The name of the church of San Michele is completed by the name of the place where it was built: the forum, the first centre of public life in ancient times and then the throbbing heart of the Communal city. On this square stood the Palatium Civitatis, the Public Palace, which was built right next to the church but then disappeared, being transferred to the Augusta Fortress.
The square was paved for the first time in the 1400s when the Palazzo Pretorio was built, but in the 1600s and 1700s the road level was raised and it was paved and closed with columns and chains. The houses round the outside of the square are typically medieval and have stood there placidly watching life pass by in the heart of the town for more than eight hundred years.
The church of San Michele, records of which date from 795 AD, was built precisely here. Erected in a central position, but oblique to the square like many other churches in Lucca, it stands in an enormous space where the sky opens up at last after a journey along narrow, winding medieval streets, like a finally reached destination: this is how it was for the pilgrims who passed through the town as they followed the Francigena pilgrim route.
They would stop at San Michele to refresh themselves, taking the opportunity to venerate their illustrious travelling companions, such as San Davino, an Armenian pilgrim who died on his way to Santiago de Compostela, just when he was stopping off at Lucca, and whose body is said to have acquired supernatural powers after his death.
Many events took place around the church of San Michele: it changed administration a number of times before becoming the privilege of the Gigli family, which contributed to renewing both the structure and the furnishings. The church as it appears today, the result of the 11th century reconstruction ordered by Pope Alexander, is a record of the events of the city: in its Pisan-Luccan architecture we see a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic, memories of the classical era and mysterious figures taken from medieval bestiaries crowding the 12th century façade.
Famous architects worked at Lucca In the San Michele site between the 13th and 14th centuries and, probably, although this can be deduced only from the style of decoration of the façade, also Diotisalvi, who built the Baptistery of Pisa. The original intent of the project was to raise the church, but it was possible to create only the façade, which was very high and is visible today like a piece of scenery standing out against the sky.
It was in this period that the characteristic "loggette" (small loggias) were created by the school of Guidetto da Como, who also worked on the Duomo of San Martino.
They were decorated with the use of multi-coloured marbles, which begin to suggest the Gothic and are obviously influenced by the Lombard style. Finally, at the highest point, the large statue of the Archangel St Michael killing the Dragon was added, with metal wings, and two angels with the function of typically Gothic spires so that the church, already soaring in isolation, stretches even more upwards. During the 13th and 14th centuries the roof was rebuilt and the bell-tower, incorporated into the right-hand transept, remained thus until the early 1800s.
However, it was during the Communal period that the church reached its height of splendour, when the Podestà used it until 1370 as the official meeting place of the Consiglio Maggiore, the highest organ of government of Lucca. The last more radical restorations, carried out in the 1800s, gave us the church as we know it today.
For the attentive observer a glance is enough, better with binoculars if we wish to see the details, to see some of the best known personages of the Risorgimento appear among the figures decorating the arches: Camillo Benso, Vittorio Emanuele and Giuseppe Garibaldi, inserted among the loggette by Giuseppe Pardini, during the last restoration of the church, as if to celebrate the long history of Lucca in the façade.
The inside of San Michele is no less interesting; it houses a splendid Madonna with child by Andrea della Robbia and a panel by Filippino Lippi portraying the Four Saints. The statue standing in the square at the side of the church is a homage to Francesco Burlamacchi, a 16th century Lucca politician.