I once attempted to count the number of churches in Lucca and failed. There must be over fifty in a space of barely four square miles. Does one include private chapels, ruins or buildings now used for other purposes? The fact is that there is a surfeit of such buildings in a city which now suffers, like so many other urban centres, from a depopulation problem as more inhabitants move outside the walls.
Fortunately, several churches have been re-adapted to new uses rather than being allowed to decay. The prime example is San Romano auditorium (where that mythical Beethoven’s Ninth performance took place earlier this year) which was formerly the church of the Dominican monastery.
IMT (Institutions, Markets, Technologies) Institute for Advanced Studies, an international graduate school (founded in 2004 and harbinger of the university Lucca has been promised for over 700 years) adapted the former Benedictine order church of San Ponziano near Porta Eliza to house its library. (Although, unfortunately, the structures of the library do not now allow complete appreciation of the church’s interior, at least that building is saved, and not at risk, like the gem-like baroque church of San Caterina – near the old tobacco factory – was, until emergency rescue intervention in January this year).
Now there is a whole new IMT campus springing up in the San Francesco area in the north-east part of the city and restoration of the former and very large convent is completing apace. San Francesco is one of the largest churches in Lucca but has been closed for many years because of its shaky structural condition – a great pity as it is one of the best examples of a single-nave friary “preaching” church (the most famous one in Tuscany is Santa Croce in Florence, famed for Giotto’s frescoes and as the nation’s pantheon). When the church reopens later this year (we are promised in May) the public will be able to admire its spectacular interior, frescoes and cloisters for the first time in almost fifty years! As a lover of his music I also look forwards to gazing on the tomb of that great Luccan musician and author of the minuet – Luigi Boccherini.
As it happened, we were in the San Francesco area yesterday after visiting a friend in a nearby street. Quite by accident we took a side alley and found ourselves in a large inner square, combining the ex-monastery’s ancient monuments with sympathetic modern residential building and now nearing the end of its stage as a building site and its beginning as a living contribution to the city’s urban fabric.
I look forwards very much to the reopening of this once-neglected and now beautifully restored part of the city to the public next month. It will be a spectacular addition to Lucca’s rich legacy of historical buildings and social life.