A Meeting with the Mayor of Lucca

Italy has more wonderful buildings than any other country in the world. Indeed, it has too many for its own good: so many architectural miracles are at risk or inaccessible to the public. It’s for this reason that every year there’s an open day in March when such buildings open their doors. This is courtesy of the country’s major heritage and conservation body FAI. FAI stands for Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Association for the Italian Environment) and is probably the nearest one can get in Italy to England’s own National Trust. Indeed, there’s collaboration between the two associations whereby there’s free entry to each other’s list of buildings in their care. To find out more see FAI’ web site at http://eng.fondoambiente.it/about-us.asp

On FAI open day in 2014, I visited the extraordinarily beautiful little church of Saint Catherine near the old cigar making factory in Lucca. It was thanks to such open days that S. Caterina was saved from further decay and is now yet another jewel in Lucca’s crown of lovely buildings. You may have read my ‘Grapevine’ article on this church. If not there’s my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/luccas-baroque-flower-blossoms-anew/

Last year we visited an exquisite art nouveau villa at Viareggio which I’ve described at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/tiger-hunting-in-viareggios-most-exquisite-art-nouveau-villa/ .

This year I’d wanted to visit Puccini’s last villa at Viareggio which is being rescued by FAI from total abandonment. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible this time as the visits to the villa had been fully booked up but at least I’m now on the waiting list. You can read my post on this superb Puccini-and-Pilotti designed villa at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/where-turandot-grew-up/

This year I headed for Lucca and its palazzo Orsetti for my FAI treat.

Palazzo Orsetti is in Via S, Giustinia in the north-west quarter of Lucca and was built by the Diodati family in the sixteenth century on the foundations of a medieval palace. Today the palazzo is one of Lucca’s town council headquarters and houses the mayor’s offices. Indeed mayor Alessandro Tambellini came to personally give us a tour of this wondrous palazzo, prefacing it by a fascinating account of the history of Lucca and the building.

There can be few more learned mayors in Italy (perhaps Vittorio Sgarbi?) and I learnt so much about the place from Alessandro including this:

In 1541, Carlo Diodati was baptized in the palace by Pope Paul III with, in attendance, Emperor Charles V as Carlo’s godfather. In 1567 Diodati was suspected of heresy when he was found with a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. Diodati emigrated to Geneva where he married Carlo Flaminia Micheli, also originally from Lucca. After her death he married Maria Mei, also from Lucca. From this marriage was born, in 1576, Giovanni Diodati, the great Protestant theologian and first translator of the Bible in Italian. In 1661 and 1662, since the Diodatis left no heirs, Lelio Orsetti bought the entire building with furnishings included paintings by Pietro Paolini including the one illustrating Wallenstein’s trial and which, together with a Pontormo, is in the palace to this day. The Orsettis made loads of money through international trade. Indeed, there’s an Orsetti castle in present-day Poland. (See https://www.poland.travel/en-us/museums/the-orsetti-family-tenement-house for more fascinating history).

However, hard times hit the Orsettis last century and in 1963 the building was sold by them to the municipality of Lucca for just 74,000 pounds sterling…

The palazzo has a charming garden now dedicated to that great Luccan composer, Geminiani, who made his fortune in the UK when free movement of labour was still encouraged. (See my post on geminiani at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/lets-celebrate-francis-xaverio-geminiani/ )

The palazzo has two monumental entrances, probably the finest in the whole of Lucca which, otherwise, has more restraint in its palace architecture. The sandstone portals bear trophies in relief. At the top of one portal there is a triton, at the top of the other there’s a siren.

There’s a stately staircase.

This is where Pontormo’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’ is situated.

There’s also “The conspiracy against Wallenstein” by Pietro Paolini.

The interior is full of spectacular stately rooms. Among them there’s the Hall of mirrors. This room was the ballroom of the palace. It is decorated with original eighteenth-century Empire furniture. The hall is used for official meetings.

There’s the music room with gorgeous stucco ceiling decorations and an elegant scagliola false marble floor. This room is furnished with original furniture and upholstery. It has a beautiful eighteenth-century chandelier and sumptuous red curtains. The acoustics of the room is another important feature. You can test them by clapping your hands under the central chandelier. The vibrations are amazing!

The Green Room was the palace’s living room and owes its name to the green curtains and upholstery brocade that covers the walls. Today it is used for civil marriages – one of my friends was married in it. What a place to tie the knot in and with Napoleon’s sister Eliza, princess of Lucca, gazing down upon you…

There are other rooms decorated in neoclassical style. At the highest floor of the building there are sixteenth century painted wooden beams only recently rediscovered under a false ceiling.

Thanks Mayor Tambellini for the talk for the tour of your offices! And thanks to your assistants, the students from Lucca’s Liceo Scientifico and classico, who also walked and talked us around the palazzo in exemplary fashion.

There are so many aristocratic palaces in Lucca. I wonder if we’ll get a chance to visit their secrets in the near future. Perhaps more should be added to the FAI. Certainly the Orsetti palace wetted my appetite.

For more on FAI see my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/its-fai-week-end-again/

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