Although the people of Lucca know it as the "Piazza Grande", the name "Piazza Napoleone" gives the idea of this square where we come out of the narrow streets of the medieval town to find ourselves in an area built on the lines of the wide open spaces of Paris.
The square has always been the centre of political power in Lucca, but its original appearance was completely different and the history of the buildings that populated this spot has been guarded for centuries by the subsoil. It was chosen in 1322 by Castruccio Castracani, a Ghibelline leader of the Antelminelli family, as the site for his Augusta fortress and palace, designed perhaps by Giotto.
When Castruccio was expelled from Lucca in 1370, also the enormous fortress, which took up about a quarter of the town, was completely razed to the ground by the people. The present organisation of the square dates from Napoleonic times, when from 1805 to 1815 the principality of Lucca was in the hands of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, who decided to celebrate her famous relative by naming the square after him.
For its construction, to a design by an Italian and a French architect, it was not possible to avoid demolishing houses, warehouses, a tower, the archives, the shops and even a church, San Pietro Maggiore, so as to give greater visibility and prestige to the Ducal Palace, also called the Public Palace, which today houses the administration of the Province of Lucca.
However, the façades of the buildings bordering the square were not so pleasing to the eye, so it was decided to hide them with a thick screen of plane trees, as can still be seen today. The intention was to place an enormous statue of Napoleon opposite the palace, but the project was not carried out and the statue in the centre of the square became that of Marie-Louise Bourbon, after she was entrusted with the rule of the town in 1815.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) the Napoleonic arrangement, the square became an enormous car park until 1998 when, during deep restructuring works, the foundations came to light of all the buildings that had stood there before the arrival of the Baiocchi family.
It was in fact known, particularly from old prints and maps, that there had originally been a church and the tower of the mint of Lucca, but excavations revealed a fascinating situation, completely different from what was known from the old drawings.
It was suggested at this point that these remains and foundations might all have belonged to the Augusta and, on analysing the sites that took up a large part of the square, the real size of Castruccio Castracani's fortress, which was believed to have occupied an area about equivalent to the plan of the Ducal Palace, became increasingly evident.
Nothing is known about its actual layout, precisely because the design of a place made up of secret routes to protect Castruccio from all dangers had been shrouded in absolute secrecy. It was discovered that the fortress had been surrounded by a series of accesses connected to one another so that if the enemy passed unscathed through the first, he would find it difficult to pass through the other two; meanwhile Castruccio would have been able to escape easily through the close network of tunnels, prepared precisely in case of danger, provided with niches to hold torches to light the way.
Today, from a centre of power, the square has been transformed, to become the heart of the cultural life of the city every summer, with concerts often bing held in a spacious, attractive setting.