Lucca, two sovereigns for one palace
In the center of Lucca, a palace symbol of Napoleonic power in Tuscany
“We, Napoleon, Emperor of France, King of Italy, assent to our dear and beloved brother-in-law and sister, the Prince and Princess of Piombino, acquiring the Principality of Lucca and establishing themselves there”. Thus, on 24 June 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte assigns the city of Lucca to his sister Elisa and brother-in-law, Felice Baciocchi. After centuries of independence, Lucca loses its Republican status and becomes a Principality of the French Empire. Among the first duties of the new sovereign is to establish a palace for her court, which should reflect the splendour and magnificence of the French palaces. For this purpose, Elisa decides that the austere Palazzo Pubblico, since 1300 the symbol of political power in Lucca and headquarters, for many centuries, of the Government of the Republic of Lucca, be restored, transformed and enriched according to the dictates of the French Neoclassical style. But Elisa will not be the only sovereign to strongly mark the change of this Palazzo, symbol of the entire city. After her fall, in 1817, it will be up to her arch enemy Maria Luisa of Borbone to continue and complete the various grand projects started by Napoleon’s sister. So, from 1805, the Palazzo Pubblico is transformed into a palace at first symbol of Napoleonic power in Tuscany, and then of the Bourbon Restoration. To confirm the power and importance of Princess Elisa and her court, the entrance of the sovereigns in their new palace on 1st December 1805 is celebrated with a grand feast. “The first Sunday in Advent the spacious halls, all restored in white-gold, were thrown open to welcome the dazzling Court in Empire style with the joy of dance continuing after a lavish dinner sumptuously served on an abundance of fine porcelain and silverware (as well as fervent wines and succulent food in the gallery facing the Swiss Courtyard”. Elisa arranged for the creation of the Quartiere di Parata, that is, the Royal Quarters used to receive dignitaries.
They were comprised of the Footmen’s Halls, Guards Halls, Chamberlain’s Quarters, the Throne Room, the Advisors’ Rooms and Sovereign’s Cabinet. The Princess did not limit herself to carrying out substantial modifications to the structure of the Palazzo itself but, in 1806, she entrusts the architects Lazzarini and Bienaimé with the designing and building of a large piazza, named after the Emperor, in front of the east facade of the Palazzo. And neither does she stop before the demolition of an entire residential block, the destruction of the magnificent civic tower, the ancient factory producing papers for the National Archive, the Post Office, the austere Carcere del Sasso prison facilities and the Church of San Pietro Maggiore. Elisa wants her palace to have ample breathing space, so she opens before it a wide tree-lined piazza like those of the French cities of the South. Some years later, in 1820, in the “Guida del forestiere per la città di Lucca” (A foreigner’s guide to the city of Lucca) author Tommaso Trenta writes: “It is hard to believe how a Palace built for a Republic’s use has, in such a short time, taken on the aspect of one of Italy’s most elegant and majestic Royal Palaces. Praise must be given to the august sovereign Maria Luisa who so wished to bring a new lustre to the city”. Indeed, a curious historical paradox, it is actually Maria Luisa of Borbone who finishes the work inside the Palace, entrusting Lorenzo Nottolini, neoclassical architect of elegant and refined style, among whose many works is the splendid marble main stairway leading to the Royal Quarters. This area of the Palace is today finally accessible to the public thanks to restoration financed by the Province of Lucca together with funds from the Jubilee. Restoration allows us to witness the transformation of the Palazzo della Repubblica of Lucca into a veritable urban palace, located on over 18,000 square meters of space. We can see the political strength, the will and tenacity of two powerful women, different and far apart in their ideals and temperament. Two women who in little less than fifty years were the authors of fundamental innovations and transformations in the urban setting and in the entire territory of Lucca.
HISTORY OF THE PALAZZO PUBBLICO
In 1322, military leader Castruccio Castracani, at the climax of his power, bought a palace around which he had Giotto project a great fortress: the Augusta, as large as one-fifth of the city, was defended by twenty-nine towers.
Upon Castruccio’s death, in 1328, Lucca loses its independence. Only in 1369 did the citizens of Lucca succeed in conquering their freedom once again. The walls of the Augusta, symbol of foreign oppression, were torn down by the people of the city. The Council of Elders, the top collegial organ of the Republic, decided to move into Castruccio’s palace.
Later, the building was elected headquarters of the top institutions of the Republic of Lucca. Halfway through the 16th century, the Elders’ quarters, more than a large single building, was an ensemble of constructions made in various epochs, connected by overhead walkways. Bartolomeo Ammannati in the 16th century and Filippo Juvarra in the 17th, were entrusted with the task of projecting the Palazzo. In the 19th century, the will and the authority of the two energetic and capable women made the completion of the magnificent Palace that we admire today possible. They were Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister and Princess of Lucca and Piombino from 1805, and Maria Luisa of Borbone to whom the regency of the city was entrusted from 1817.
In 1846 the palace was given over to Pietro Leopoldo Grand Duke of Tuscany who transferred the Palazzo’s works of art and precious furniture to Palazzo Pitti, in Florence. Robbed of its riches, the building became in 1860 part of the wealth of the Crown of Savoy and, in 1865 became State property. Two years later, on 5 November 1867, it was bought by the Provincial Administration of Lucca.