Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Secrets and mysteries of Lucca

Friday, March 18
Mummies, backwards bodies, statues that change colors, oxen carrying out the will of God—these are all part of “The secrets of Lucca,” which is the title of our language school activity this afternoon. Interestingly enough, our guide’s name is Luca. If you have not studied Italian, you might think there is no difference in the way these names are pronounced, but Italians can easily tell the difference. For us, pronouncing Lucca and Luca correctly is a work in progress, as is detecting the difference when native Italians say the names.

Note leg on horseman on right.
The Basilica di San Frediano houses several mysteries, including a display of the body of Lucca’s patron saint, Santa Zita. The fact that it mummified without any preservatives in the humid climate of Tuscany is considered remarkable. Zita was born near Lucca and at age 12 became a domestic servant to the wealthy Fatinelli family of Lucca. She was beloved by the family and a devout Catholic who carried leftover bread to the local poor. One day a jealous co-worker accused her of stealing from the family by carrying away their bread to the poor. When the head of the family asked her what she was carrying in her apron, she opened it and a cascade of flowers spilled forth. Now her death on April 27 is celebrated with floral exhibitions in various places in the city.

Also at San Frediano is a fountain lined with bass relief images depicting the crossing of the Red Sea. One of the Egyptian horsemen has a body which from the waist down is facing backwards, while the top part is facing frontwards. Luca does not know if anyone is aware why the artist did this.

Before we leave San Frediano, Luca points out a painting called the Trasferimento del Volto Santo, the Translation of the Holy Face, in which a wooden statue of the crucifix is being pulled in an oxcart. The story gets pretty elaborate, and it is hard to tell which parts are true and which not, so I will just relate what I have heard and let the reader decide. The original crucifix was carved by Nicodemus, the one in the Bible who helped Joseph of Arimathea remove Christ’s body from the cross. He carved everything but the face, hesitating because he feared he could not do it justice. He fell asleep and awoke to find the face beautifully and miraculously finished.  It was hidden in the Holy Land for seven centuries and then discovered by Bishop Gualfredo, who was on a pilgrimage and learned about the cave in a dream. To determine where God wanted the crucifix to be located, he set it adrift in the Mediterranean in an unmanned boat.  It landed in Luni, Italy, but it wouldn’t let the people of Luni board it, pulling away from the shore every time they tried. The bishop of Lucca, also prompted by a dream, came to Luni and the boat came to him. To further determine where the statue should be housed, he put it in an unmanned oxcart, which carried it to Lucca and then stopped. It was placed in San Frediano, but the next morning it appeared instead in the church of San Marino, which was accepted as its rightful resting place.

This elaborate story, however, is not the mystery that Luca is about the reveal to us. It is just the back story. He asks us to look carefully at the painting, which shows the Volto Santo in an oxcart, on its way from Luni to Lucca. What is the color of the face and hands of Christ? White, we respond.

Now we are on to San Martino, where we see the actual Volto Santo. The face and the hands are a deep, deep brown. Why was it white when it came to Lucca and brown now? Well, that’s why this tour is called the secrets of Lucca, and there appears to be some disagreement about the reason. Luca believes it is because the wood of the statue has absorbed much candle smoke over the centuries. A web site that I consult afterwards says it was carved with dark cedar wood, and the “face has been left the deep brown color of the wood, with the beard, hair and eyes painted black”(, but there is no mention on the web site of the white-faced crucifix in the painting.

These are not the only mysteries we discover on the tour, but we feel obliged to hold a few back. If you want more, you’ll have to come discover them in person!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful story of Santa Zita, strange being able to see her mummified body.


Comments welcome.