Yesterday, one of Lucca’s greatest example of urban restoration and renewal ever undertaken taking many years and costing many millions of euros, giving back to its citizens almost a tenth of its historic centre, expanding its IMT university, providing new houses and open spaces, meeting halls and libraries and, above all, revealing Italy’s second ever Franciscan monastery foundation in all its wonder and glory – San Francesco di Lucca – was inaugurated in the most ceremonious occasion I have ever attended in Lucca with true panache and with a panoply of “big” people from local and national government, banking (the money for the project was largely supplied by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca), industry, fashion and academia. Through a special connection we were invited into the heart of the event among the good and the great.
Speeches, Bach’s Toccata (on the restored organ), a spectacular film of the project, TV stations, journalists, ministers from the Rome government, representatives from the highest religious and secular circles, the San Gennaro philharmonic, the Inno di Mameli (Italy’s national anthem) all contributed to making the celebrations both memorable and informative.
To come back to San Francesco’s church – it’s unbelievable how for so long Lucca was denied one of its most extraordinary, largest and most historic church – a church which not only headed the Franciscan order in this part of the world but also became Lucca’s pantheon – a true equivalent to Florence’s Santa Croce – housing memorials to and remains of its worthiest citizens including no less than three of its world-famous musicians: Puccini, Boccherini and Geminiani.
Furthermore, archaeological excavations during the complex’s restoration revealed that that beautiful lady, symbol of Lucca’s enticing femininity, Ilaria Del Carretto, whose remains were always thought to lie within Della Quercia’s exquisite tomb in Lucca Cathedral, was, in fact buried here in one of the cloisters. A museum behind the main apse of the church displays and explains the interesting finds made during these excavations.
And not just the church – the largest monastery in the whole of Lucchesia and one of the most expansive in Tuscany with no less than three spacious cloisters, chapter house, chapels, refectory and all the other features of a classic religious centre. We were gob-smacked at every turn of our privileged itinerary: the charming frescoes in the friars’ cells, the gardens and wells of the cloisters, the soaring spaces of the chapter-house, the amazing way that the project had been completed with true respect for the antiquity of the buildings and the needs of the new students and visiting professors, who would now be able to pursue knowledge in, perhaps, what must be one of the most evocative campuses in the entire world.
But this place will not be the exclusive preserve of academia: part of the deal is that it will be equally accessible to Lucca’s citizens who will have full use of its facilities.
Not only that: the wonderful church built, like all classic Franciscan churches in a single aisle so that preaching – such an important part of that order’s procedures – could be unimpeded by columns and side chapels, remains consecrated, as Lucca’s Bishop Castellani’s deputy emphasised – (Castellani was away in Rome on papal business and the Pope sent a message to declare his joy at the re-opening of this wonderful area again to religious persons and laity alike).
The reception in the aristocratic gardens of the Villa Guinigi, just across from the monastery was quite lucullian with the most delicious “finger-food” we have ever tasted in our lives and with abundantly flowing prosecco and aperitifs.
The following ninety days will be filled with a multiplicity of celebrations of the re-opening, under a new and more universal guise, of this sublime monastery and its return to Lucca’s so-rich urban heritage. Our next appointment there? This Wednesday when Verdi’s Requiem will sound out the last trumpets and the hope of an eternal after-life in the building dedicated to the “poverello d’Assisi”.
What joy there is in living in Italy and what happiness when trust in the Italians’ ability to get things done right and on time reasserts itself in these difficult times.