Elisa’s Table




With the help of Jubilee Year funding, the Province of Lucca restored the Palazzo Ducale and reopened it to its citizens and the general public with conferences, meetings, visits and exhibitions. To this initial programme has now been added another aimed at focusing on the Palazzo itself, its spaces, functions and the tenor of daily life within it. This framework includes interest in the Napoleonic period, particularly significant since Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, was Princess of Lucca and as such, transformed the customs and habits of the old Republic of Lucca as well as commissioning the architect Lorenzo Nottolini to design the last major alterations to the buildings.
The Palazzo Ducale was not only the seat of political and administrative government but with its salons, parties and banquets, it was also the symbol of a rediscovered worldliness and a new way of communicating image and power. All of these elements have come down to us through Elisa’s table.
La tavola di Elisa. Un Inventario raccontaInterpretazione di un rituale napoleonico. [Elisa’s Table. An Inventory’s Story – Interpretation of a Napoleonic Ritual]. This exhibition marks the beginning of a project involving all four Provinces in Tuscany in the large area of the Tyrrhenian coast, Livorno, Lucca, Massa Carrara and Pisa, and the local offices in Pisa, Lucca Livorno and Massa Carrara of the government department responsible for cultural assets. The aim is to go on a journey through history, culture and art around the figures of Napoleon and Elisa Baciocchi, sister of the Emperor, Princess of Lucca and Piombino and Grand-duchess of Tuscany.
The extraordinary innovations in the Napoleonic period took various forms: great transformations in town-planning, innovative boosts to the economy, a fresh interest in art and cultural education on the part of the ruling classes, changes in institutions and bureaucracy, the introduction of style and comportment in relation to ritual and communication of power, the Mediterranean as a factor in the role of the area and the development of ideas and signs that can still be seen in the context of the large area today.

Just before Elisa’s flight from Lucca in 1814 an inventory containing a list of fittings, furnishings, belongings, decorations and so on was drawn up. It was on the basis of this that the ambience of the Palazzo and use of its spaces has been reconstructed and allows us to restore the habits of the Princess’s court, in a philological sense. This first exhibition, La Tavola di Elisa. Un inventario racconta [Elisa’s Table. An inventory’s story],displays items relating to the use of the table and the functions of the kitchen.
The exhibition has two main sections.
The first, in the so-called Footmen’s Room, contains documents relating to Elisa herself, a reproduction of the inventory of the Palazzo and significant items for table settings and the kitchen, with a detailed presentation of the organisation of the work and duties of the staff. In particular, this section includes a unique piece, a coffee cup with Elisa’s profile, from the service gifted by Napoleon.
The second section, in the Ademollo Room (named after Luigi Ademollo who painted the frescoes), contains a table set and decorated in the French manner, laid out according to the dictates of the period.
Certain special kinds of food and drink, such as sugar, chocolate, coffee, tea and ice cream, indicating the habits and entertainments of daily life at the court, required appropriate preparation. Services are set out alongside the table in the Ademollo Room so that the visitor can compare them and see how each one was specially designed according to the type of food or drink it was to contain and enhance.
Different kinds of cups are on display on the little round wooden table or gueridon, a slender one called a litron for coffee, a wider but shorter one for tea and another more rotund one for hot chocolate.
The visitor will be surprised to discover that many of our own daily habits date back to customs introduced during the Empire and brought to Lucca by Elisa.
The exquisite porcelain tea, coffee, chocolate and ice cream services made by Ginori and Sèvres as described in the inventory have been loaned by the Doccia Museum and private collections in Lucca, while some pieces of a porcelain service given to Elisa by Napoleon himself come from the Pitti Palace.
The Province of Lucca, the State Archive in Lucca and the local Cultural Assets Office in Pisa in collaboration with the State Library in Lucca and the Lucca Antique Dealers Association have given form and visibility to the cultural, philological, historical studies that have reconstructed Elisa Bonaparte’s “table” and show how the assertion of institutional and political power passed through Lucca, just as it did in Tuscany and the whole of Italy, through the spread of the habits and taste in vogue in imperial Paris.
Elisa Bonaparte’s table is set with items of porcelain decorated in gold and blue with tiny polychrome figures, for example, the plates with views of Posillipo and Salerno, the dinner plates with views of the Temple of Venus and Cupid, the Roman Forum and the Tomb of Caio Cestio and di Bagnoli.
Collaboration with the principal centres of Napoleonic studies and the most important places that preserve the memory of Napoleon confirms the scientific rigour of the research and the wisdom of the intuition with which it all began.