Lucca's secret greenery: the hidden gardens

Emotions of a walk through the city of Lucca: the high walls surrounding the villas do not reveal their hidden secret to the passer-by. But the greenery of the cached gardens peaks through, letting the visitor admire all their natural beauty.

Text: Lucia Maffei, Photos: Giuliano Sargentini

"The gardens of Lucca, surrounded by high walls, reveal all their owners' desire for isolation. They are like the soul of the city itself which, despite the passion and constancy of work and the incessant traffic, remains silent and sealed almost by a mysterious and wishful desire, and that is the secret of its beauty." This is the expression noted down two centuries ago by a traveler to Lucca who, having walked through its narrow roads, captured what is still today the "green secret" of the city.

Germain Beauclair, author of "A stranger not well informed on the things of Lucca", continues: "However, some windows perforate these garden walls. One catches glimpses of oleanders and gushes of water of an Eden-like beauty." Still today, Lucca gives its visitor the impression of having landed in an immense garden. The Walls and the green spaces around them offer an uninterrupted horizon that conceals the hidden city, leaving only the steeples and the highest towers open for view. The impressiveness of this "green ring" is reinforced by the presence of secular trees that rise above the Renaissance ramparts.

Lucca is an immense green lung that hides inside it gardens that are little-known and often barely visible from the road.

AMONG THE MOST FASCINATING PLACES ARE WITHOUT A DOUBT VILLA BOTTINI AND PALAZZO PFANNER, that maintain their monumental gardens intact. Villa Bottini, in Via Elisa, was built in the second half of the XVI century by the most powerful family of Lucca, the Buonvisi family. Georg Christoph Martini, called the Saxon, wrote in his book "A trip to Italy" (1728-1745): "The Palazzo Buonvisi del Giardino is small but very well constructed, resembling a country house more than a town dwelling with its great garden to the rear and large courtyard filled with greenery to the front. The architecture is by Civitali." Palazzo Pfanner dates instead to the subsequent century and the garden possesses all the characteristics of the Baroque period: the wide loggia sustained by columns and the grand stairwell look onto an animated game of greenery, statues and fountains. The history of this garden is rather complex. Built in 1667 by the Moriconi family of Lucca, halfway through the 19th century, it was bought by the Pfanners and, at the beginning of the 20th, for some decades a brewery was installed in its gardens. For the inhabitants of Lucca, meeting in this unusual bar became a pleasant habit! But in Lucca there were about 200 gardens and not all of them, obviously, had the same aesthetic function and large dimensions. Most of them were integrated within the palazzos and constituted their secret courtyards. In these spaces, the practical aspect was catered to as well and so, among the rose and wisteria pergolas, one could find citrus fruits, aromatic plants and a small vegetable garden for home use.

AND THIS PRACTICAL ASPECT IS THE REASON BEHIND THE BIRTH OF ANOTHER FANTASTIC GARDEN: THE BOTANICAL GARDENS OF LUCCA, a project desired by Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, and later built by Maria Luisa di Borbone. The Gardens were born out of the desire to preserve the knowledge of the medicinal virtues of herbs. And so in 1813 Luigi Matteucci writes to Princess Elisa that "it is a sure fact that there is only one man in the entire countryside, called "il Magro di Arsina", who knows medicinal herbs, the places where they grow and the seasons in which they must be harvested. This man is now at a rather advanced age. The importance placed on preservation of the science of this local botany, has made me retain it extremely important to create a botanical garden in Lucca, to grow these herbs in particular". The Gardens were then founded in 1820 in the area called "Piaggia Romana", destined in the 18th century to the game of football and in even more ancient times to a heretics cemetery.

Today, the Botanical Gardens of Lucca is a splendid park housing secular trees and extremely rare exotic plants. But for the people of Lucca, this suggestive lieu is still tied to the tale "of strange popular legends. The most mysterious of all the legends is that evoked by the name of Lùcida Mansi, the beautiful Lady of Lucca who made a terrible pact with the devil in order to keep her youth's splendor and beauty's charm and who, buried here, reappears at night flying across the lake on a chariot of hellfire ..."

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