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Piazza Napoleone in Lucca

Lucca, Palazzo Ducale e Piazza Napoleone
Lucca, Palazzo Ducale e Piazza Napoleone

The piazza grande in Lucca, for many years congested with car traffic and mistaken progress, was the focus of a sizeable project for urban reorganization and is today once again able to communicate that even–tempered magnificence that must have been Élisa Baciocchi’s firm intention: Napoleon’s sister sacrificed the dense blocks of buildings next to the Palazzo Pubblico, which had been the seat of government since the fourteenth century, in favour of her desire to symbolically assert the new concept of government in the heart of the city and in front of the seat of power. In addition to various private buildings, old structures belonging to the former Lucca republic were also destroyed (the Archive, the ’Torre di Palazzo’, the Salt Storage), but most important of all, the church of San Pietro in Cortina, also known of San Pier Maggiore, where a miraculous image of the Virgin was venerated, was taken down. The project was not met with favour by the population or men of culture in Lucca, and even Stefano Tofanelli – court painter and Senator, as well as member of the commission tasked with writing up the general conditions for the realization of the piazza – disassociated himself from it, after having seen the rejection of a more contained plan that would have at least spared the prestigious and old church.

Nevertheless, the construction of the new piazza proceeded slowly: in 1807, in the dead of night, the Miraculous Madonna was moved to the nearby church of San Paolino. Over the next two years all efforts were concentrated on the demolition of buildings and the levelling of the ground, where large trees were planted. The original plan to harmonize the perspectives of the buildings that faced onto the piazza was not however fulfilled.
This was a sign of a major gap between what was planned and what was actually built, a gap also highlighted by the matter of the colossal celebratory monument to Napoleon, that was decreed in 1806 and would have been installed in the centre of the piazza and accompanied by four allegorical corner statues. A model in relief prepared by Pietro Fontana, a student of Canova, was considered in line with the idea of majesty, simplicity and harmony of parts requested by the patrons, but it never came to be, since Élisa seemed more inclined toward a more spectacular solution that featured the emperor surrounded by a fountain covered in bas relief. In the end, a much more modest sculpture was decided on, entrusted to Leopoldo Vannelli based more on his low quote for the work than on artistic merit. It was not delivered until after the Baciocchi’s departure and was adapted to the turn of events by the replacement of the head for one portraying Charles III of Bourbon – the statue of Napoleon thus ended up on the bastions of the Wall (now at the National Museum of Villa Guinigi), but the effigy of a ruler did however get placed in the centre of the Piazza, in 1843: Marie Louise of Bourbon, former queen of Etruria, sculpted by one of Napoleon and Élisa’s favourite artists, Lorenzo Bartolini.

Piazza Napoleone

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