Church of Santa Maria Forisportam Lucca

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Church of Santa Maria Forisportam - Forgotten Italian Treasury  

 

Santa Maria Forisportam, Lucca, is a beautiful church containing many forgotten masterpieces (including two by Guercino). These attract little public or private interest (with a few exceptions), another example of the erosion of Italian heritage and a country’s indifference. In other countries, this monument would have been transformed into a small museum, attracting visitors and employing workers. Here we find a sad and absolute silence, broken only by the footsteps of a Missionary volunteer (yet who knows for how much longer).

Chiesa di Santa Maria ForisportamToday I came across a classic, forgotten Italian treasure at the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria Forisportam in Lucca and I felt angry at its state of neglect. Do you like Guercino, the " Painter of the Senses"? Here you will find two of his works. Whenever I stumble across this forgotten temple, I often feel the desire to go in. It is nick-named " Santa Maria Bianca" by the locals for its marble structure of the Apuan Alps (immediately on your right as you arrive in Piazza Colonna, from the direction of Porta Elisa). Yet every time I come here, it is always closed.

Today, as I was having a coffee in a nearby bar with my wife and my children, I saw the door open and rushed inside. I met a courteous gentleman who, I discovered, was a volunteer from a nearby Missionary. He opened the church to worshipers and visitors whenever he could, for a couple of hours. I was lucky; I stayed there for a couple of hours and came out with an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, I felt pride at the incredible structure standing before me, a heritage which had made Italy famous throughout the world; on the other hand, a sense of despair for the state of disrepair of a church like this, with its history and masterpieces. The church is called " Forisportam", or " out of town " because in Roman times, the city walls ran past here. We are practically on the border between the Roman and medieval city of Lucca.

John Ruskin’s passion

John RuskinJohn Ruskin was a famous and celebrated Victorian writer, poet and critic of British art. On his trip to Italy in the mid-nineteenth century (the so-called Grand Tour), he once said that it was this church that sparked his " interest and passion for medieval architecture". Curiously Ruskin despised the seventeenth-century paintings, including Caravaggio and Guercino; a fact which makes you smile considering the two Guercino present here, (Italian painting of the 1600s would strongly come back in vogue at the beginning of the 1900s thanks to the art critic Sir Denis Mahon). This would be enough in itself to attract throngs of Anglo-Saxon visitors and culture vultures. And yet...


Among some of Ruskin’s famous phrases, one I always particularly liked, stuck in my mind as an encouraging reminder:

"Life without hard work is a sin; work without art is brutality."

 

In the same square of the same name which houses the church (Piazza Santa Maria Forisportam), lies a so-called "truncated column", a Roman granite column that was used during the Middle Ages as the end point for riders, participating in the city grabs. The facade of the church is immediately curious, above all, because of the rich symbolism that adorns the lower section, real embroidery in stone. We are in the historical centre of Lucca, not far from some of the city’s other famous churches and squares such as the Cathedral of San Martino, the Church of San Michele in Foro and Fillungo Street. The church was originally located outside the medieval walls from where it was incorporated, probably in the twelfth century, during the period of its reconstruction. This particular point in time provides it with the name, "Forisportam" indicating its location outside the city walls in Roman times.

 

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Two of Guercino’s masterpieces


L'Assunta con i santi di GuercinoOnce inside, I immediately went to study the two  Guercino pieces: L'Assunta con i santi, 1643 and Santa Lucia of 1640. The rest of the church I saw at a more leisurely pace. Guercino is a much-loved artist, mentioned among others by Vittorio Sgarbi, the famous Italian art critic, who devoted an entire book to him: "Guercino. Poetry and sentiment in 17th century paintings". Just think, during his trip to Italy, Goethe only stopped in Cento because she had just given birth to the great Guercino. The two paintings of the latter, which are housed in this church, were commissioned by the then abbot, Giovanni Alfonso Pucinelli, who met the painter personally. Years later, in 1656, according to legend, Puccinelli became bishop of Manfredonia in the Puglia region, during an outbreak of plague. He was visited by a manifestation of the Archangel Michael, after which he dispensed graces and healings. The abbot commissioned the altarpiece of Santa Lucia and convinced Alessandro Mazzarosa to have one made for the chapel (400 ducats was paid, a hefty sum at the time).

Chiesa di Santa Maria ForisportamGuercino’s painting and the church itself is in a very worrying state. One of the two paintings by the painter, the one in Mazzarosa Chapel, was kept in semi-darkness. On the walls you can see signs of renovation and repair following earthquakes and subsidence over time. There are many cracks and signs of damp. As always in these cases, I wonder how it is that a monument of such grandeur has been left to such a fate in this way. In any other country of the Western world such a monument would be protected, valued and would continue to produce cultural and even economic benefits. Not here, it is expected to end its life in inexorable inertia, an unconditional surrender to the future. I feel a deep anger.

Santa Lucia del GuercinoThe outside of the church itself recalls the model of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa, but it differs from that of Pisa, in Piazza dei Miracoli, in the structural details of the decorative pilasters (non-load-bearing engraved capitals which emerge from the walls) and colonnades which support the arches on the façade, as well as a semicircular apse. Some work was unfinished: in the sixteenth century, the church was raised on bricks and the vaulted ceiling and large circular windows were built. It was opted to strip the church of the rich sculptural apparatus that is today visible in various museums and collections around the world. In 1619 the bell tower was finished, but other restoration works were still being worked on during the course of the eighteenth to nineteenth century. Inside the church is a fifth-century Roman sarcophagus used as a baptismal font and a main altar by Matteo Civitali, the leading Tuscan sculptor of the Renaissance outside Florence. Also noteworthy are the works by Angelo Pucinelli, "Dormition of the Virgin" and "Death and Assumption of the Virgin", both from 1386 (works by the painter are also hosted in several major museums abroad).

La sibilla lucchese


Chiara MatrainiSomething that has aroused a great deal of personal curiosity is the chapel that Chiara Matraini, the "Sibyl Lucchese" built in 1576. One of the few poets of the Italian Renaissance, he built this church in 1576 and arranged his burial here. The tomb is decorated with a painting, "Augustus and the Sibyl Cumana", started by the painter Alessandro Ardente and finished, according to his testamentary will , by Francesco Cellini. Representing Sybil, the painters would depict the poet’s features in the piece. If you are interested, the painting today (and well worth the effort ) is located in the National Museum of Villa Guinigi .

Lucida Mansi and his ghost
Lucida MansiAnother famous woman who has historical links with the church of Santa Maria Forisportam is Lucida Mansi (maiden name Lucida Saminiati). Here she married her first husband Vincenzo Diverso, who died prematurely. Lucida then married the noble Lucca Gaspare Mansi. Everyone in Lucca knows the "story" of the Lucida Mansi legend, which tells of a very attractive woman, and cruel libertine, who came to kill her husband and be surrounded by hordes of lovers. These were then in turn killed: after each amorous performance they were dispatched through trapdoors bristling with sharp blades. After an infamous pact with the devil, who took her away with him through the Walls of Lucca, she was thrown into the waters of the city’s dell'Orto botanical pond. (If you get the chance I recommend you visit). According to the stories, on dark and stormy nights, the ghost of Lucida Mansi still wanders through the city, especially on the walls, and it is one of the most famous ghosts in all of Tuscany. When there is a full moon, some claim that it is possible to see a carriage leading the woman to hell and that it is even possible to hear her screams.


The darkroom sundial


MeridianaOf particular note is the darkroom sundial inside the church: as you look at the altar, look to the right, above it you will see a hole. This hole houses an opening through which sunlight enters. Looking down, you'll see a sloping line on the floor; this is the hour line. When the beam of light illuminates the hour line drawn on the floor, it means the sun has reached its maximum height and that it is midday in Lucca . A plaque states that Lucca is seven minutes and 55 seconds behind Rome time. Today, after centuries of earthquakes and changes to the building, the meridian line drawn on the floor has moved by several centimeters. Other sundials in other churches (see that of Saint Sulpice in Paris), have had better literary fortunes.

And so?

 

With so many beautiful God-given structures, what can be done to ensure they are not lost forever? I’m appealing in particular to Lucca city council, the municipality and to the locals, who do not want to lose one of their treasures. I can think of a few ways you can help below, perhaps you can think of others:

1) Find a sponsor, a patron (any nationality will do!) who will fund the restoration of the church in exchange for a beautiful marble plaque and a tax deduction. This will protect the works inside and reopen the church to the public for cultural events such as concerts or exhibitions, whilst permitting the resumption of religious services (as stated there are no longer masses held here).


2) Repair the structure by charging a small amount for entry (even one euro for starters), advertising on a billboard outside with the names of Guercino and John Ruskin and a nice catchy caption at the entrance and around the church. Create a cost free campaign on social networks (at almost zero cost), produce leaflets asking for help from local newspapers such as the Tyrrhenian or the Nation . Quote pieces of what I have written above if useful.

 

3) Try " Crowdfunding ", which for those who are unfamiliar allows a campaign to collect donations from all over the world, as little as a few Euros, but to a vast global audience. Find a whizz kid who can do it for free (also the Facebook campaign mentioned).


4) Talk about the issue as much as possible , so it does not get forgotten (as has happened already) and think of the issue as a glimmer of light, a spark of hope for the current socio-economic crisis.

 

5) A well organised chruch, with such history and heritage, could provide job experience for motivated young volunteers. Now that you know the story of this church, please spread the word and tell as many people as possible.
 

Per Informagiovani-Italia,

M.S

 

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