Elisa’s letters: this is how the Princess of Lucca ruled

from 07/04/2023 to 21/05/2023
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A new exhibition Le lettere di Elisa: così governava la Principessa di Lucca, curated by Roberta Martinelli opened on Friday, 7 April in the fresco room on the ground floor of the complex of San Micheletto, home of the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca Foundation.
The exhibition presents an opportunity to discover for the first time an extensive body of correspondence between the Princess of Lucca – Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi – and several members of the Napoleonic government, consisting of a package of over 200 letters, a primary source on the decade of Elisa’s rule, which was recently purchased by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca. The exhibition offers suggestions and knowledge of the history of the exchange of these letters in the period of the Principality of Lucca and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany objects, tools and watermarked papers.

Free entrance

Elisa’s letters: this is how the Princess of Lucca ruled

The exhibition is organised into two sections: Firstly, the correspondents, or the historical figures, the protagonists of Elisa’s correspondence.
The second section demonstrates the tools and materials of written communication: paper, ink and everything you needed to govern a country before the advent of email.

Here is a translation of the press presentation given by (from left): Massimiliano Bini, director of the Paper Museum of Pescia, Raffaele Domenici, vice president of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca, Roberta Martinelli, curator of the exhibition, Bernard Chevallier, conservateur général honoraire du patrimoine et ancien directeur du Château de de Malmaison.

“With Elisa there is always the opportunity to take a fascinating journey through history, art and everyday life” underlines Raffaele Domenici, Vice President of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca.

“This exhibition, in particular, highlights the recent acquisition by the Foundation of the correspondence of Elisa and allows a full immersion in the context of a political-social conjuncture crucial for the destiny of Europe and of singular importance for the implications in the local area: a cross-section that finds in this exhibition an agile, inclusive narrative of great value.”

“Starting from the various themes addressed in the letters” – explains the curator Roberta Martinelli, former director of the National Museums of the Napoleonic Residences of the island of Elba and president of the association ‘Napoleon and Elisa: from Paris to Tuscany’ – “the exhibition intends to present a cross-section of political and social life as it took place 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 series of personalities, reproductions of original works kept at Versailles, will welcome visitors. These are the correspondents of the princess, with their stories and their link with the city, juxtaposed with missives they sent here to Lucca over 200 years ago. Among them, particular attention is drawn to Regnault, considered the grey eminence of Napoleon, a leading figure whose wife holds 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 take care of the private affairs of its members and to report to the Emperor in real time. In the correspondence, the object of the exhibition, more than half consists of 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, as well as from Paris, also from the imperial residences of Rambouillet, Fontainebleau, Compiègne. Elisa wrote from the Palazzo Ducale, from the Villa Imperiale (now Reale) of Marlia, Florence, Livorno, Pisa, Siena and Bagni di Lucca.

Maria-Louise of Austria’s travelling writing case, collection of the Glauco Lombardi Museum Foundation in Parma

In the second section, space for the art of epistolary writing and its instruments: the centrepiece is a mahogany and bronze inkwell which belonged to Princess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and came from the Royal Villa of Marlia, lent by the Napoleonic Museum in Rome. In the same section there is a travel nécessaire for writing complete with paper, inks, pens, powder for drying, weekly agenda of the time, which belonged to Maria Luisa of Austria, which comes from the Glauco Lombardi Museum Foundation in Parma. A 19th-century luxury version of today’s organiser.

Next to the objects, reproductions of paintings of the early nineteenth century depicting women and men in the act of sending “mail”. Among them Madame De Genlisse, a pedagogist who followed the education of Napoleona Elisa.

An important space in this section is dedicated to the production and study of the watermarks on which the letters have been written: their origin ranges from Lucca to all of Europe. The watermark, or watermarked paper, is a graphic or symbolic sign visible against the light in the paper thanks to the deposit of a different quantity of fibers, made during the manufacture of the paper.

An exhibition about politics, government and communication tools

“The exhibition was conceived as an opportunity to learn from the inside the complex issues of a transitional phase whereby Elisa’s principality of Lucca became one of the places where the techniques of government imposed by the new times were applied with more lucidity and determination. To the point of being the result of a modernizing strategy that found in the Princess an intelligent and shrewd guide. Of this strategy the most innovative initiative and that most destined to leave an evident mark in the city, concerned the urban transformation of Lucca which was conceived according to the model of Paris. The correspondence highlights this connection by explaining how the most substantial intervention such as the construction of the large square in front of the Palace, was carefully followed by the architects who worked in Paris”, explains the curator, Roberta Martinelli.

The princess, her “managerial” spirit, relations with the grey eminence of Napoleon

 Roberta Martinelli: “”As well as being able to govern public affairs, Elisa also proved to be prudent in dealing with private affairs. This was demonstrated by the story of the old Vaudreil palace, located in rue de la Chaise in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, which she bought in 1803 at the price of 130,000 francs, and resold five years later, after some embellishments and extensions, for the remarkable sum of 800,000 francs”.

“From the dense epistolary network 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. This character was unaware of the relationship he had with the Princess. A collaborator of Napoleon since the time of the First Italian Campaign, Regnault had become one of his closest advisers so as to be considered as his “grey eminence”. On 9 August 1807 he had reached, with the appointment of “Secretary of State of the Imperial Family”, the summit of the Napoleonic system. From that position he could fulfill the role of direct intermediary between the Princess and her brother and equally could provide Elisa with her skills to give solutions to the various problems she was called to face. A role of absolute importance also to reconstruct the dynamics of Elisa’s government which, if until now had been ignored, obtains its correct evaluation precisely from the knowledge of the letters acquired by the Foundation. In this light, Le lettere di Elisa: così governava la Principessa di Lucca fits worthily into the wider scenario of Napoleonic studies, enriching them with a chapter that sees as protagonist a woman who was able to express her remarkable talents by governing and transforming a city that still exhibits the signs of her work “.

The correspondence

“The correspondence was purchased by the auction house Osenat […]. It is full of information regarding a moment of great development of the city by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi: it should be noted that it is not easy to find objects directly related to her life or her work. With this initiative, the Foundation has saved a material of considerable historical and cultural value for the documentary heritage of Lucca.
There are 233 missives that cover a chronological period from August 1807 to February 1813; they consist of one to one fascicle of sheets, 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, trade and agriculture in Lucca and in particular Lucca’s oil, as well as a report on the Senate of Lucca: this is Felice Baciocchi’s first meeting with the senate of Lucca.
All the letters, some composed of several sheets, were personally transcribed by Bernard Chevallier, honorary director of the Musées Nationaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, the greatest international expert on Napoleonic history. There are also two essays by Chevallier in the exhibition catalogue, as well as contributions by Paolo Bertoncini Sabatini, Roberto Valeriani, Elisa Tittoni, Francesca Sandrini, Massimiliano Bini and Monica Guarraccino”.

Cultural Insights: the programme

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

Sunday 30 April 2023 at 10.30 am, a conference with two talks: “‘Un Tal Paganini Genovese’ a Lucca”, by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and “Per conoscere la Principessa Elisa” by Roberta Martinelli. [part of the calendar of Appuntamenti di Lucca Classica]
After a short musical interlude with music by Paganini for violin/violin and guitar, at 12 noon a guided tour of the exhibition.

“‘Un Tal Paganini Genovese’ in Lucca”, by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni: Paganini arrived in Lucca for the first time in 1801 to play at the festival of Santa Croce. He had 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 remembered above all in relation to 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 this period.

“Getting to know Princess Elisa” by Roberta Martinelli: In recent years, interest in Princess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi has grown considerably. Her personality, investigated through her way of governing the State, is illustrated by providing the most interesting news emerging from the conspicuous correspondence recently acquired by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca.

Tuesday 9 May 2023 at 5.30 p.m., presentation of the book ‘Paganini e… Livorno’, by Massimo Signorini, published by Sillabe Livorno (2022).

In the pages of this volume dedicated to the composer in the city of Livorno, the professional and human events that he witnessed in Lucca during the provisional governments and at the court of Elisa are also highlighted. Massimo Signorini is a nationally renowned accordion player and resident professor of accordion at the Conservatorio Statale di Musica D. Cimarosa di Avellino. The presentation will be held in the Vincenzo Da Massa Carrara auditorium of the San Micheletto complex.

A presentation about paper production is also planned in May, in collaboration with the Paper Museum in Pescia.

The Letters of Elisa: How the Princess of Lucca governed
curated by Roberta Martinelli
Sala dell’affresco – ground floor of the San Micheletto complex (premises of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca, Tél 0583 472611 )
Via S. Micheletto, 3, 55100 Lucques LU, Italy

7 April – 21 May 2023

Opening hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11 am-19 pm.
Special openings: Monday 10 April, Monday 24 April and Tuesday 25 April 15-19 pm.
Free admission, access from via Elisa.
The exhibition’s presentation panels are in Italian and English.

Web and social media: https://napoleoneeilsuotempo.wordpress.com/
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Via San Micheletto 3 – 55100 Lucca LU – Tél 0583 472611 Fax 0583 472626 info@fondazionecarilucca.it

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