaiming of history, both cultural and touristic, by the Administrations of Lecce and Vernole.