Lucca has no dearth of churches, as I’ve already highlighted. At one time it officially boasted ninety-nine of them within the walls. It is also a city of villas and palazzi, both in the city and in the surrounding countryside. In the summer several of these host concerts of varied musical genres (classical, jazz, Italian folk) often in sumptuous gardens. There are the Villa Bernardini, Villa Grabau, Villa Torrigiani, Villa Mansi to name but a few, all with their particular history, culture and beautiful grounds.
In the spirit of seeing how the other half lived in centuries gone by, I visited three palazzi within the city walls — each one . . . er.. . unique. The first was the Palazzo Mansi (not to be confused with villa Mansi mentioned above). It is categorized as a National Museum. The reasoning for this, quite frankly, escapes me. This palazzo, dating back from the late sixteenth century, is just inside the city walls on the western side of the city.
A stone staircase takes visitors to the second floor into a world of ponderous, dark and heavy tapestries, and painted walls and ceilings — not one square inch of stone or marble left to breathe on its own. Baroque at its most lugubrious. Besides feeling claustrophobic, I
felt sorry for the underlying structure, which might have been interesting or beautiful. No way of ascertaining. And it wasn’t just one room: one led into another which led into another which led into another.
From one brocade and damask nightmare to the next — until I reached the Bridal Chamber, sporting the original silks and bed hangings. A different incubo (nightmare).
I kept thinking of the poor terrified bride of days of yore, made even more apprehensive by these sepulchral surroundings.
Lest I sound unappreciative of my roots, let me state that the visit was not a wholly negative experience. One of the more pleasant attractions was a room displaying various types of cloth made in Lucca over the centuries. Within the same display were period costumes, exquisitely ornate and delicately embroidered with gold and silver thread. What work it must have taken to create these clothes!
Among the ‘lighter’ sections in the Mansi family home is the Pinacoteca, the art gallery, which offers several rooms with paintings, mostly by lucchesi artists, and including an unexpected Bronzino (Ritratto di don Garcia de’ Medici bambino).
The ticket price to the Palazzo Mansi also included entry to the Palazzo Guinigi, an austere, soul-less ‘house’, built on what was then the outskirts of the city. It is considered one of the oldest buildings in Lucca, built in the early 15th century by ‘il signore Paolo Guinigi’. Most visitors associate the Guinigi name with an unusual, but famous tower in the centre of the city sporting seven Holm oak trees on the very top (planted in the 14th century). The Palazzo Guinigi, like the Palazzo Mansi, is also now a National Museum. In this case, appropriate.
The large, rectangular building, which was perfectly suited to be a museum (but not a family home, in my humble opinion) had a good selection of art ranging from local Etruscan and Roman artifacts, through to Medieval and Renaissance art. Statues, paintings, and a great deal of wood intarsio panels. I wandered around the cavernous spaces solely in the company of a museum official, obviously appointed to make sure I did not abscond with one of the eight-foot crucifixes hanging
from various ceilings. Apparently, I was the only visitor in the building, as I had been in the Mansi abode. So I explored, while the official followed me into the various rooms and sat on her ‘official’s’ chair, and read her novel. Not a bad gig, I suppose, if you like the book you’re reading.
The next day I had a much more pleasant experience in the Palazzo Pfanner. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Hmmm… that name doesn’t sound very Italian to me.” Well, you’d be correct. It’s not. The building itself dates back to the 17th century, but it acquired its name after Felix Pfanner, an Austrian with Bavarian roots, was hired to be Lucca’s prime brewer. His beer soon became very popular and with fame, his coffers grew. He began acquiring more and more of the building in which his brewery was located until it became his completely — and was renamed the Palazzo Pfanner.
The air was much lighter in Herr Pfanner’s home; for one thing, there were windows not hidden by heavy cloth panels. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings were benignly insipid, as befitting typical 18th century decor: Perfect for a warm sunny afternoon in Lucca. The house — and I — could breathe much easier.
Felix Pfanner’s son became a well-known and much respected medical doctor, psychiatrist, writer, and philanthropist in the city. The displays of his medical instruments (including his amputation kit…) and his wide selection of medical texts from centuries gone by, were very interesting, if sometimes frightening. Perhaps the most unsettling component was the realization that
instruments relating to women’s gynecological and reproductive health have not really changed all that much over the past 150 years. . .
What I loved most, however, among all the sumptuous rooms and interesting medical artifacts, was the humble kitchen. I swear it was my grandmother’s kitchen. And my great aunts’. I have been in these kitchens, I’ve sat by the hearth, I’ve watched my nonna use the staccio, the large sieve to de-clump the granturco, the corn flour, to make polenta. And the sink — that wonderful, simple, stone sink. I’ve washed dishes in there before, I’ve filled pots with water, I’ve stood beside it. In my relatives’ homes it exists no more; everything is stainless steel, as in most of our own modern kitchens. Yet here I was back at nonna‘s old house at the top of much narrower, much more worn stone steps. Not so grand to be sure, but recognizable and comfortable just the same.
When I exited and descended the grand staircase once again, I immersed myself in the large, structured garden, bursting with peonies and roses, and gravel paths lined with potted lemon trees.
The paths led to and from a spirited fountain surrounded by white marble statues; more statuary interspersed among the potted lemons gave the area a rather classical, yet festive air. There was also a large bamboo grove on a shaded side of the garden and beautiful lawns upon which to walk or play on. Wrought-iron benches scattered on the grass invited visitors to sit and rest, and enjoy the delicious spring day. Which this visitor certainly did.
When I left I felt I had gone back into a time I almost remembered. . . had almost lived in. . . And in which I had washed dishes.