Lucca’s house facades are sometimes adorned with plaques commemorating notables, who either were born, lived or died there. Several of the names are quite well-known…
Lucca’s churches clearly also contain several memorials. But too many of the names may not be so-well-known. One of them particularly intrigued me through its connection to the Raj. In Lucca’s San Frediano basilica is this canova-style funerary monument with an inscription by Pietro Giordani:
“Lazzaro Papi – Colonnello per gli inglesi nel Bengala – poi lodato scrittore di versi e di storia – in tenue fortuna per molta prudenza e bontà – riverito ed amato – visse anni LXXI…” (Lazzaro Papi – Colonel for the British in Bengal – then praised poet and historian – tenuous fortunate through his great prudence and goodness – revered and loved – lived LXXI years…)
Lazzaro Papi (1763 – 1834) was an Italian writer, historian and a Colonel in the Bengal Lancers. This year it’s thus the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth.
Born in Pontito, a delightful mountain village now in Pistoia province but then in the republic of Lucca, he studied at Lucca’s Seminary, but left and went to Naples, where he joined the army.
Subsequently, Papi worked as a tutor, teaching in the Papal States, Florence and Pisa. He devoted himself to medicine, followed studies in Pisa and became a doctor. Lazzaro then left for Livorno, from where he sailed in 1792 to Calcutta as Ferdinand III of Tuscany’s doctor.
Papi described India in his “Letters on the East Indies” writing about its people, caste system, rituals, flora and fauna. The Rajah of Travancore, afflicted with gangrene, was saved by Papi, who won the sovereign’s gratitude and became his court physician. The English, who were at war against Tippoo Sahib, gave him the rank of lieutenant and Papi was assigned a company of Bengal Lancers. In the war Papi was promoted to colonel and commanded four thousand lancers!
Papi later returned to Calcutta and sailed to Bombay, where he remained for several months. He became a sales consultant for a British company. Papi then decided to return to Italy, via Saudi Arabia, stopping at Moha, and thence to Alexandria. In 1802 he arrived at Livorno, and returned to Lucca.
In Lucca Papi held important positions both under the Napoleonic government, Lucca’s provisional government and the Bourbon duchy which succeeded them. In his last years Papi was librarian and secretary to Lucca’s Royal Academy.
In Pontito’s main square there is another memorial to Papi. The inscription, written by Count Cesare Sardi, reads as follows: “A Lazzaro Papi – la terra di Pontito – con orgoglio di madre – pose questo ricordo il 5 settembre 1905 ” (“To Lazzaro Papi – the land of Pontito – as a proud mother – placed this memorial September 5, 1905″)
In addition to his “Letters on the East Indies”, Papi wrote “Commentaries on the French Revolution”, translated what is still considered the best Italian version of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and wrote Greek and Latin verse.
What a life! I’d have loved to meet this man who combined so many talents and experienced so many different cultures.