The Birth of the Paolo Cresci Archives and Foundation for the History of Italian Emigration

Italy is considered to have one of the greatest cultural and artistic heritages in the world. Among the wonders which bring millions of foreign tourists to visit our peninsula are the astounding wealth of architectural masterpieces, paintings and sculptures. Such works of genius left an indelible mark on the Italian landscape. However, many other treasures are less well known often merely the result of everyday experience. Letters, diaries and photographs are part of everyday life, but they acquire the status of invaluable document when they express a historical period. The archives collecting such material, which safeguard an important part of our culture, are often the result of pioneering activity by interested people who sensed its exclusive value, meticulously and tenaciously collecting documents which would otherwise have been scattered and lost. One of these pioneers was Paolo Cresci. A scientific photographer for the University of Florence, he came to know emigration in the Valle del Serchio and Lucca areas in detail through his personal experience. Through donations coming from emigrants’ families, but also through carefully visiting antiquarian marts and collectors, he collected more than 15,000 items in 25 years - letters, photographs, archives, emigrants’ private documents, books and magazines - and managed to put together the richest collection of documents on Italian emigration. Paolo Cresci was immediately aware of the immense value of the documents he had collected and, after a few local exhibitions, he was among the chief organisers of the exhibition “The World in my hand- Italian Emigration between 1860 and 1960”, which was held in New York in 1997, against the evocative backdrop of Ellis Island. It was his last commitment, since a few months later he prematurely passed away. His heirs did not want this heritage to be lost, they wanted it to be increased and enhanced. The Province of Lucca, whose territory has an ancient tradition of emigration, decided to acquire it, preserving the cultural heritage which Cresci had safeguarded and acknowledging the importance of his collection.

The need to entrust the commitment to enhance the Cresci heritage to an independent structure, as well as the will to involve local institutions, financial and cultural organisations in this ambitious project, were the basis for the creation of the Paolo Cresci Foundation for the History of Italian Emigration in 2002. Since its creation, this cultural institution has promoted national and international research projects, monographic and serial publications. The Paolo Cresci Museum for the History of the Italian Emigration is undoubtedly one of the most important objectives achieved, being a tangible contribution to knowledge and awareness of a crucial page in Italian history.

The Museum Premises

The Paolo Cresci Museum for the History of Italian Emigration is located within the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca, in the little Chapel of S. Maria della Misericordia and adjacent premises. The Chapel is also called della Rotonda as a reference to its circular layout. The church was erected from a Roman building and was first mentioned in a document dated 1131. It was then included in the vast complex of the Fortezza Augusta, built starting from 1322 by Castruccio Castracani. Over the centuries, various changes and transformations were made;it is known that towards the end of the seventeenth century the little chapel was in a bad state, which led to the decision to restore it.The brothers of the Confraternity of the Misericordia decided to decorate the vault. The work was done by Ippolito Marracci. The fresco creates the illusion of a dome divided into painted skylights. In the middle of it, the Virgin Mary rises atop the clouds with the background of the sky.

Recent restoration works on the Palazzo Ducale made it possible to bring out the full architectural value of the little Chapel. The eighteenth century frescoes were also restored and the Chapel was opened to the public

The Exhibition Itinerary

The exhibition follows the various steps of the emigrant’s path. First of all, great importance is given to the living conditions of those who were leaving: Italy at the time of the “great emigration” was mostly a rural country and the images selected highlight the poor everyday living and working conditions of farmers. Arrangements for departure and for the journey are seen through the Foundation’s rare and unique documents - including passports, medical certificates, emigrant’s guides, holy images and snapshots of emigrants in ports, boarding the Atlantic steamers or during the crossing. The topic of the journey is surely one of the most fascinating and the photographic murals help visitors identify with the emigrants’ adventure. Even if they emigrated all over the world, the classic emblem of hope and of another life with new opportunities is the Statue of Liberty in New York, of which the Foundation has many postcards. The search for a job was certainly the main reason why millions of Italians emigrated. This is why great importance is given by the Museum to the different types of jobs - from image-makers (itinerant craftsmen who produced plaster statuettes) to wetnurses, from miners to farmers, from traders to entrepreneurs - always trying to highlight the contribution given by our fellow countrymen to the development of the host country in the various walks of life. The various types of lodgings - the tenements in New York, the huts in the Argentinian pampa, the house with a garden in the Chicago suburbs, the newly-founded villages in Brazil - all highlight the progressive improvement in social and financial status over decades of history. The bond with the homeland, and most of all with family and relatives who stayed in Italy, is surely one of the most touching topics and is covered in some of the Museum’s oldest documents and pictures - in many cases on show for the first time.

The objective is to give visitors the cue to reflect upon topics concerning emigration, in terms of figures - departures, returns, remittances - but also through social, collective and individual stories. The Museum also wants to portray the complexity of the phenomenon,  not only presenting the range of different places, periods and historical situations involved,  but also exploring the psychological themes such as “diversity”, “identity”, “standardisation” and “rejection” which are part and parcel of the new-found overall identity of the “Italian abroad”, a blend of memory and modernity.

And last but not least, the Museum aims at conveying the topical interest of the message linked with emigration, both as a history lesson to encourage a welcoming and tolerant frame of mind, and for understanding the opportunity given by migration to increase our human experience through dialogue with different cultures.

Photo panels and showcases displaying original documents and objects with modern and period images are further enhanced with historical videos and scenes from recent films, interviews with the protagonists of emigration and multimedia interactive situations where visitors can carry out a computer search.

All the pictures of the documents found in the guide are taken from the Foundation’s Archive.

Subscribe to Presentazione