Museums of Lucca


With a couple of weeks to spend idly in Lucca I set myself to work on a few projects. One was to visit every museum, some of which I hadn’t been to for some time. Here’s what I found. 

Villa Guinigi   (Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi).  Set in the  early-1400s suburban villa of Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca, this is the museum of Lucca’s artistic treasures from the Etruscans to the 1900s. In the last couple of years it has been carefully upgraded and the progress through the museum now follows a coherent chronological path. The arrangement of the earliest periods–pottery, jewelry, coins, Roman sculpture, pieces which can be so dreadfully boring when they have no context–has been made with a lightness and rational development, so you feel yourself walking through history, catching glimpses.

The core of the museum, for me, is the 1200s -1300s collection. Here we have early paintings, panel crosses of great rarity, altar pieces, frescoes rescued from denuded churches, many of extreme rarity.

This leads on to the period of Paolo Guinigi and the artistic flowering of the 1400s concluding with the time of Matteo Civitali, though most of his work is to be seen in the Cathedral. For the 1500s-1700s the museum is particularly rich in the local canvases of the period, some of which are masterpieces, most having been rescued from churches in town. 

The newest, and strangest, museum is the Museo della Tortura (torture museum) which has sprouted up on Via Fillungo. It seems to be part of a chain of torture museums. I’ve seen them in Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Pisa, Volterra.  This one is quite well done, not sensationalistic, just the facts and the equipment. Quite expensive, 10 euros, for what you get, but I don’t regret seeing it once. It is good to remember such things, and it is quite stunning that the apparatus you are looking at are the actual instruments which were used many times to extract the truth and promote virtue, and that there are sufficient remnants of this practice to fill museums with ease.  

The Comics Museum (Museo Italiano del Fumetto e dell’Immagine)    I finally visited this for the first time since its opening a couple of years ago. I’d wandered about it during construction. It’s located in a building which was one of the most overlooked in Lucca. It had been a barracks, and had a very deliberate gothic façade in brick.  It wasn’t very old, the 1800s, so not much esteemed in a place like Lucca, but it had a decayed and forgotten charm. I often wondered to what purpose it could be put, and the answer turned out to be a museum of comics. The subject of why there is a museum of comics in Lucca, and why it is the third largest comics and graphic arts festival in the world, with 180,000 communicants, devotees descending on Lucca for four days, an astounding number but apparently true (where do they sleep?) I must leave to a separate post.  My critique of the museum itself:  I was underwhelmed. It was smaller than I had anticipated. Much of the building complex is given to workshops. There is only one wing given to the museum.  I don’t want to diminish the museum too much. It did begin to educate me about the fertility of this populist art. The comic books and graphic novels created by a few artists in Lucca became entertainment for a generation and  deserves a museum. The website is kind of quirky and in Italian, but there are lots of images to click on. 

Palazzo Mansi      This is really two museums in one. The first is the palazzo itself, with its well preserved rooms, as stunning as you would expect for one of the richest families in Lucca. The other function of the museum is an art gallery. Several new rooms have been opened recently, allowing a better presentation of the art works showcasing Lucchese artists and families. The older section, the original art gallery, remains unchanged. It is a great hodgepodge of paintings lining the walls. Most of these were donated to the city in 1847 by grand duke Pietro Leopoldo II after the annexation of Lucca to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany to compensate the city for the loss of so much of its artistic heritage when it was sold off by the last ruler of Lucca, Charles Louis Bourbon. It was a gracious but poor repayment. There is also a weaving workshop on the ground floor with an impressive collection of old looms, which are still being used, preserving a great Lucchese tradition. This area is not often open to visit, but if it is you should go in.  

Palazzo Guinigi      At long last it is possible wander around inside the most important palazzo in Lucca. Paolo Guinigi was Lord of Lucca from 1400 to 1430 and this palazzo and the one across the street are a testament to his family’s wealth and importance. You have long been able to climb up the tower, which you should do unless you suffer to any degree from acrophobia. Now you can wander around the palazzo where as much as possible (which is not very much) of the original decorations have been recovered. The ceilings are the best preserved. The palazzo is very large and four floors high.  Putting it to proper use stymied the authorities for years and their solution is decidedly eclectic.  When I was there several rooms were given over to comic books, as part of the Lucca Comics extravaganza. Another several rooms were filled with a remarkable collection of African art brought back by Lucchese explorers, the most famous being Carlo Piaggia. The exhibit has closed but you might want to take a look at its website. A more permanent and welcome exhibit is several rooms dedicated to a media presentation of the history of Lucca, which is very well done. There are also models of the city and a section of the excavation of the hospital Galli Tassi tracing its progression over two thousand years. This exhibit is a quick way to get a grasp of the development of Lucca. Another several rooms were filled with a photographic exhibition of Lucca in the early 1900s. Admission is free. 

Puccini Museum      This small museum is located in the house where Puccini was born in 1858. After being closed for several years it reopened in 2011 to local fanfare. It consists of eight small rooms with memorabilia and furnishings typical of Puccini’s time. The collection is, quite honestly, rather minimal but it is a good place to meet other fans of Puccini and to talk with the knowledgeable staff. The website is quite good, but only in Italian.  

Finally, there is the welcome addition to the artistic world of Lucca in the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art—Lu.C.C.A. This museum opened a few years ago and I am pleased to see it going strong. The space is wonderful, Palazzo Boccella, built in the 1500s on medieval foundations, the basement retaining some early frescoes.  The Center provides a needed outlet for the impressive progressive artists of Lucca. Their confidently named website displays a good selection from their exhibits.  

I did not pay the 3 euros, or 5 euros to see the coin, to visit the Domus Romana Archaeoligical Site but I wish had, even though it was getting late in the day. This private enterprise, the result of the owners of the palazzo renovating their basement and discovering Roman remnants, is best presented in their own words