Baroque Sublimity

An exquisite concerto of baroque instrumental and church music in an equally exquisite baroque church in Lucca – (indeed, its purest baroque church – Santa Maria Corteorlandini – otherwise known as Santa Maria Nera to distinguish it from Santa Maria Bianca, AKA Santa Maria Forisportam) … what more can one desire from life, I wonder?

The nickname of Santa Maria Nera comes because in 1662 a chapel was built to the side in imitation of the Holy House of Loreto (there is a rather dark statue of the Madonna in the chapel – in, fact far older that the one in Loreto which had to be replaced in 1920 after the original in cedar of Lebanon was accidentally burnt). The “copia esatta” of the Holy House of Loreto is a quite amazing building –a pleasing shock for any unsuspecting person to come across!

Since the Madonna of Loreto is patron saint of air travellers I heartily recommend anyone who feels queasy about their next flight from Pisa to visit this astounding shrine. (The House was transported aerily from the Holy land, lifted by quires of Angels, to Loreto in the Marche).

The church itself was erected in 1188 in place of an older one, designed by a certain maestro Guido, perhaps from Lombardy or even Tuscany. Not much survives of the medieval church except for two apses and a side archway with foliage decorations.

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In 1580 the church was entrusted to the Canons Regular of the Mother of God (Madre di Dio) – the ones who are now officiating at the santuary at Migliano where we sang recently and mentioned in a previous post – who immediately created a new monastery largely on top (!) – because of lack of space – of the existing building and produced a spectacular and quite unique example of Luccan Baroque.

The facade dates from the late seventeenth century and the design of the portal is attributed to Domenico Martinelli. The total restructuring left the Romanesque side walls largely unchanged on the outside but transformed the interior into Lucca’s most resplendent example of baroque flamboyancy: the decoration of gilded capitals, the arches and trompe-d’oeuil frescoed  ceilings are rather wonderful and surely transport one to realms of fantasy, if not to heaven itself!

In particular, the magnificently gilded double-organ loft had an extraordinary effect on me – I felt my feet were no longer on this earth!

The interior contains lovely works and canvases by Guido Reni, Michele Colonna, Francesco Vanni and Antiveduto Gramatica. There were probably more works too but these have been taken away to museums.

But to come back to the concert organized, as part of the now fifty-year old Sagra Musical Lucchese festival, by that tireless maestro Luca Bacci – he of the Capella Santa Cecilia and the Coro delle Alpi Apuane and mentioned in a previous post: it was so wonderful and I felt so privileged to be there right up front with a performance conducted in magnificent acoustics.

Long gone are the days when Italy lagged behind in authentic period performance – now their musicians are among the best in the world for performing pre-romantic music. After all, it was the Italians who influenced the musical world from the renaissance to the baroque, so for truly idiomatic performances what better than to go to their musicians?

The ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte, as its name implies, comes from, the Veneto, Rovigo to be precise, and performed concerti by two local boys Vivaldi and Albinoni, to perfection.

But for me the highlight of the evening was the quite scintillating singing by Patrizia Cigna. Cigna translates into English as swan and this expressive singer became a true swan (or rather “pen” as the female swan is correctly called – the male is a “cob”) in her negotiations of the highly virtuosistic roulades and the deliciously painful appoggiaturas of Vivaldi’s motet “Laudate Pueri Dominum”.

The Handel was even better: “Silete venti” must be one of the most beautiful motets ever written with its final Alleluia filling the soul with warmest joy. Patrizia Cigna from Volterra showed that she can reach and develop the highest levels of baroque aria singing with élan and expression such as is not always found in the often more academic delivery styles of northern singers – she brought absolute passion in what she sang and left us all wishing for more (In fact that alleluia was repeated as an encore). Of such evenings are dreams made of…. O yes, I forgot to mention it: the concert was free. – even the programme….


2 thoughts on “Baroque Sublimity

  1. What a fascinating history this little church has and so beautifully written must see it thank you for such interesting articles which you should get published in book form, It is also a nice inventory of churches that you are creating!

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