A moment of great significance, not just for San Cassiano Bagni di Lucca, but in many respects for the whole world, occurred last Saturday when a precious Islamic ceramic from the eleventh century was returned to the parish. There had, indeed, been a copy of it installed high up on the church façade (which will remain there) but the invaluable original will be housed in the Pieve’s adjoining museum. This is just as well for old timers recalled that when they were children they’d throw stones at the ceramic trying to see which ones would be able to hit it!
(The copy of the Islamic ceramic on San Cassiano Church facade)
Representing a knight holding a (hooded) falcon in his hand, the incomplete dish may have been made in Arab-dominated Sicily or Tunisia. Indeed, it may have even been collected by a Templar knight fighting against the infidels in the first crusade. Apart from the novel value of having an exotic piece of art on the pieve’s façade, there is also a suggested symbolical meaning in the plate: if the wild falcon represents the non-spiritual soul with an extraordinary but undisciplined sight and potential sinfulness then the tamed (and hoodable) falcon symbolises a convert to Christianity, pursuing his new path with courage, obedience and determination leading to victory and salvation.
Islamic plates on Italian church exteriors dating back to Romanesque times are not uncommon. There are at least eighty churches in Italy listed with this type of decoration. Coincidentally, I visited another of these churches only a few days ago and described it in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/a-more-interesting-way-of-getting-to-pisa-airport/
I have also written further on the subject at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/symbols-of-eternity/, at and at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/saint-peters-landing-place-in-italy/
So the event at San Cassiano was truly an occasion that absolutely intrigued me. Our parish priest, Don Franco, introduced the proceedings under the beautiful vaults of San Cassiano church. Mayor Betti then gave a short history stating that the plate had been returned courtesy of the Museo Guinigi of Lucca and that his wish of having it returned to its original location had at last been fulfilled four years after he’d officially opened the San Cassiano museum. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/a-nice-way-to-spend-a-sultry-july-afternoon/ for more on that occasion).
Dr. Ilaria Sabbatini, historian, then talked about the importance of the Val di Lima as a through route for that mediaeval pilgrim’s motorway, the via Francigena which continues from where most of Chaucer’s pilgrims left off at Canterbury and finds its apotheosis at the tomb of Saint Peter’s in Rome.
Dr. Silvia Nutini, an archaeologist, followed with a synopsis of Islamic plates distribution among Italy’s churches.
Finally, Dr. Marino Marini, historian and archaeologist of Florence’s Bargello Museum, gave an interesting survey of knights and horses all the way from Etruscan to modern times.
After these highly interesting and well-delivered talks we were ready for the inauguration of the ceramic itself by Mayor Betti. No longer will Della Quercia’s cavalier be alone in his museum. Now, in a well-lit showcase, he will be able to have a companion knight from the Islamic east.
If only today’s successors to those knights in the Middle East could live together in peace like the two knights now happily co-existing in San Cassiano’s small but highly prestigious museum.