Bagni di Lucca’s principal parish church is at Corsena,a little way up the hill from the town and where the town’s original settlement was founded. The spread down to the high street as we know it today only took place in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Bagni di Lucca used to be known as Bagni di Corsena.
Because Bagni di Lucca’s parish church is some way up the hill on its northern side a second, smaller church was built on one side of the town’s public gardens and it’s in this more conveniently placed church where several religious rites are performed. However, the church at Corsena, dedicated to Saint Peter, remains BDL’s principal parish church.
Although somewhat questionably restored at the start of the twentieth century by Luigi Norfini and Michele Marucci (to them is due the inappropriate rose window on the façade which replaces a double lancet window) the church amply conserves its Romanesque appearance. Outside are the remains of the blind arcading dating back to the eleventh century and also the old portico which has now been filled in.
The interior has a nave and two aisles and contains some valuable works of art including a baptismal font from the fifteenth century, the much worshipped picture of the Madonna of the Rosary by Gaspare Manucci and a Saint Anthony of Padua by Tiberio Franchi. Of particular interest is the annexed oratorio of Our Lady of Succour with fine baroque fittings – perhaps the church’s outstanding feature.
Historically, the church is famous for having had Margaret of Savoy, Italy’s first queen as part of its congregation when she visited Bagni and musically for having given Giacomo Puccini his first major musical commission when he composed his motet Vexilla Regis while still an impoverished student earning his keep as a bar pianist and also as guest of the Betti family.
Every year there is a little procession where the church’s major crucifix, normally kept in a side chapel to the left of the main altar, is taken out and transported around Corsena. Every five years, however, a much larger religious festival takes place when the crucifix is carried in a procession which reaches to the front of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall. Unfortunately, when this event last took place in 2010 it had to be curtailed because of bad weather.
This year, however, the skies were calm and we were witness to Bagni di Lucca’s greatest annual religious event.
The climax of the three days of celebration was the placing of the crucifix on the high altar and it descent via a sort of cable track (as also occurs at the church of san Cassiano). The venerable image was then lifted onto a palanquin and placed outside the church under the arches which support the vicarage.
Vespers were chanted in the presence of panoply of religious and secular dignitaries, including a papal envoy from the Vatican. Don Rosi then organised the procession.
First came the philharmonic band. As Bagni no longer has its own the band was imported from Corsagna and very well it sounded too. I was amazed at the wide age range between the flute players and the lower brass.
Following were the two confraternities, the original self-help societies which date back to the Middle Ages. There was a confraternity wearing a short black cape and another with a red one. Following these were the women in black – presumably representing the women who mourned before the dead Christ. The mayor and local secular dignitaries followed.
Then it was the turn of the vicariate of Lima, descendants of the original law keeper of the valley with their ceremonial cloaks. No swords or guns were worn although these appear at other ceremonial occasions when, for example a conference or other secular event is inaugurated at Bagni di Lucca.
The general congregation then followed with children in white who’d just received their communion rites.
Finally, the great crucifix on its palanquin was borne on the shoulders of eight pall bearers who alternated with two other groups as clearly the weight of the holy image must have been considerable! One spectator commented that in the old days he remembered a certain man who was able to carry the crucifix all the way down to Bagni.
The procession weaved its way down the old streets of Corsena, which are hidden from anyone who takes the standard road route out to the Controneria. The streets were picturesquely lit with hundreds of little candles.
The procession then descended down into Bagni, “beating the bounds” it could be said, before terminating in the square in front of the town hall where the crucifix found lodging on a well-draped platform.
After a homily from the Vatican envoy all present were blessed by him. A further blessing took place in the form of two tables filled with delicious cakes baked by the local housewives and after some convivial conversation we left for home towards midnight.
Why is Bagni di Lucca’s crucifix so important and why is it deemed so miraculous? The reason is that, in the belief of many, it saved the town from total destruction at the hands of the Wehrmacht and allied bombing. Bagni was chosen as the site of a major battle by the American and Brazilian forces to gain control of the Serchio valley and from thence advance north over the Apennines into the Po valley. This event is commemorated by the plaque placed to the left of the cuicifix in Corsena church.
Through hours of prayers and supplications to the blessed crucifix the population were spared the destruction and we, newcomers and tourists, were avoided the sight of seeing a synthetic new town rise up in place of the picturesque appearance of Bagni di Lucca.
Unfortunately, destruction was not halted in the Serchio valley and the hate of war wreaked its vengeful hand on such places as Castelnuovo di Garfagnana and in a particularly horrible fashion on Aulla which, according to Kinta Beevor, in her famous memoir had once been a very attractive town.
Whether we are religiously persuaded or not, let us spare a thought for those dark days of late 1944 when Bagni di Lucca seemed to be on the verge of total destruction and when only the enduring faith of those inhabitants who gathered round the town’s miraculous crucifix gave hope that all would not be lost and that brighter days would rise ahead.
No wonder this festival is so important to Bagni. We were truly privileged to have finally been part of it and let us hope too that next time the big event is celebrated in 2020 the weather will keep as fine as it was last Sunday.
(Many photos courtesy of Sandra Pettitt)