Lucca, a living testimony to past times, kingdoms and dominions, lies in a green valley just north west of Florence. This almost perfectly preserved jewel of medieval architecture and buildings, emanates charm and shows layers of history from every corner of its narrow winding streets.
Beginning in Roman times, continuing through the Middle Ages, on to the Napoleonic era and finally to the Risorgimento, Lucca's monuments, churches, palaces and roads, even its very shape have a story to tell. Each layer blending with preceding ages marking the growth and changes of the city.
The broad, high walls, which characterize the city, are a feature of its past, and a pleasant element of its present.
Completely surrounding the ancient city, the walls we see today date back to the 17th century. Now, no longer used for defense, they are crowned by 4 km of green parkland, and are a lovely place to walk, cycle or stop for a picnic. Just another example of how, over the centuries, though buildings last, their roles metamorphose as times change.
Rich families who embellished the city are closely connected with Lucca's many enchanting legends and tales. The central square, at the heart of the city, maintained the shape of the Roman amphitheater and shows the outline of an ancient arena.
Likewise, via Fillungo, the main street in the city, was also born with the Romans. Though it was meant to be the Decumano (a straight main street) and though still central, its narrow, winding path and typical medieval characteristics testify how the shape of Lucca has been altered since antiquity.
The majestic church of San Michele in Foro, with its medieval façade, and signs of refurbishment carried out during the Risorgimento, is built where Lucca's Roman forum once stood. Named after this ancient site, it collects several eras together in one building. In its façade the faces of famous Italian patriots can be seen: King Vittorio Emanuele, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Camillo Benso, who were so important in Italy's reunification, as well as medieval figures peering between the arches.
Piazza Napoleone, perhaps somewhat unsubtly, was created during the French occupation by Napoleon's sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, in the style of the large squares in France.
The city's name has Indo European origins, and was known as Luca, which means "illuminated glade". Originally marshy terrain, it was well situated, close to the river Serchio, in fertile land and inhabited by the Ligures. In 180 b.C. it became a Roman colony with the Roman city shape with a grid street plan.
In the Early Middle Ages, Lucca was an important Lombard duchy and became the capital of Tuscia. With the creation of the pilgrim route Via Francigena / Romea, Lucca became one of the main "resting stations" on route to Rome, as it is evident in the crosses engraved by passing pilgrims on the walls of St. Martin's arcade.
The city walls, though already mighty in their build, were reinforced but not finished till the latter half of the 13th Century.
When the "Comune" (a form of government peculiar to northern and central Italy in the medieval period) arrived in Lucca, the city walls were enlarged, but to the South, they were left in their Original Roman form: this was the side which faced the Pisans, the fierce enemies, and the walls couldn't be weakened by constructing new buildings. Altering them would have meant a clear invitation to their dangerous neighbors.
That age retouched the city forever, in bricks and mortar. The "Case-Torri" (Tower-Houses), giving Lucca such a distinct profile, grew up then. Though of different heights, the message they conveyed was invariably: «The higher my tower, the greater my power». Growing as tall as five to six floors, at a glance a visitor was left in no doubt as to who held sway in the city. An influential family falling on hard times was also likely to find his tower decapitated in demonstration of his fall in fortunes!
The combination of numerous churches and the line of medieval towers give Lucca a distinctive profile.
The Signoria came to power in Lucca in 1400, when Paolo Guinigi, an art lover and encourager of culture, became governor. Under Guinigi's guidance, Lucca flourished. He also sought to increase Lucca's social standing and improve cultural liaisons with neighboring major cities. At the death of his young wife Ilaria del Carretto, Guinigi commissioned Jacopo della Quercia to construct her tomb. The memorial figure, in her bridal dress with a little dog at her feet symbolizing fidelity, now lies in the Duomo of Saint Martin.
Illustrating the power and splendor of the Signoria, Paolo Guinigi also had a villa, adorned by a beautiful garden built outside the city walls. It was a political gesture, adding value, status and popularity to Lucca's marshy suburbs, since in the aftermath of a plague epidemic, the population of Lucca's suburbs was greatly depleted and the area was far from being healthy. Guinigi began the construction of new city walls, parts of which still stand today. But they were finally finished in 1645 encompassing previously excluded monasteries, churches, and his own suburban villa, confiscated when Paolo Guinigi's role in Lucca was brought to an abrupt end.
The next phase in the city's modernization came when Lucca became the Principality of the French Felice and Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, who created the Elisa Gate and Piazza Napoleone.
Later, under the Bourbons, Lucca's walls were upgraded for the last time, and transformed into the splendid park we see today.
The figure of Giacomo Puccini, was a key name in the world of Italian opera. Though he lived and wrote many of his works in nearby Torre del Lago, he was none the less born in Lucca. His house, now a museum, stands in the city centre complete with his statue outside.
Not only Lucca's fascinating town centre is worth a visit: its surroundings offer relaxing journeys, ancient legends, and natural wonders just waiting to be discovered.
The Grotta del Vento (Wind Cave), a captivating sequence of incredible shapes carved in rock, offers a marvelous day out. The cliffs and drops which can be seen en route to the cave make it worth a trip, but not for faint hearted travelers!
The charming, perfectly preserved medieval town of Barga, with its splendid Duomo on a mountain top, offers a fantastic view in every direction.
Not far, it also worth a visit the Bridge of Mary Magdalene in Borgo a Mozzano: a superb example of medieval architecture, still intact, and according to a legend, despite its name, it was built by the Devil!