A town with ancient roots; traces of human presence in the area date from Palaeolithic times. The settlement was founded by the Messapi around the year 1000 BC. The Romans arrived in 269 BC and built the Via Traiana through it. After the fall of the Western Empire the town was under the control of the Byzantines and the Lombards. In 1055 the Normans captured Nardò. Their heirs were ousted by the Angevines in 1266. In 1497 the Aragonese gave it to Andrea Matteo Acquaviva, whose son Belisario was the first Duke of Nardò, and promoted the Renaissance in the city.
In 1647 the city rebelled against the Spanish domination, but the viceroyal troops suppressed the riot with heavy hands. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 1743, the city of Nardò spent over forty years rebuilding itself in imitation of Lecce. According to the Armchair Traveller’s History of Puglia, even by Leccese standards the church and convent of San Domenico in the piazza of that name are ornate. The façade of the church, attributed to Tarantino, which survived the earthquake of 1743 was built in two phases; the lower part covered with caryatids typical of the earlier period and the upper very much more restrained. There are attractive little palaces in and around the triangular Piazza Antonio Salandra, like the white Palazzo della Pretura, which has an elegant loggia on the first floor over an open arcade. The guglia of the Immacolata in this piazza erected in 1769, is one of only three in Apulia – the others being at Ostuni and Bitonto. (A guglia is a Neapolitan folly of Austrian origin, a fantastically decorated, free-standing column.) The streets in the city centre are full of ironwork balconies with swags and caryatids.
The largest city in the Salento after Lecce, Nardò has had a peculiarly tragic history. During the breakdown of Spanish and feudal authority in 1647, many of its citizens rose in revolt against their tyrannical feudal lord, the Count of Conversano, Giangirolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona, who was also Duke of Nardò. The count-duke crushed the rebels with a systematic, murderous savagery that has never been forgotten. Even today, the blood-stained Giangirolamo is still one of the great ogres in local folklore, ‘Il Guercio di Puglia’ – ‘The Squinter of Apulia’.
There have been other tragedies at Nardò, and in more recent times, some of them almost within a very bitter living memory. Because the city was the centre of a highly profitable wheat-growing enclave, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries its people suffered all the horrors of labour gangs. In April 1920 they disarmed the carabinieri, seized their weapons and hoisted the red flag over the Municipio. The authorities had to use artillery and armoured cars to regain control.