Just a quick follow-up after all of the G7 commotion. First of all, my apologies to Rex Tillerson, whose name I refused to write correctly even though I’ve been hearing it and reading it ad nauseaum in the past few days. Denial runs deep.
Secondly, I was not crazy! Meters away from my apartment at Porta San Jacopo, the demonstrators, behind a large mesh shield, advanced toward the phalanx of helmeted police officers behind their wall of shields. The antagonisti, as the press called them, were outside the walls, trying to get into the historic heart of the city, but were pushed back by the men in blue. A few people were hurt, some were arrested, but all in all, after some tense hours, everyone left knowing they would make the headlines across Italy and, perhaps, on a few international newspapers as well. Mission accomplished.
Yesterday the city was still deserted, and the same sharp-shooter-outfitted-annoyingly-persistent helicopter flew over us for a few hours in the morning. (That poor pilot must have done something awfully heinous to deserve the assignment of flying over the same few square meters for hours at a time. At least the sharp-shooters perched on the sides of the helicopter had guns and were looking — and feeling — important.) All in the past: The final press conference was held at noon at the church of San Francesco, not far from here. By 6:00 pm, most of the city was back to normal and restrictions were lifted so that everyone could go back to just being lucchesi, whether by birth, or by love.
And love it we do, for there is much to love in these ‘few square meters’.
Lucca’s historic centre is not that large. One can easily walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. Yet, within the confines of its walls there are about 100 churches. The best known ones are the Cattedrale di San Martino, with the beautiful tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, sculpted by Jacopo della Quercia; the Basilica di San Frediano and its distinctive mosaic facade; and Chiesa di San Michele in Foro which is the hub and heart of the city, easily recognizable by its distinctive pillars. There is also San Giovanni, a mere steps away from the cathedral, now an Oratorio used exclusively for nightly music concerts. These are not the only large churches — and there is much more to recommend them — but they are the best known and most visited.
I had explored all these churches before: My aunt was a nun with the Suore Dorotee and taught at their Istituto here in Lucca for many years, so we would come to visit religiously, so to speak.
As is often the case, though, with each visit one notices something new, so it is like entering them for the first time. As well, with the passing of time we become atuned to different things, we value experiences differently. Our perspective in our later years is is funneled through a clearer lens, I think: this is as sharp as it is ever going to be. That was my reaction to the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in San Martino. I remember visiting it years ago with my aunt, and thinking it beautiful, but this time, it entered me in a more
personal way — a common reaction for me during much on this trip. She was so young, twenty-four, I believe, and had just given birth to her second daughter. Yet, here she is lying forever lovely and life-like, a sweet, sad dog waiting expectantly at her feet. I wanted so badly to get close enough to run my hand over the delicate folds of her robe, stroke the pooch’s head, tell him it would be all right. Knowing that it wouldn’t.
In San Frediano I found a surprising gem — a tender and strangely moving wooden sculpture from the 16th century by Matteo Civitali.
It is a very unique representation of Mary’s reaction to the news that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. Her right hand is raised in disbelief — almost in a pleading “Stop!” Her face does not show a great deal of emotion, but it is as though she were in shock, waiting for the news to register. . . or go away.
San Frediano is also the resting place of Santa Zita, a humble servant in the house of the Fatinelli, in the 13th century and the patron saint of this city. She was born and died in Lucca and her body — yes, it’s her actual body — now is on display in a side chapel of the basilica.
There is no doubt that these churches, and many other important ones in the city, are most impressive. The few details I’ve shared here do not do them justice. However, one of the aspects of Lucca that most fascinates me is that I often come across churches embedded in the city blocks I’m passing, with nothing to make them stand out as churches until I see a priest, or nun, or a clutch of people exiting. It is only then that I take a closer look and see a small plaque or poster beside the door, identifying it as such. As I look more carefully, I usually notice a crucifix carved in stone above it. I love to go into these tiny places of worship because they are typically much simpler, less imposing and ostentacious; they speak of true faith, not show. They hold a silent spirituality that allow even the most skeptic and Church-angry among us, to hope: I must admit, it is lovely to feel that little spark again, be it ever so fleeting. Along with the other-worldly quiet, it is not unusual in these tiny, seemingly insignificant chapels and churches, to find a little artistic gem, there only for those who take the time to enter and look.
Aside from churches, Lucca is filled with music. It is, after all, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini and Luigi Boccherini, among others. Walking along via Fillungo, one of the main shopping streets in the city, I often go by the Liceo Artistico Musicale (a high school specializing in music). I and the other passersby are routinely serenaded — and very well! — by students practicing their instruments. The same is true when I pass by the Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali Luigi Boccherini, fronted by a handsome statue of the composer himself, playing the cello. There is a great passion for music in this city, especially among young people, and it is wonderful to have it wash over me even in the most mundane of circumstances, like going to pick up milk.
Puccini, of course, is everywhere. I visited his birth home and was fascinated by — and found great solace in — all the scribbled corrections and jotted ideas on some of his musical scores. It was comforting to know that regardless of the age one lives in, regardless of the level of technology one has access to, and regardless of one’s chosen medium, editing is an artist’s cross to bear!
I also loved seeing some of the costumes used in the early productions of his operas, especially the sumptuous gown for the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Turandot in 1926.
Speaking of Puccini and music. . . I spent a heavenly Friday evening at the Oratorio San Giovanni. From April to September there are nightly concerts featuring Puccini and other composers. On Friday our own hometown hero had been paired with Mozart: A concert made for my particular heaven. The resident accompanist for this season is Diego Fiorini, a wonderful pianist who entertained us with a couple of solo pieces. His rendition of the Ouverture to the Nozze di Figaro, was truly masterful and I could see everyone in the church itching to jump up to show our collective appreciation. Since the majority of the audience were of Nordic or North American origin, we demurred. . . and contented ourselves with thunderous applause.
The soprano was Rosa Perez Suarez, whose voice reminded me of la Callas. She was very good, but lacked the confidence and strength of a more seasoned singer. The tenor, however, Simone Frediani was far beyond anything I or any of the other audience members (judging from their enthusiastic reaction) anticipated. He was by far the darling of the evening. His voice filled the cavernous space of San Giovanni and his strong, high notes in Recondita armonia, and E lucevan le stelle (both from Tosca) had our ears ringing — but in such a glorious way, his voice reaching down into the deepest part of our soul.
This Friday, Good Friday, Antonella is coming from Florence to stay with me. We will be attending a Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at San Michele in Foro. It will be another musical treat, I’m sure.
Now, you must be asking yourself: How does this woman keep up this pace? Riots, churches, statues, mosaics, mummified saints, scribbled sheet music, sumptuous costumes, hours and hours of walking — not to mention, healthy doses of Puccini and Mozart. . . How does she do it?!
Well, folks, she eats. And she eats well. And washes it all down with very smooth Tuscan wine. (Now, now… no whining. I can hear you, all the way from here!)
O.K. Enough of this dilly-dallying. Time for a gelato!