Nardò has the largest area of all the municipalities in the Province of Lecce after the Municipality of Lecce itself. Its total population is about 35,000, which is distributed throughout 6 districts: Boncore, Cenate, Santa Caterina, Santa Maria al Bagno, Sant’Isidoro and Villaggio Resta.
Nardò has a very long history and research is still going on into its origins: some scholars believe the town of Nerìton was founded by the Mycenaeans, some that it was the Egyptians, while others believe it was Nereus, coming from the Greek island of Leucas. Like all Italian towns worthy of the name, Nardò also has a fi ne legend telling of an origin that is also represented in the town’s coat of arms: according to popular legend, the town was founded at the place where a bull scratched at the earth and found water. The word “Nar” (which became “Nerìton” in Greek and “Neretum” in Latin) means “water” in Illyrian, and the town’s coat of arms shows a “red bull edged with gold, standing on a grassy plain, with its front right hoof raised above a spout of water. Below the shield is a forked silver scroll bearing the inscription in black: “TAURO NON BOVI””. The inhabited centre certainly dates from about the 10th century BC. The fi rst inhabitants were Messapi, ancient inhabitants of Salento who, as allies of the Greeks in their struggle against the Romans, gave help to Syracuse and Tarentum. Their loyalty to the Greeks, and the resulting rebellion of Nardò against Roman colonisation, cost the Messapi dear; for Rome destroyed ancient Neretum after the so-called “Social War”. In 26 BC, following decades of neglect, the city was rebuilt by Octavian Augustus and subsequently included by Trajan in the Roman road network, along the Via Traiana Salentina connecting Taranto, Manduria, Nardò, Alezio, Ugento and Vereto. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Neretum was colonised by the Byzantines; then, for a short time, by the Lombards. The Basilian monks arrived in Nardò in the second half of the 8th century and settled there for over 200 years, leaving enduring signs of their presence. During this period the town experienced a very important fl owering of culture and the economy. The Basilian monks instituted the teaching of Greek; new churches were built, partly in order to house the numerous relics brought here by the monks (a Black Crucifix, the remains of St. Clement and St. Gregory the Armenian); links between the East and West were strengthened; and a Greek handwriting school was founded to improve Greek writing style. In 900 AD raids by the Turks, who were scourging the whole of Salento, also reached Nardò, which had been liberated from Arab rule by the Normans only a century before. After 1000 AD there followed a long period - nearly seven hundred years – during which Nardò was continually being passed from one noble house or principality to another: from the Normans, to the Aragonese, to the French and, lastly, to the Hautevilles. A turning point came for the town in the 17th century with the election of a bishop from Nardò, Antonio Sanfelice. During his thirty year bishopric, this enlightened patron boosted the cultural and artistic development of Nardò: churches were restored and decorated with friezes and baroque style embellishment; squares regained their ancient splendour and love of the arts fl owered again in the newly created classical schools. In the 19th century the city’s fortunes were linked to the overall fate of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the rising Kingdom of Italy. There was initially a feeling of aversion towards the Bourbons, with the growth of citizen sections of the Carbonarists. By the end of the 19th century, due to deep frustration with the numerous laws that were tearing apart the social fabric of Southern Italy (conscription, development of the large estates, milling tax, etc.) this had developed into general resentment of the House of Savoy. During the First World War, the Municipality of Nardò played a leading role in a wonderful story of altruism and solidarity: “Between 1943 and 1947, the Municipality of Nardò, in order to help Jews liberated from the extermination camps on their way to the new State of Israel, established a centre that was an example of effi ciency. The whole population, following in the wake of cultural and religious tolerance, collaborated in this generous gesture, aimed at reducing the refugees’ suffering, by providing them with places to freely carry on their religious activities, demonstrating the highest sentiments of human solidarity and noble civic virtue. “ (Note of the Quirinal on the award of the Gold Medal for Civic Merit - Rome 25 January 2005).