Patty Hopkins

My Kind of Town: Lucca is a stage for civic life

Michael and I arrived in Lucca for the first time about 30 years ago, following Sheila Hale’s invaluable ‘American Express Pocket Guide to Florence and Tuscany’. We were exploring, looking for an interesting place for family gatherings. We purchased a house in the Garfagnana, nearby, and so began our long association with Lucca. On that first visit, we were immediately captivated. The complete, encircling walls had the effect of making the town a separate, special place. They were a symbol of the independence that Lucca, alone in Tuscany, enjoyed from Florentine domination, when the town thrived on banking and the silk trade.

Inside the walls was a delightful mix of narrow, medieval streets of palazzos, towers and churches leading unexpectedly to grand piazzas, all contained by the massive sixteenth-century brick walls and fortifications, interspersed by five great ‘Porta’, or gates. These are the third walls to surround Lucca, following the Roman and medieval walls. They were built in fear of the Medici expansionist policy, but were never attacked.

What is special to me is the whole of its urban fabric, which is not ‘preserved’; rather it still seems to suit and support the thriving community.”

I became interested in the influences on the later fabric of the town, soon coming upon the Bonapartes. Napoleon took the city in 1799 and made his sister, Elisa Baciocchi, principessa of Lucca. Elisa was an activist – a builder and a social reformer. In the nine years that she held power she made enormous changes to the urban structure and institutions of Lucca. She razed a large area of buildings in front of the Ducal Palace to form the grand Piazza Napoleone. She reformed all areas that affected the lives of the citizens: the law, the clergy, health care, education and the arts. She was never popular; in fact she was hated by the proud Luchese for forcing change on them.

The other person I found, who had been a major influence on the form of the Lucca I enjoyed, was the architect/engineer Lorenzo Nottolini. He was born locally, but studied architecture in Rome. Maria Luisa de Bourbon, who succeeded Elisa, appointed him Royal Architect to the Court in 1818. His great intervention in town was to create the Piazza Anfiteatro from the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, incorporating the houses that had sprung up into an eclectic whole, surrounding a market square with four grand opposing entrances. His other main legacy is the stately brick aqueduct that brought water from the Pisan Hills down into the town, which he extended to a series of beautiful marble fountains.

Lucca today is, essentially, the same town that Elisa and Nottolini left. It sits on a bustling plain. Cars are left at the perimeter, and entering through a great ‘porta’, one uses the town on foot, the way it has always been. The enclosed town is quite small – about 750 by 1,500 metres. One can walk across in about ten minutes. There is a wide walk on top of the walls, planted with plane trees, which is much used by residents and visitors for cycling and jogging. It is the best way to appreciate the town’s form and scale.

There are great buildings in Lucca – the Duomo, with the early masterpiece by Jacopo della Quercia, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto; the Romanesque churches of San Michele and San Frediano; the Villa Guinigi and the Palazzo Mansi, now museums filled with Luchese treasures – but these are not really what I am drawn by. What is special to me is the whole of its urban fabric, which is not ‘preserved’; rather it still seems to suit and support the thriving community.

Sometimes I arrive early in the Piazza San Michele and sit in a cafe to watch the town come to life and, as so often in Italy, I get the feeling that I’m on a giant stage set. Cafe owners and shopkeepers are already on stage tinkering with their premises and gradually people emerge from corners and alleys on all sides and stop and stand for a quick espresso before ‘curtain up’. I enjoy being part of the play!