Laurence Jenkins visits Lucca, in Northern Italy, abundant in mediaeval christian architecture
THE walled city of Lucca is one of the untrammelled gems of Tuscany. A short drive from Pisa, the provincial capital is on a plateau and ringed on three sides by foothills which join the Apuan Alps, those sentinels separating Tuscany from the northern provinces of Italy.
Lucca, one of the prizes the Florentines were never able to capture, was a Republic during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Napoleon was its Waterloo, and he gave it to his sister, Elisa. The grand palace of the old republic was transformed by her into a sumptuous dwelling and is still one of the most imposing of Lucca's buildings, but is again the seat of Weal government.
Like all other Italian cities, Lucca is full of churches, some famous, some not so, but all a testament to that mediaeval and renaissance preoccupation with building to the glory of the saints and Madonna. The skies of Lucca are scraped by the spires of the larger monuments, as well as with the remaining towers of the homes of the rich and powerful.
Lucca's symbols are the tower of the duomo (cathedral) and the Guinigi Tower, the taller of the two, built as a symbol of dominance by the soon-toppled ruler before the Republic. The Church of St Michael, built on the site of the Roman Forum, is perhaps the architectural diamond of the city. Its facade is a marvel of fantasy and invention, surmounted by ingenious statuary depicting the archangel beheading the dragon, trumpeted by his minions on either side.
Around every corner in this fascinating citadel there lurks a piazza dominated by basilica, cathedral, oratory, chapel, shrine — some in excellent states of repair, some derelict, and all the focus of attention in a campaign on the part of the current Assessore (Councillor) for Culture, Ricardo Marcucci, to bring them to life again. He has instigated a massive project to restore and revitalise the architectural treasures of the once-proud Lucchese.
The Church of San Romano, built in the thirteenth century, using the bricks from a Roman temple to Augustus, is one of the major undertakings in this long-term attempt to restore former glory. Unlike many of the other buildings, which continue to function while work is being done, San Romano has been completely closed to the public and is used only as a rehearsal space for the "staggione lirico" (opera season) at the Teatro del Giglio, Lucca's only theatre. The strains of "La Boheme" annually entertain the entombed saint, for Lucca was the birthplace of the unsaintly G. Puccini. The massive exterior of the ancient oratory, houses a surprise in an interior of 1661! The feeling of space and height one experiences inside is evocative of a much larger building. The church is sacred to the Lucchese, as it came into importance during their republican period, around 1490. Signore Marcucci's comments about the restoration of this monument are illustrative of his entire approach to the project: "The church of San Romano is undergoing restoration and salvation such as a monument of this importance, in every sense, should, but it will live again with the collateral function of an auditorium." He clearly sees the restoration of old buildings as a practical as well as an aesthetic matter. It is the preservation of the infrastructure of the city which is primary, and the function of the buildings is to be decided on the basis of necessity.
Italy has been called the most un-religious country in Western Europe, an ironic description of the centre of the early Christian church, subsequently of the Catholic faith. Sadly the countryside in Tuscany is dotted with unused churches which are being allowed to rot. Most of the faithful don't attend mass and there aren't even enough priests to go around for those who do. Little wonder then that secularism is creeping into the sanctuaries. Like the villas of the nobility which now serve as museums, offices, galleries, and hotels, churches are being forced to house a number of other functions, and these are being de-consecrated rather than, in the eyes of the oldguard clergy, desecrated. The financing of restoration in Italy can no longer be borne by the government. It has been the practice for some years now to force enterprises such as banks to support the arts; now, by law, banks must give part of their profits to festivals, to restoration of paintings, buildings, or to exhibitions. The Italian automotive industry, mainly the Fiat firm, is also generous, and half of the money for the Lucca project (It. lire 24,000,000,000 or about £12,000,000) has come from them, most of it marked for the upkeep and repair of the Mura (the 16th century walls which surround Lucca and to which the city owes much of its pristine architectural state) and the ancient villas and palazzi within and without the walls. Very little is used to restore the churches.
One of the prime factors in the restoration is the tourist industry, upon which Italians depend more than they like to admit. Tuscany is arguably the most visited of any of Italy's regions. With Pisa its gate, Florence at its core, Siena to the south, and pure tourist attractions such as San Geminiano and Volterra, the tourist-related industries do a booming business in the six months or so of warm weather. Tuscany has a Mediterranean coast as well, and the "Italian Riviera" extends well into the region. While not on the established tourist trail, Lucca still claims its fair share of visitors and the number increases each year. It is the architecture which draws them here, for, unlike Florence, Lucca is sparsely endowed with temptations for lovers of painting and sculpture. Rather the town stands as a work of art itself, like Venice without water. The Lucchese display little interest in the arts, and indeed can be obstructive.
It was no accident that 'Libertas' was the motto of the old Lucca republic. The Tuscan notion of individualism is nowhere more alive than here, and it is making Marcucci's task harder.