I never quite understood what was so great about St Martin slicing his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: why didn’t he just hand over the whole cloak and be done with it? He was a soldier – would he have to account to his superiors for a missing cloak, whereas half a cloak he could get away with?
St Martin’s generous gesture is memorialised on the façade of the duomo of Lucca (in a replica statue, the original now being placed out of the elements inside the cathedral), a splendid example of the so-called ‘Pisan Gothic’ style of church building in northern Tuscany, beloved of John Ruskin, and also seen in the nearby St Michele in Foro, where the warrior angel looms from the peak of the roof over a piazza which was originally part of the Roman forum.
Lucca has other remarkable churches: San Frediano, with its spectacular external mosaic, for example.
I had no idea that Frediano was an Irishman who became bishop of Lucca in the sixth century, rebuilding this church after it was burnt down by pagan Lombards, and dedicating it to the martyr St Vincent of Zaragosa: he was buried in it, and his own name eventually supplanted that of the original dedicatee. He was also famous for using a rake to divert the river Serchio, notorious for flooding the city, into a less damaging course.
Inside the church is displayed the body of Santa Zita, exemplar and patron of maidservants and housekeepers, discovered uncorrupted 300 years after her death in 1272.
Also within a stroll of the duomo are San Giusto, with its painted lunette surrounded by elaborate carving,
and perhaps the second best known feature of the city, the Piazza del’Anfiteatro. Lucca was originally an Etruscan town, and its grid of streets closely follows the familiar pattern of the Roman colonia it subsequently became. The amphitheatre was robbed for its stone after the collapse of Roman authority, but the subsequent buildings followed the ovoid outline of the original arena. A palazzo in the centre was swept away in 1830 to recreate a large open space in which a food market was established, replacing that outside San Michele in the ancient forum, where scenes thought unseemly in the proximity of a church were apparently common.
But the most famous feature of Lucca is undoubtedly its Renaissance ramparts, the most intact surviving such fortifications in Europe. Forming a complete circuit enclosing the city, with eleven bastions (some rounded, some pointed) at regular intervals, and six gates, it was turned into a recreational area for the populace by the so-called Princess of Lucca and Piombino, and later Grand Duchess of Tuscany, aka Élisa Bonaparte (1777–1820) younger sister of the more famous Napoleon, who gave her a chunk of Italy to rule in 1805.
To be (grudgingly) fair, she seems to have made a reasonable job of it, although she damaged the historical heritage of the city when she demolished two churches to make way for a palace for herself and a piazza in front of it. She was an effective founder of hospitals, and of schools for girls as well as boys (she herself had been educated at Mme de Maintenon’s school for girls at St Cyr before it was (ironically) closed by the Revolution and turned into a military academy for boys). She also did her best to reduce her brother’s incessant demands for tax money from her impoverished subjects, falling out severely with him on several occasions.
The ramparts are planted with different varieties of trees in the different sections (we were just too late for the flowering of the tulip trees, alas), and seem very popular with joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers as well as just strollers, with terrific views inward across the old city and outward beyond the (limited) suburbs to the surrounding hills. And they are good for wild flowers as well as trees.
Another Good Thing given to the city by Élisa (in 1811) was the Botanic Garden (another Orto Botanico ticked off, hurrah!).
This small space in a corner of the ramparts (and visible from them) is exemplary in its maintenance and in its proper botanical labelling, with some really fascinating plants, including a most enormous Ginkgo biloba.
I asked a passing gardener whether it was male or female, and he assured me that it was male, demonstrating with dramatic gestures the well-known disadvantages of the female in polite society.
I was particularly taken with three plants: the Magnolia figo, or banana shrub, so called because of its banana-like flowers; the Pavonia multiflora in a glass-house, and the gorgeous Loropetalum chinense.
It was very much azalea, prunus and camellia time, and there were some staggering peonies on display, too,
especially in the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly the house in which the first proper (i.e. German) brewery was set up in Lucca in 1846, at the demand of Grand Duke Charles Louis of Bourbon, by Felix Pfanner (1818–92), a brewer originally from Bavaria but then living in Austria.
Felix rented the garden and cellars of the seventeenth-century palazzo from the Controni family, who (like many other Lucchese) had made their fortune in silk production. The brewery and beer garden were so successful that eventually he bought the whole palace, and it became his family home, and that of his distinguished son Pietro (1864–1935) – surgeon, philanthropist and Mayor of Lucca from 1920 to 1922.
Part of the house is an intriguing museum of his medical instruments, books, and other items (including a broad bean seed extracted from the nasal passage of a ten-year-old boy), but the garden – as formal and symmetrical as it can be in a rather asymmetrical plot (again, tucked under the ramparts) – is completely knock-out. We visited after a short shower (the only bad weather in five days), so that all the leaves and flowers on the beautifully tended plants were fresh and sparking: an unforgettable experience
Next stop, Florence – and yes, another Orto Botanico!