Lucca dedicates an exhibition to the dense epistolary web of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi

From April 7 to May 21, 2023 at the Complesso di San Micheletto in Lucca an exhibition dedicated to the copious correspondence between Princess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi of Lucca and various members of the Napoleonic government.

On Friday, April 7, the exhibition Le lettere di Elisa: così governava la Principessa di Lucca, curated by Roberta Martinelli, opens to the public in the fresco room on the ground floor of the San Micheletto complex, home of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca. The exhibition, which can be visited until May 21, 2023, intends to invite visitors to discover copious correspondence between the Princess of Lucca Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and various members of the Napoleonic government, as well as to offer suggestions and knowledge of the history of epistolary exchange in the period of the Lucca Principality and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany through furnishing objects, tools and watermarked papers.

There are two exhibits offered by the exhibition, with free admission, on which the public will be able to dwell: the correspondents, that is, the historical figures who were the protagonists of Elisa’s correspondence, consisting of a packet of more than 200 letters recently acquired by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca as a historical document and primary source on the Elysian decade, and writing with its tools: a focus on paper, ink and everything necessary to govern a country before the advent of electronic mail.

“With Elisa there is always the opportunity to take a fascinating journey through history, art and everyday life,” emphasizes Raffaele Domenici, vice president of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca. “This exhibition, in particular, enhances the Foundation’s recent acquisition of the Elysian correspondence and allows for a full immersion in the context of a political-social conjuncture that was crucial for the destinies of Europe and of singular importance for its implications in the local sphere: a cross-section that finds in this exhibition an agile, inclusive narrative of great communicative value.”

“Starting from the different themes addressed in the letters,” explained curator Roberta Martinelli, former director of the National Museums of the Napoleonic Residences on the island of Elba and president of the association ’Napoleon and Elisa: from Paris to Tuscany,’ “the exhibition aims to present a cross-section of political and social life as it unfolded in the early nineteenth century. The richness of the topics covered in the correspondence is such as to stimulate a historical-critical approach capable of illustrating the most varied dynamics and problems of an era rightly considered a crucial passage in the formation of modern society.”

In the first part of the exhibition, a roundup of characters, in the many reproductions of original works kept at Versailles, will welcome visitors. These are the correspondents of the princess, with their stories and their connection to the city, which will be seen alongside the messages they sent here to Lucca more than two hundred years ago. Among them, special attention is given to Regnault, considered Napoleon’s gray eminence, a leading figure whose wife held one of the most important (and scandalous!, according to Napoleon) salons in Paris; he is the filter between Napoleon and the imperial family: his function is to deal with the private affairs of its members and to report on them to the emperor in real time. In the correspondence that is the subject of the exhibition, more than half are missives between Elisa Bonaparte and the minister on aspects of the government of the principality and imperial etiquette. Some letters were sent to Lucca on behalf of the emperor not only from Paris but also from the imperial residences of Rambouillet, Fontainebleau, and Compiègne. While Elisa writes from the Ducal Palace, the Imperial (now Royal) Villa of Marlia, Florence, Livorno, Pisa, Siena, and Bagni di Lucca.

In the second section, space will be given to theart of epistolary writing and its tools: the protagonist is a mahogany and bronze inkwell of great refinement, which belonged to Princess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and came from the Villa Reale in Marlia, on loan from the Napoleonic Museum in Rome. In the same section is a travel writing nécessaire complete with paper, inks, pens, drying powder, and weekly diary of the time, which belonged to Maria Luisa of Austria, and comes from the Glauco Lombardi Museum Foundation in Parma. Alongside the objects are reproductions of paintings from the early 19th century depicting women and men in the act of writing. These include Madame De Genlisse, a pedagogue who oversaw the education of Napoleon Elisa.

Significant space is devoted to the production and study of the watermarks on which the letters were penned: their provenance ranges from Lucca to all over Europe. The watermark, or watermarked paper, is a graphic or symbolic mark visible against the light in the paper due to the deposit of a different amount of fibers, made during the manufacture of the paper.

“The exhibition was conceived as an opportunity to learn from the inside about the complex issues of a transitional phase that had in the Elysian principality of Lucca one of the places where the governing techniques imposed by the new times were applied with more lucidity and determination. To the point of being the outcome of a modernizing strategy that had in the Princess an intelligent and shrewd guide. Of this strategy, the most innovative initiative and the one most destined to leave a clear mark on the city concerned the urban transformation of Lucca, which was conceived according to the Paris model. The correspondence highlights precisely this connection by making explicit how the most substantial intervention such as the construction of the large square in front of the Palace, was carefully followed by architects working in Paris,” the curator explained.

“Able to govern public affairs,” Roberta Martinelli continued, “Elisa also proved shrewd in dealing with private affairs. This was demonstrated by the affair of the old Vaudreil palace, located on rue de la Chaise in the faubourg Saint-Germain, which she bought in 1803 for 130,000 francs, and resold five years later, after some embellishments and extensions, for the considerable sum of 800,000 francs.”

“From the dense web of correspondence that engaged Elisa from August 1807 to February 1813 emerges with the role of her interlocutor in Paris the figure of Michel-Louis-Ètienne Regnault de Saint-Jean d’Angély. The relations he had had with the princess were unknown about this character. A collaborator of Napoleon’s since the time of the First Italian Campaign, Regnault had become one of his closest advisers to the point of being regarded as his ”gray eminence.“ On August 9, 1807, he had reached, with his appointment as ”Secretary of State of the Imperial Family,“ the pinnacle of the Napoleonic system. From that position he could fulfill the role of direct intermediary between the Princess and her brother and equally he could provide Elisa with his expertise to give solutions to the various problems she was called upon to deal with. A role of absolute importance also for reconstructing the dynamics of Elisa’s government, which if it had been ignored until now obtains its correct evaluation precisely from the knowledge of the epistolary acquired by the Foundation. In this light, The Letters of Elisa: This is how the Princess of Lucca governed fits worthily into the broader scenario of Napoleonic studies, enriching them with a chapter that features a woman who was able to express her remarkable gifts by governing and transforming a city that still exhibits the signs of her work.”

“The correspondence was purchased by the auction house Osenat, one of the most important in Paris, which has a specific sector dedicated to the Empire,” Martinelli explains, “so much so that it sold Napoleon’s hat in September 2021 for 1.2 million euros. This is a rich correspondence concerning a moment of great development of the city by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi: it should be pointed out that objects directly related to her life or work are not easily found. With this initiative, the Foundation has secured to Lucca’s documentary heritage a material of considerable historical and cultural value.” It consists of 233 missives covering a chronological span from August 1807 to February 1813; they consist of one up to a folio of papers, some directly concerning Lucca and in particular Piazza Grande, the monument to Napoleon, Minister Froussard and his house near the new gate opened in the walls, Lucca’s commerce and agriculture and in particular Lucca’s oil, as well as a report on the Lucchese Senate: the first meeting of Felice Baciocchi with the Lucca senate. All of the letters, some consisting of multiple sheets, were personally transcribed by Bernard Chevallier, honorary director of the Musées Nationaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, the leading international expert on Napoleonic history. Also by Chevallier are two essays in the exhibition catalog, as well as contributions by Paolo Bertoncini Sabatini, Roberto Valeriani, Elisa Tittoni, Francesca Sandrini, Massimiliano Bini, and Monica Guarraccino.

The exhibition includes a number of in-depth cultural events, always with free admission.

OnSunday, April 30, 2023, at 10:30 a.m., in the calendar of Lucca Classica appointments, a conference with two talks: “’Un Tal Paganini Genovese’ in Lucca,” by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and “Getting to Know Princess Elisa” by Roberta Martinelli. After a brief musical interlude with music by Paganini for violin/violin and guitar, a guided tour of the exhibition will take place at 12 noon. “’Un Tal Paganini Genovese’ in Lucca,” by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni: Paganini first arrived in Lucca in 1801 to play at the festival of Santa Croce. He was accompanied by a reputation as a Jacobin, in those years of alternating French and Austrian governments. He returned to Lucca a short time later, but his presence in Lucca is mostly remembered in connection with the government of Elisa Baciocchi. It was a very dense period, especially for the compositions that were born in Lucca: it is very likely that the famous Capricci were composed during that period. “Getting to Know Princess Elisa” by Roberta Martinelli: In recent years, attention to Princess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi has significantly increased. Her personality, investigated through her way of governing the state, is illustrated by providing the most interesting news emerging from the substantial correspondence recently acquired by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca.

OnTuesday, May 9, 2023 at 5:30 p.m., presentation of the book “Paganini and... Livorno,” by Massimo Signorini, published by Sillabe Livorno (2022). The pages of this volume dedicated to the composer in the city of Livorno also highlight the professional and human events that saw him in Lucca during the provisional governments and at the court of Elisa. Massimo Signorini is a nationally renowned concert accordionist and tenured professor of accordion at the State Conservatory of Music D. Cimarosa in Avellino. The presentation is held in the Vincenzo Da Massa Carrara auditorium of the San Micheletto complex.

A meeting on papermaking, in collaboration with the Paper Museum in Pescia, is also planned for May.

Image: Marie-Guillelmine Benoist, Portrait of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca, detail (1806; Lucca, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi)

Lucca dedicates an exhibition to the dense epistolary web of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi
Lucca dedicates an exhibition to the dense epistolary web of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi

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