Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, when this role was particularly significant, it produced great achievements that marked the history, culture and arts of the whole region but also of medieval Europe.
The land was under Byzantine rule as part of the vast Eastern Empire and already showed stratifications of past civilizations - Magna Graecia, Ancient Rome, Arab and Lombard.
It was then conquered by the Normans and, during the first centuries of the second Millennium, was at the centre of the more important events, of subtle political strategies, thus witnessing the development of a dialogue with Byzantine territories and the Middle East as well as Western Europe's expansionist aims in those same territories, aims that were enthusiastically sustained by the Norman rulers in Southern Italy.
In those years Puglia became the crossway of intense military campaigns for the Crusades and of an endless flow of pilgrims to and from the Holy Land, while two important shrines, Santuario dell'Arcangelo Michele on the Gargano and Santuario di San Nicola in Bari, became pilgrimage sites and outstanding features in the circuit of religious itineraries involving the Mediterranean and the whole of Europe. In line with all these occurrences, a thick network of international commercial maritime traffic developed in the harbours along Puglia's coastline.
This extraordinary situation caused an unprecedented enrichment of the cultural horizons, whose results are particularly noticeable in the figurative arts. The region already boasted a strong, lively tradition and it soon became the "laboratory" of an artistic style combining Eastern and Western suggestions, Romanesque stylistic elements with Byzantine and Arab inflections, which developed into a very original, incredibly modern, synthesis of languages whose importance is certainly of European level.
As of the second half of the 11th century, grandiose, rich shapes characterize Puglia's Romanesque churches, the more significant expression of that period's intense building activity. Strong Western and Eastern influences are quite evident, but there are also quite a number of original elements supporting the existence of a coherent regional culture. They show a wide variety in the choice of plans, volumes and construction techniques, associated to a refined taste for pure shapes, sumptuous, elegant materials and decorations, from the magnificent floor mosaics to a wealth of decorative sculptures.
The ancient basilica plan, such as the one chosen for the Cattedrale di Ottranto, is often blended with elements of Eastern origin, such as the striking cupolas at the centre of the nave, associated to semicircular vaults along the aisles; the result is a distribution of volumes to be found only in Puglia. The perfect example is the Cattedrale di San Corrado in Molfetta. Similarly, typically Romanesque elements, such as the internal loggias over the aisles and the strong cross vaults, are blended with highly original elements: a continuous eastern wall that connects the turn of the apses and shields them from view, the deep blind arcades along the sides and the bell towers of transalpine origin.
The outstanding example of this typology is the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari, prototype of this area's other two celebrated monuments, the cathedrals of Bari and Bitonto.