The villas of Lucca

An itinerary through the hills of Lucca to discover its ancient villas

By Lucia Maffei, Photos by Giuliano Sargentini

"On the cultivated hills which surround the fertile flatlands of Lucca, the pleasant villas of the aristocratic families are spread among vineyards and olive-groves". By following this tale written in 1730 by a German traveller, George Christoph Martini, we can still today cover a charming itinerary leading to some of the most imposing and majestic villas of Lucca.

Starting in the middle of the XVI century, the rich merchants of Lucca, who controlled the major European trade exchanges, decided to invest a considerable portion of their wealth in real estate. From that moment on, on the slopes of the hills of Lucca, wonderful villas appear, surrounded by high stone walls caching precious Italian-style gardens.

"THE MOST CONSIDERABLE (OF THESE) IS VILLA SANTINI IN CAMIGLIANO" (today Villa Torrigiani or Villa di Camigliano) where a monumental driveway "lined with high cypresses" leads to its marvellous baroque facade. In the first half of the XVII century, the villa becomes part of the estate of the marchese Nicolao Santini, ambassador of the Republic of Lucca to the Court of Louis XIV.

The experience of living at the Court of the Roi Soleil gave rise to Nicolao Santini's desire to recreate a smaller Versailles on the hills of Lucca. Today we can still visit the precious "Flora Garden" rich with statues, vases and decorations placed among flowers and prized essence plants, where, as Martini narrates, "there are fountains and impressive water effects and a cave made with tufa blocks, rich in every kind of seashell, with a dome on which is placed a statue of the goddess Flora decorated with many copper flowers. From the goddess' flowers springs such a thick rain that one doesn't know how to take shelter from it".

Having left Camigliano "we departed by carriage to reach, through steep roads, the Villa of the Marchese Mansi" in the town of Segromigno in Monte. Villa Mansi is certainly the most well known of the over 250 villas spread on the hills of Lucca, and the one which best represents the history of the ancient aristocracy of the Republic of Lucca.

At the end of XVII century the Mansi family begins the renovation of the facade following the criteria of baroque Mannerism, and above all entrusts the architect Filippo Juvarra to design the new garden and the arrangement of the fountains and brooks crossing the property. "The water, through various cascades and slopes, descends along a channel for over one hundred steps; nearby, there is a very large and deep pool called the fishpond, surrounded by a wall with a balustrade. A jet of water in the shape of a lily gushes from a small cave in the middle of the pool". Inside the villa one finds the noble quarters, accessed from the main facade through a portico decorated with large statues, still with their marvellous original frescos.

OUR XVIII CENTURY TRAVELLER CONTINUES ON HIS VISIT TO VILLA OLIVA, IN SAN PANCRAZIO, built by the powerful Buonvisi family on a project designed by famed architect Matteo Civitali. In the garden "there is also a large tufa cave containing several jets of water", beautiful fountains and rare terracotta statues. Next to Villa Oliva there is Villa Grabau, whose park is certainly worth a visit for its wonderful nineteenth-century "English" arrangement, for its rare essence plants and the beautiful and majestic sixteenth-century lemon house, where the owners still place the big citrus plants in winter to protect them from the cold.

The villas are located just three or four kilometers away from the town, and were erected in areas rich in sun and water. Although originally born also as a real estate investment, they are fundamentally an answer to the longing for "comfort by those gentlemen who chose to buy and build these noble villas to meet together and live there for most if not all of the year", to be able to "comfortably landscape flower and vegetable gardens, vineyards, olive groves, lawns, woodlands and every other possible delicacy both for use and magnificence". And still today, walking in the park paths lined with trees, or crossing the large frescoed rooms, we are surprised by the simplicity and the majesty of these places.

The quotations are taken from Georg Christoph Martini, called the Saxon, A Journey to Italy (1725 - 1745), and from Giovanni Di Vincenzo Saminati, Dell'edificare delle Case e dei Palazzi in Villa e dell'ordinar di Giardini ed Orti, XVI century.

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