We all like to climb up to the top of the Torre Guinigi in Lucca – the one with the holm-oaks growing from its summit – and enjoy the expansive view of the walled city and the piana Lucchese from its summit. Some of us don’t always realise, however, that the tower forms part of a large palace belonging to the great aristocratic Luccan family, and it has over recent years been brought back to its former glory with many of its room decorations from mediaeval to baroque times rediscovered and restored.
Palazzo Guinigi (not to be confused with Villa Guinigi, also within Lucca’s ramparts but housing the national museum instead and neither to be mistaken for the palazzo Guinigi hotel in the same area) hosts three exhibition spaces within its ample interior. First, is the Museum of the City of Lucca. Second and third are temporary exhibition areas. All, except for the third, are free admission.
The City of Lucca museum displays, through models, dioramas and projections the history of the city from its earliest days as an Etruscan settlement, through its Roman period as a Colonia, its glory days as a centre for silk production (epitomised in Jan Van Eyk’s Arnolfini wedding picture in London’s National Gallery) to its time under Napoleon’s sister, Elisa and its operatic apotheosis with Puccini. It is all very well done and should be more boldly indicated and signposted as an introduction for every new visitor to Lucca.
There is also a very poignant exhibition of old photographs from the city’s archives displaying inmates of Lucca’s orphanages. Despite the efforts of the religious and civic authorities to give them hope through education and training you could see on several faces marks of the shame and woe that parentless children once were tainted with. Incidentally, I haven’t seen orphans in their orphanage uniforms for many years now.
Above the city museum is a first exhibition space which has hosted some wonderful shows. The one on “Silk roads”, now finished, was absolutely splendid – beautifully arranged, highly instructive and full of interesting examples from both west and east of the “forbidden” fabric which made the Arnolfini’s – and Lucca’s fortune in the early renaissance. During our recent visit there this month there was an exhibition of modern art, some of which was lovely some less so.
The real masterpieces here, however, are the views from the windows.
The third floor has, at this moment, an exhibition by Swedish glass artist Bertil Vallien, one of the most famous and highly respected contemporary European glass artists who originally started off as a ceramicist. Vallien says about his relationship with glass: “early on I discovered that glass is a difficult material, but one that offers a richness of possibility with its marriage of extremes: heat and cold, light and dark.”
In 1963 Bertil became artistic director for a failing glass company in Sweden and not only saved it from bankruptcy but also bought it. He has worked ever since as a freelance designer for Kosta Boda Glassworks. Bertil’s work is beautiful and mysterious as in his haunting mouldings of faces. His handling of glass as essentially a medium of light produces works that can both reflect, and also create within, magic translucent surfaces which both trap and free the material’s prismatic qualities.
In the workshop run by his collaborator Kosta Boda, Vallien, who perfected glass moulding through sand-casting, continues to produce highly stimulating and ethereal works. One of his themes is that of the boat – perhaps inspired by Egyptian funerary symbols (transmuted in the west’s Charon ferry boatman).
In the artist’s words: There are themes that keep coming back in my work like the boat shape. It’s as important to me as the canvas is for the painter. A carrier of stories and memories I make boats that sink through memories and dreams. The boats I make require no latitudes to navigate by; they steer towards the horizons of imagination. It’s a vitrified container, one for Moses, another for a Viking chieftain. The ship is a perfect vessel for the expression of loneliness. It is evocative of femininity, of adventure, of catastrophe, a thin protective shell that demands the absolute respect of all aboard. It is a society in isolation, a self-contained world afloat on the sea.
The exhibition of Vallien’s works is well worth a visit, although we discerned an aura of Swedish depressiveness about several of the exhibits which was a little disturbing. The craftsmanship and technical virtuosity, however, remains superb.
The Palazzo Guinigi isn’t just about a few holm oaks growing on top of its tower – it’s a lot more than that, as we discovered.