A Load of Hot Air

The Villa Mansi is one of the more splendid of the Lucchese villas. These aristocratic retreats for the Luccan nobility, especially during the long hot summers, were built from the renaissance onwards and were mainly sited facing the gentle southern slopes of the Pizzorne to the north east of Lucca (although there are one or two wonderful villas to the south of the city as well).

Villa Mansi’s original construction dates from before 1634, when the architect Muzio Odi refashioned it into its present appearance with an imposing arcaded mannerist façade. The interior is decorated in a rich baroque style with plenty of gold gilding and grotteschi ornamentation. The central hall has beautiful decorations by Stefano Tofanelli from Lucca who, in a more neo-classical style, also painted the large mythological canvases. I thought the little vignettes of 18th century life-styles were particularly charming.

The park was redesigned by the great Filippo Juvarra and once had fully working water features, most of which unfortunately have disappeared or are in disrepair today, How wonderful it would be if those jets of water could play again!

Juvarra, who was born in Messina, is one of Italy’s greatest baroque architects designing, among several other masterpieces, the Superga basilica in Turin (where Italy’s kings are buried) and its Palazzo Madama (where the first parliament when Italy was finally unified in 1861 was held). Just the sight of these stupendous two buildings makes a trip to the tourist- underrated city of Turin worth it.

It is not often realised that Juvarra was also the designer of another magnificent Luccan villa garden: the fairy-tale-like one at Villa Garzoni, near Collodi’s Pinocchio-land, beside that at Villa Mansi (although the latter was modified into a more English-garden style in the nineteenth century). Furthermore, if you ever wander into the grandiose (unfinished) courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca’s Piazza Napoleone you will find Filippo’s hand again in those colossal arches

We first visited Villa Mansi in 2005 when there was a hot-air balloon festival taking place. The villa’s rich interior decorations and the colourful display of the “mongolfieri” set in Juvarra’s beautiful gardens made for an enchanted backdrop to an unforgettable afternoon.

The queues for the free flight in one were too long for us to get a look-.in (or rather a look-out, for the views over the Luccan landscape must have been fantastic on that lovely late summer day) but it was great fun watching the balloons being prepared for flight and filled with heated air from a (now gas but formerly wood) portable furnace and then rising into the bluest of Italian skies.

Some may ask what have hot air balloon got to do with a Luccan villa. It is not all that well-known that one of Lucca’s sons, Vincenzo Lunardi, demonstrated hot-air ballooning in London  in 1784 to great success – a feat which set off the more famous Montgolfier thinking about lighter-than air flying (and even Branson himself). The following plaque at Welham green in Herts, UK celebrates Vincenzo’s event. Unfortunately, of the animals Lunardi took on board, the cat became rather travel-sick and was not able to continue the flight.

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There is also another connection with Villa Mansi – Lucida Mansi who married the then owner of the Villa and, to preserve her ravishing beauty intact, is reported to have sold her soul to the devil. But that is another story….

Even if you didn’t get into the ether there was plenty to see and the stalls, as always, were a delight, selling hand-made goods or displaying traditional crafts and products. See if you can guess what these items are about:

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