When in 1806 the Princess of Lucca Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi opened Piazza Napoleone, the ambitious project involved the construction of a large square emphasizing the majestic Palazzo dei Principi (today's Palazzo Ducale or Ducal Palace), the centre of public and political life in Lucca in the early nineteenth century.
The origins of the palace date back to the 14th century: the building is located in the area of a castle included in the Augusta, the great fortress that the Ghibelline leader and lord of Lucca Castruccio Castracani had built in 1322. The fortress occupied almost a fifth of the city, it was defended by towers and seemed impossible to defeat, but, occupied by the Pisans, it was demolished in 1369 by popular acclaim by the inhabitants of Lucca; fortunately the palace was spared and became the seat of the city government again.
In the following centuries the architects Bartolomeo Ammannati (16th century) and Filippo Juvarra (18th century) gave the building today's modern and imposing appearance.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna transformed the Principality of Lucca into a Duchy, entrusting it to Maria Luisa di Borbone, another extraordinary female figure who left an indelible mark on the history of Lucca. She was austere, but an open-minded restorer, who completed many projects and ideas of her predecessor Elisa: schools for boys and girls, the Botanical garden, the streets, the aqueduct, the reclamation of the marina and the consideration of modern Versilia.
Even today the Duchess's attentive gaze dominates the square: in its center an imposing statue together with her son Carlo Lodovico, a work of Lorenzo Bartolini in 1843, has been located. Maria Luisa di Borbone entrusted to the local architect Lorenzo Nottolini, author and designer of many public works in the city, the project of the interiors of the building, transforming it into a modern palace in the heart of the city.
The impressing majesty and elegant and solemn facade of the Ducal palace hides two valuable courtyards: the Francesco Carrara courtyard, named after a jurist from Lucca, with his monument in its center, and the Svizzeri courtyard, because of the Swiss guards who used to defend the Republic of Lucca. The latter is characterized on two sides by a beautiful portico of ashlar pillars to slim the arches of a wonderful loggia on the east side with a view ranging from Piazza Napoleone to Piazza del Giglio. The two courtyards are connected by a neoclassical gallery called Passaggio delle Carrozze (Passage of the Carriages), realised by Architect Nottolini.
From Cortile degli Svizzeri a monumental Scala Regia leads to the Gallery of Statues, decorated with stuccoes and classical marble statues. From there it is possible to access the Parata District and the Royal Apartments with rich decorations: frescoes with mythological subjects, gilded stuccoes, bas-reliefs and floral festoons, fireplaces in white Carrara marble with majolica, walnut doors with bronze reliefs. The most sumptuous room is the Sala delle Guardie (or Sala Ademollo from the artist's name) with a rich cycle of frescoes dedicated to the emperor Trajan.
Exhibitions, conferences and cultural events are held at the Ducal Palace. It also houses the Museum of Risorgimento in Lucca, the Paolo Cresci Museum for the history of Italian emigration and another interesting exhibition. In the Teatrino di Elisa (a little theatre built by Princess Elisa where she loved to perform, then dismantled in 1872) the permanent exhibition "The Nose and History" is set up. By smelling pleasant essences, from the most delicate to the most intense scents (rose, mimosa, bergamot, champagne, coffee ...) visitors get in touch with the life and historical events of two famous women who reigned in Lucca, Elisa Baciocchi and Maria Luisa di Borbone.