Desperately missing Lucca when in London? It can happen. Just the absence of a decent cup of caffé or no bucellato to dip into it can produce hallucinations and longings. Lucca is truly a second home for me and throughout London’s eclectic architectural mix there are elements that constantly remind me of this most beautiful of Italian cities, drawn by John Ruskin, written about by Henry James and admired by everyone. Even those close-drawn romanesque-like arches in a run-down nineteenth century non-conformist chapel can spark off memories of San Michele in Foro. And that’s before even a pint of real ale!
“Alighting” (that means getting off) from the District line at South Kensington this sudden urge to see a piece of Lucca I love immensely grabbed me and I headed down that sinister, long tunnel that connects the station to the museums.
A sign to the right indicated that here was an entrance to the V & A (Victoria and Albert museum) and I entered a long gallery, initially filled with some rather interesting examples of British 19th century sculpture. But this was not my goal.
An exquisite Della Robbia specified that I was now entering true civilization at last and, giving the desperately long queues at the “Savage Beauty” exhibition a wide berth, I entered one of the two museum cast courts which, after years of neglect, have been wondrously restored.
It’s here that the economically-challenged traveller could gaze upon the beauties of the early Italian renaissance, high German gothic, Spanish cloisters, even such places as Scotland’s Rosslyn chapel, Florence baptistery’s “doors of paradise”, the Pisa cathedral pulpit and the monumental portico to Bologna’s San Petronio without even having to hazard a steam train journey.
Yes, there was a kind of “virtual” travel way back in the 1850’s and several of these casts executed in a variety of methods, including gesso and electroplating, date back to the Great Exhibition organised by Prince Albert in 1851.
If you haven’t guessed which hallowed shrine I was heading for in this incredible part of one of the world’s greatest fine arts museum then I give you a clue. She was just twenty-five when she died in childbirth leaving a great Lord of Lucca broken-hearted, and inspiring a sculptor whose own San Martino is so close to us here in San Cassiano, to produce a true masterpiece written about by the greatest Italian poets including D’Annunzio and Quasimodo.
la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi
(Trans: the city of the tree-lined ring where Guinigi’s wife sleeps)
Here is Ilaria and her faithful carlino (pug) in all her copied glory produced (of course) by one of the firms of figurinai in the Bagni di Lucca region .sometime in the early twentieth century.
Ilaria (Hillary) Del Carretto’s simulacrum at the V & A has to be one of London’s greatest lures to (re) visit Lucca. I wonder how many of you reading this first saw the transcendent piece of early renaissance sculpture while wandering through the V & A..
(The real Ilaria in Lucca cathedral)