Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: Lucca

At the height of its prosperity from the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, Lucca, the city of "a hundred churches", has preserved intact the ancient mystery of its streets, squares, palaces and towers. Rich in history, the charming old-town centre is completely enclosed by the imposing, tree-lined, 16th century town walls.

Distance from FIRENZE, nearest big city: 72 km
Nearest airport: PISA and FIRENZE
Train connections: easily accessible from PISA, VIAREGGIO and FIRENZE
Zip code: 55100
Telephone: dial +39.583 before the number you want to call

The first historical traces of Lucca can be dated back to the Palaeolithic period. Afterwards this area was inhabited by the Ligurians, the Etruscans and in the III century by the Romans. In 180 B.C. it became a Latin colony. This was a period of splendour for the town because of its strategic position: the most important roads of the time, such as the Cassia, the Aurelia and the Clodia, intersected just outside the town.

The geometrical layout of the town and the Roman Forum can be dated back to this period. During the barbaric domination Lucca was the capital of the Longobard reign until the IX century. It became a free Comune in 1162 and in the following centuries it knew a new period of riches and splendour thanks to its banking and manufacturing activities and its trades with the rest of Europe and the East. A lot of beautiful and luxury buildings and towers are still today a sign of the prosperity the town enjoyed in that period. In the first half of the XV century Lucca was ruled by Paolo Guinigi who improved its art and architecture: he had some important works made, such as Palazzo Guinigi and the wonderful sarcophagus of his wife, Ilaria del Carretto, which was made by Jacopo della Quercia.

In the XV and XVI centuries the town fought to maintain its indipendence from the nearby powerful Firenze, so new and stronger town walls were erected. The town changed its urban shape completely, as some old buildings and towers were replaced by new stately mansions with towers along the most important streets of the town. In 1799 Lucca underwent the Napoleon rule which lasted for 12 years. The town was ruled by Napoleon’s sister Elisa, wife of Felice Baciocchi. They lived in the Palazzo Pubblico in front of which a large square was opened: Piazza Napoleone. After the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Lucca began to be ruled by Parma. In this period the architect Lorenzo Nottolini planned the squares and the quarters of the town and created the picturesque promenade along the town walls. When in 1847 Lucca became part of the Grand Duchy of Toscana, a period of decay started for the town and ended only with the annexation to the Reign of Italy.

The first thing you will see arriving in Lucca are the town walls which are very well preserved and still today surround all the old town. Lucca is the only town in Italy entirely surrounded by walls.

The town walls

Since the Roman period the town has been surrounded by walls. In that period the walls had a quadrangular plan with four gates. In the XII and XIII century new town walls were erected to include the new quarters of S. Maria Forisportam, S. Pietro Somaldi and S. Frediano. These walls were 11 or 12 metres tall and were defended by towers. The gates of San Gervasio and Santa Maria dei Borghi belong to this period. In the XVI century new works on the walls were started and at the end of the century the walls had the present shape with bastions. In the first half of the XIX century the architect Lorenzo Nottolini began to tranform the walls into the park you see today. So if you visit Lucca you must have a nice walk along the walls.

If you walk or drive along the walls, you will see the gates, which are now six:

  • Porta San Pietro
    This gate was ended in 1566 and was planned by Alessandro Resta who placed an image of St. Peter over the central arch. The two side arches were made only in 1864.
  • Porta Santa Maria
    It was erected with only an arch by Ginese Bresciani in 1593. It was decorated with a marble sculpture representing Mary with the Child. On the sides there are two panthers holding the town coat of arms. The side arch has been opened only recently.
  • Porta San Donato
    It was erected later than the other two: its was started by Muzio Oddi in 1629. It is made of brick and decorated with marble. Porta Elisa was erected in neoclassical style in 1804. It was commissioned by Elisa Baiocchi, Napoleon’s sister, who wanted to open the east side of the town, which had been closed in the XVI century for defensive reasons.
  • Porta Sant’Anna and Porta San Jacopo were built much later. If you enter the town through Porta San Pietro you can start your visit from Piazza Napoleone.

Piazza Napoleone

This square, dedicated to Napoleon, was realized by his sister in 1806, while she was ruling Lucca. In order to create this square many buildings were destroyed. In this square stands Palazzo Ducale. It was part of a fortress which had been destroyed. Only this building survived and in the XV century it was enlarged by Paolo Guinigi. Since then it has been the political and administrative centre of the town.

In 1578 Bartolomeo Ammannati started its reconstruction: this intervention is still visible in the beautiful loggia that stands in the courtyard known as Cortile degli Svizzeri. This was once the facade. Also the left side of the facade you see today was planned by Ammannati whose works remained unfinished. The famous architect Filippo Juvarra designed the second courtyard. During the rule of Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte the square in front of the building was opened, just as it had been planned by the architects Lazzarini and Bienaim鬠and the main fa硤e of the building acquired its present aspect. In the first half of the XIX century some important works of restoration and enlargement were carried out by the architect Lorenzo Nottolini. Now you can visit not only the courtyards, but also the wonderful staircase, the Statue Gallery, the Loggia and some of the halls.

Piazza San Martino

This square, together with the nearby Piazza Antelminelli, represents an interesting and harmonious example of urban space. It is characterized not only by the Cathedral, but also by the beautiful fountain, designed by Lorenzo Nottolini in 1832, and the stately mansions, such as the one that now houses the Cathedral Museum, and Palazzo Micheletti designed by Ammannati in 1556.

Duomo (the Chatedral)

It was erected in 1060 and is dedicated to Saint Martin. The facade was made in Romanesque style by Guidetto da Como in 1204. It is characterized by a porch with large arches and three levels of small loggias with decorated balusters, similar to those in the fa硤e of the Cathedral in Pisa. These small columns, which are richly decorated, are made of green and white marble. The upper part of the fa硤e is unfinished. The porch has three doors with wonderful decorated portals. These decorations were made by Guido Bigarelli and Nicola Pisano.
The bell tower was erected in the XIII century.

The church has a Latin plan and the beautiful Gothic interior is divided into a nave and two aisles with a transept of two aisles and a semicircular apse. It is covered by cross vaults. The women's galleries are characterized by ogival arches. This church is rich in works of art realized in different periods. There are paintings by Federico Zuccari, the famous Ultima cena (Last Supper) painted by Tintoretto in 1590, tombs and wonderful sculptures made by Matteo Cividali at the end of the XV century, the statue of St. John by Jacopo della Quercia who also realized the famous and wonderful Sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto in 1406. It is the finest tomb ever made for a woman. A marvellous painting by Ghirlandaio is in the sacristy.

In this square you will also find the Cathedral Museum:

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

It is housed in a mansion of the XIII-XIV century. Its fa硤e is characterized by mullioned windows. In this museum you can see the treasure of the Cathedral and also some interesting works of art coming from the Cathedral and the nearby churches. There are also some important paintings and sculptures by Jacopo della Quercia, Matteo Cividali and many others artists.

Santa Maria Forisportam

Originally this church lay outside the Roman town walls. It was erected at the end of the XII century in the local Romanesque style. Like the Cathedral, this church has loggias in the upper part of the facade. The lower part of the facade instead, is decorated with blind arches which continue also along the sides of the church. The three arcades where the doors open are finely decorated with classical motifs. Above the doors, on the right, are some decorations, one of the XIII century and the other two of the XVII century. The inside has a Romanesque aspect and is divided into a nave and two aisles. The nave and the transept were heightened with bricks in the XVI century and then covered by vaults. Some interesting and precious works are kept in the church, like the main altar and its statue made by Matteo Cividali. The church also contains a sarcophagus dating from the early Christian period, which was later transformed into a baptismal font.

Case Guinigi and Guinigi Tower

These buildings represent a marvellous example of Medieval architecture in Lucca. The 'Case Guinigi' were a group of mansions and towers where one of the most important families of the town, the Guinigis, lived. Paolo Guinigi ruled the town during the first half of the XV century. Today only one of the four original towers still survives and you can visit it. It is 44.25 metres tall and was made with brick, sandstone from Matraia and Verrucano from the Monti Pisani. It was started in 1384. From the top of the tower, where 7 holm-oaks grow, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the town and the countryside. The loggia and the porch on the ground floor of the tower has been closed, and so have the stone arcades which characterized the mansions. Fine mullioned windows are in the upper level of these buildings.

Via del Fosso

This street takes its name from the ditch which runs in the middle of it. It follows the layout of the ancient Medieval walls, a gate of which, the Portone dell’Annunziata, still stands in this street. There is a bridge in front of this ancient gate. On the bridge there is a Neoclassical fountain made of marble on an idea by Lorenzo Nottolini. At the end of the street you can see the column of Madonna dello Stellario erected in 1687 by Giovanni Lazzoni. The town, such as it was in that period, is represented in the base.

The National Museum of Villa Guinigi

This museum was opened in 1924 in the ancient and wonderful villa of Paolo Guinigi, who ruled Lucca from 1400 to 1430. It was meant to be one of the country homes of the Guinigi family in 1418. It is made of brick and is characterized by a loggia with eight arcades on the ground floor and by three mullioned windows on the upper floor. The Museum contains archaeological, Medieval and Modern collections. On the ground floor you can see Roman, Medieval and Modern sculptures and works of art of the Gothic and the Renaissance period in Lucca. Here you can also see sculptures coming from the ancient Cathedral. On the upper floor there are works of art made of wood, which were typical in Lucca from the XV to the XVII century. In the hall there are two wonderful works by Domenico Beccafumi and Pontormo. The garden of Villa Guinigi is very interesting too. It contains 15 statues representing gentlewomen, hunters and countrymen of the XVIII century.

Anfiteatro – Piazza del Mercato

This square (Piazza del Mercato) lies where once was the Roman Amphiteatre. This building, built between the I and the II century, was at that time outside the walls. It could contain over 10,000 spectators. It was covered with marble and decorated with columns. It was abandoned during the barbaric invasions. In 1830 Lorenzo Nottolini uniformed the buildings erected randomly on the site of the old amphiteatre giving the square the plan it has today. Nottolini mantained the buildings of different heights and opened a street giving a unique appearance to this square. The only part of the Roman amphiteatre left today is the arch on the left through which you enter the square. The other arches in the square were erected in the last century.

Via Fillungo
Via Fillungo is the most important shopping street of the town. It runs through the town centre. There are a lot of shops and cafe here, where locals and tourists alike usually meet.

Piazza San Michele

It has been the centre of the town since Roman times, when the Forum was here.
The Church of San Michele, Palazzo Pretorio and Palazzo del Decanato all stand in this square. Palazzo Pretorio, originally called Palazzo del Podest༯i>, was built at the end of the XV century. Its fa硤e features a porch and two large beautiful mullioned windows. It was started in 1492 by Matteo Cividali. In 1589 Vincenzo Cividali enlarged the loggia. Palazzo del Decanato is connected to the church. This building was erected in the XVI century by Francesco Marti on a pre-existing building. The square is enriched also by some beautiful mansions erected in the XIII and XIV centuries in Romanesque and Gothic style. In front of the church is the birthplace of the famous composer Giacomo Puccini. The building houses the Museum and the Foundation which are dedicated to him.

San Michele

The first data about the Church of San Michele can be dated back to the VIII century, even though not much of this building is left. The church you see today was started in 1100 AD and finished only in the XIV century. The facade is clearly Romanesque in the lower part, while the upper part is Gothic, just like the church of San Martino. In fact, the four levels of small loggias of white and green marble will remind of the Cathedral.

The cusp is adorned with a statue representing San Michele, the saint who the church is dedicated to. In the right corner of the facade you can see a beautiful "Madonna with the Child" by Matteo Civitali. This part of the facade was restored in the last century, when it was also enriched with effigies of important men of the time, such as Cavour, Garibaldi and others.

Many of the small columns in the facade have been replaced with copies, while the original ones are now kept in the National Museum of Villa Guinigi. The bell tower rises to the right of the transept. Its top was remade in the last century. The inside of the church has a Romanesque shape and is divided into three aisles by columns. It was covered with trusses which were replaced by vaults in the XVI century. On the first altar on the right there is a wonderful madonna made of terracotta by Andrea della Robbia, and a little more forward there is a painting by Pietro Paolini. You can also admire a work by Filippino Lippi and a precious Crocefisso of the XIII century in the transept. The remains of the VIII century church are visible in the presbitery.



This villa was built between 1600 and 1615 among the green hills of Gattaiola.
Its promoter, Bernardo Bernardini, wanted it to be built according to the principles of elegance and sobriety. Its plain, cubical shape, with a three-arches porch on the front, gives on the whole a feeling of simplicity, with just a touch of refined mawkishness in the group of openings at the first floor. The splendid garden is enriched by rare plants and trees, and by a beautiful lemon house. But the treasure of Villa Bernardini is certainly the amphitheater, dating back to the XVIII century, that offers a scenario of incomparable fascination.


This villa was built in the XVI century for Lodovico Buonvisi. The very famous sculptor and architect, Matteo Cividali, was charged to built it.
The columns are in the so-called Matraia stone and in an only block; the arches of the open gallery comprise the ground floor and the first floor where the two living-rooms are superposed and passing through attesting the "Lucchese Villas" peculiarity. In the XVII century the villa belonged to the Cardinal Francesco Buonvisi who promoted a consistory in the living room on the villa's first floor in the presence of Pope Alexander VII Chigi della Rovere. The five-hectare park stretches on three levels and comprehends several ponds and fountains of considerable artistic value.


Situated on the slopes of the Lucca hills, the villa is a wonderful example of 19th century neo-classical architecture. It was built during the 1400s on the ruins of a medieval village owned by the Diodati family, but radical changes were made to the villa's structure at the beginning of the 1800s.
The nine hectare park is one of the most interesting in the Lucca area because of the English garden, with a large number of rare plants, the Box Hedge Theatre, and the magnificent lemon house where are over 100 lemon trees.
Also to be admired are the beautiful white marble statues, the cheerful fountains, the grotesque statues, and the mosaic-decorated fountains.


The original building is very old. During the Longobard age it was the mansionry of the Dukes of Tuscia, and later on, of the most important Lucchese families. In 1651 the villa was bought by the Orsetti family, who kept it until Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte took a fancy to the villa; she forced them to go away and turned the villa into the mirror of her regalness. Marvellous and surprising is the XVII century park, with its "water theatre" , its lemon garden and its "theatre of verdure".
After the fall of Napoleon the Villa Reale had by turns periods of splendour and decadence, that lasted until the beginning of our century when it was bought by the present owners, who undertook its complete renovation.


Villa Mansi is the pride and the symbol of the Lucchese architecture concerning the villas. It stands out from the other villas by its magnificence and by a certain mannerism, almost a sort of baroque. The present look of Villa Mansi is due to the architect Maurizio Oddi who worked on the rearrangement of the preexistent building by appointment of Countess Cenami during the years 1634-35.
Later on there were new interventions that further enriched the villa and most of all the garden. In 1675 the property of the villa went to the Mansi family; they entrusted the great architect Filippo Juvarra with the task of renovating the garden. The whole park was thus transformed by his genius into the perfect scenery of many a suggestive legend.


The villa and its park sum up all the splendour and magnificence of the lucchese tradition of the country mansion-houses. The long and monumental avenue leading to the villa is all lined with cypresses, and has a pompous gate from where the facade can be seen, so rich and adorned that it seems to be embroidered on the stone and the marble, in a triumph of niches, statues and balaustrades.

The original building dates back to 1500, but it was radically rearranged a century later by Maurizio Oddi, the same architect that had so deeply transformed villa Mansi . The "garden of Flora" is the clearest example of the Lucchese taste, a bright and surprising ensemble of grottoes, nymph temples, flowers, masks play of water …that make you feel as if you were in a fairy-tale.

During your visit in Lucca you can have a nice walk along the Town walls. It will be a relaxed walk in the shade of secular trees from where you will enjoy a wonderful view of the town and the the Appennini, the Alpi Apuane and the famous villas around Lucca. You can also rent a bike and ride along the same route.

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