Let’s see . . . it was in 2004 that I was walking in front of Sant’Alessandro Maggiore in central Lucca with Alessandro Tombelli, a friend from Florence. He saw one of his acquaintances, Wanda Martinelli, standing with a group of tourists. She was able to wave and speak briefly before moving on with her group.
For the past eight years, our small group tours with Private Italy Tours have visited Lucca and Wanda has always been our constant companion during those visits. A Lucchese by birth, she is passionate about her city and shares an incredible level of knowledge during the day that we spend with her. She has become a dear friend.
It has been in the course of those years, visiting Lucca with and without clients, that I have come to deeply love and respect the history of this incredible walled city. There are so many places to visit and sights to see. This post shares some history as well as impressions of my favorite places within a beautiful, and rightly famous, Tuscan city.
From Roman occupation to Silk-A Brief Overview
It is relatively easy to imagine the most important moments in Lucca’s long history by walking inside the city walls. In 177 B.C. a Roman colony was established along the banks of the Auserculus (Orzieri) river. As with all Roman colonies, there were four gates that permitted access to the city along the two main roads.
It was during the 2nd Century A.D. that a large amphitheater was built just outside the northeast gate of the city. By the end of the 2nd Century, there were over 10,000 inhabitants in the area. The main commerce routes of the city were connected to the Via Cassia (linking Rome and Florence) as well as other roads that lead to the sea (west) or to Bologna (north).
It was when the silk trade was established with the Far East that Lucca became enormously wealthy. Numerous families used their fortunes to create incredible country estates in the hills outside the city. (see A Day Near Lucca for further details and information about the villas and gardens.)
From the time of the Romans, through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance, Lucca has retained the words that represent the spirit of the city: Libertas (Liberty). The city has never been militarily nor politically subdued until the unification of Italy in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Inside the walls – The Conservative Lucchesi
Ostentatious displays of wealth, with the exception of Lucca’s churches, were forbidden at the time that the growth of the silk trade made the city extremely wealthy. When you visit the city you will notice that the exterior of the largest family palaces is, architecturally, conservative while still showing, by size alone, the importance of the owners.
The list of these incredible city villas reflects the names of the wealthiest families: Mansi, Pfanner, Micheletti, Bernardini, Diodati-Orsetti to name but a few. The Palazzo Ducale, now the seat of the Lucca Provincial government, was once the private home of Elisa Baiocchi. Who was Elisa? She was Napoleon’s younger sister. In 1805, and already titled the Princess of Piombino, she was given the Republic of Lucca to govern.
Enormously unpopular among the residents of the city, she tore down blocks of buildings in what is now the Piazza Napoleone so that she could enjoy ‘views’ from her palace.
As you stroll the streets of the city, the sheer number of these huge villas cannot fail to impress upon you the incredible power, and financial resources, of Lucca.
Churches, Churches, Churches
Lucca was once referred to as the “City of One Hundred Churches”. Today, the number has dwindled, yet the style, grace and beauty still impress.
San Michele in Foro
One of the most beautiful churches in the city is San Michele in Foro, built on the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum that once stood at the intersection of the two main streets of the colony. A façade of four levels, with forty-eight individually designed and carved columns surmount the main entrance of the church. High atop the façade, two angles flank a nearly fourteen foot high statue of Saint Michael.
Opening to a relatively large piazza, the façade of San Frediano never fails to impress visitors with its glass, gold and precious stone inlaid mosaic. The Basilica was built during the 6thCentury and the current appearance of the
church, very Romanesque in style, was completed in the 12th Century. Named for an Irish Bishop of Lucca (Fridianus), the interior of the church is striking in its austere simplicity.
Duomo (Cathedral) of San Martino
This is one of the most visually stunning churches in all of Italy. When the Bishop of Lucca, Anselm, began construction of the building in 1063, little could he have known (even after becoming Pope Alexander II) that the church would appear as it does today.
There are, much like San Michele in Foro, three levels of colonnaded façade. Thrity-seven individually unique columns support the levels above the portico entrance of the cathedral. A copy of San Martino, Saint Martin, adorns the façade. The original sculpture was moved inside the cathedral several years ago.
Volto Santo di Lucca. Within the vast interior of the cathedral is a gold clad “temple”. The contents of this temple were what brought thousands of religious pilgrims as they made their way along the Via Francigena, the main pilgrim route between Canterbury and Rome.
Nicodemus, who helped bring Christ’s body from the cross and tomb, wanted to carve a likeness of Christ while it was still fresh in his mind. He began working on a large piece of Lebanon Cedar, but fell asleep when he prepared to carve the face. As he slept, an angel came and completed the carving for him. The wooden carving made its way by boat from the Middle East, eventually arriving on the shore of the Mediterranean near Pisa. From thence, it was brought initially to the Church of San Frediano, and then to its current location in the Duomo.
In the 15th Century, Matteo Civitali designed and had built the chapel in which the Volto Santo today rests. Civitali, a well-known Renaissance architect built the structure from Carrara marble and specially forged, gold covered, iron.
On September 13th each year, the entire walled city is lit only by candles as a procession honors the Volto Santo. The sculpture, heavily adorned with priceless jewels, was carried through the city. To protect the aging wood, the sculpture now remains in the chapel. The jeweled decoration remains throughout the period of the festival.
This is truly an astounding piece of art and further underscores the religious importance of Lucca.
There are many more churches to visit in Lucca. For a complete list, see
The Walls of Lucca
There have been three main walls constructed to protect the city of Lucca. The first, during the Roman era, the second in the early Middle Ages and the final – the ones we see today – were completed in 1644. Though designed to protect the city from armies, the structures were never bombarded or scaled.
Today, the wide promenade atop the walls affords visitors and locals alike to stroll in the shade of countless Chestnut trees while taking in views of both the private gardens of villas and palazzi inside the walls as well as the city and hills outside the fortifications.
There are seven gates into the city: Porta dei Santi Gervasio e Protasio, Porta dei Borghi, Porta San Pietro, Porta Santa Maria, and Porta San Donato, Porta Vittorio Emanuele and Porta San Jacopo. If you arrive in Lucca by train, the Porta Santa Maria will be the gate you most likely will use to enter the city.
In the course of Rome’s demise, the amphitheater that once accommodated 10,000 spectators fell into disrepair. The marble façade was taken
down, its slabs of marble used for the construction of churches and other buildings in the city. Homes were built around the now empty oval space. What remains today is truly the most unique ‘square’ (piazza) in Italy, the Piazza Amfiteatro.
The area, once notorious for prostitutes and crime, was cleaned up and became the location of the Lucca farmer’s markets. That activity was moved out the city after World War II and the piazza now offers lovely cafes and shops. It is a wonderful place to just sit, enjoy a pizza and glass of wine for lunch and people watch.
Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower)
As the wealth and prestige of the Guinigi family grew, they built a number of city villas along the Via Sant’Andrea and the Via Guinigi. During the latter part of the 13th Century, they built a high tower to represent their status in the town. Typical to that era in Italy, towers were being built for churches and by private families as symbols of economic and political power.
Holm Oaks, symbols of rebirth, were planted at the very top of the tower and remain to this day. The climb is well worth the effort and the view is unforgettable.
The town of Lucca now owns the tower and you can visit. See “If You Go” for details about open times and entrance fees.
At Long Last, Puccini!
A visit to Lucca would be incomplete without paying homage to the city’s most famous ‘son’, Giacomo Puccini. He was born in 1858 into a famous musical family. His famly home, in the center of Lucca, has recently reopened after a lengthy and complicated restoration.While Domenico Puccini, his grandfather, was the most famous of the family’s musicians, it was Giacomo enormous talent (and ego!) that Italian’s love.
Creator of such favoirte operas as La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s fame brought him great wealth during his lifetime. In 1891, to find some quiet away from the city and his demanding schedule, he built a lovely home at Torre del Lago, about fifteen miles from Lucca and closer to the sea. From 1900 – 1921 he lived there with his family. He died in 1924 and is buried in a chapel at Torre del Lago.
Even if you are not interested in Opera, a visit to Pucini’s home – and the bronze statue of him that sits in front of his home – is a rewarding and informative experience. See “If You Go” below for further details about the Puccini home in Lucca and visits to Torre del Lago.
A Stroll Through Lucca
There are many afternoons when, while the shops of the city center are closed for a long lunch, I have walked the shadowed lanes of the city. While church facades and famous family towers loom overhead, the ancient cobbled streets harken to a peaceful past, of successful merchants and of political stability.
Whether in the spring of each year, when Camellia blossoms burst from gardens in the area or in the fall when a golden shower of leaves accompany an evening stroll around the top of the tree-lined city walls, the ‘feel’ of Lucca is one of ease. Unlike Florence, Rome and the numerous other large cities of Italy, Lucca affords visitors both peace and time; gifts indeed from a city built on the premise of liberty and wealth.
IF YOU GO:
Lucca is easily reached directly off of the A12 Autostrada between Florence and Pisa. If you are visiting Florence, and do not have use of a car, trains run nearly every hour from both Pisa’s and Florence’s train stations. Round trip fare in second class averages Euro 10.40 per person.
Information and schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it
From the train station, exit the main doors, and turn LEFT when you arrive at the main circuit road that surrounds the city walls. You can cross the street at a traffic light at the Porta San Pietro (Gate of Saint Peter), the first large city gate you will see within the city wall.
Once inside the city gate, veer to your left along the street and turn right at the second street – the Via Vittorio Veneto. This street will bring you into the Piazza Napoleone and the Palazzo Ducale. From there, you can easily navigate the city.
Guided Tours of Lucca and surrounding country villas and estates
Wanda Martinelli is the best guide in the region. She can be reached directly through her web site,
Whether you seek an escorted walking tour of Lucca, or a full day or more exploring the city and countryside, Wanda and her team offer the finest services available. I cannot recommend them highly enough!
Church Entry times:
Summer (May – end of October): 9:00-12:00/15:00-18:00
Winter (November – end of April): 9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00
Tel: +39 0583 419689
Summer (May – end of October): 9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00
Winter (November – end of April): 9:00-12.00/15:00:18:00
Tel: +39 0583493627
Summer (May – end of October): 8:30-18:00
Winter (November – end of April): 9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00
Web Site: Torre Guinigi
Entrance tickets: Euro 3.50 per person
16 September-31 October: 9:00-21:00