Lucca has an abundance of beautiful churches. The small historic center of town was once known as the city of 100 churches. Not all 100 remain today and yet I could write a blog post about a different church every month and it would take years to tell the story of each of them.
Some of the churches are large, still active, and well known for both their architecture and the art they contain. Chief among these are the basilicas: San Michele, San Frediano, and San Martino. Others are small and hidden away on back streets where tourists rarely venture. Some are completely abandoned but others are active churches or have been converted into event / performance spaces.
One such church is the small Chiesa di Santa Caterina, which lies in the western part of the historic center of Lucca, at the corner of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via del Crocifisso, right across from the old tobacco factory. In fact, the church of Santa Caterina has also been called the “Chiesa delle Sigaraie” (Church of the Cigar Makers) for the tobacco workers who once came here for a prayer before beginning their work day.
A bit of history: Santa Caterina was constructed in the later part of the 16th century, one component of the monastery that used to exist on this site. The original church was renovated around 1748. Over time, it stopped serving as a church and was used for a variety of non-religious purposes. Later still the building was abandoned entirely and stripped of much of its art. It had been closed for more than 40 years when the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI) undertook its restoration in 2013. Today it is a little jewel, hiding a spectacular baroque interior behind its plain exterior. It is only sporadically open, often for a special event, such as a concert. In October, it was opened for a fall season FAI event in which historic properties all across Italy were open to the public for one weekend. I was excited to have the chance to visit, as this is one of my favorite churches in Lucca.
Santa Caterina is unusual for several reasons. First, for its unique size and shape. The angled entrance opens into a small but quite tall oval shaped chapel. There is a small main altar and two even smaller side altars. No grand cathedral this; the small size feels intimate and personal.
Also unique is the baroque interior, full of ornate decoration. Though tiny, the space is filled with visual delights - statues, marble carvings that circle the room at the top of the walls, ornate iron grates, cherubs atop altars, and captivating frescoes.
The structure of the painted ceiling is the most fascinating part of the church. The ceiling consists of a painted dome with an oculus at the center. Above the oculus lies a second frescoed ceiling, giving depth and a soft light to the ceiling.
But it isn’t enough to just look up at the ceiling. Behind the main altar is a narrow, winding stairway that climbs up above the dome. From there the rough stone top of the dome with its central opening is visible as is the thin frescoed ceiling that floats above it.
The original structure of wooden beams and bricks is now reinforced with steel cables - but I still marvel at the master architects who created this special place and the artists who filled it with such beauty. -post by JMB