Foreign visitors to the land of Lucca

On the occasion of the celebrations for the 500 years of the urban Walls, a Who’s Who of the people who have been captured by the city’s charm

Franca Severini

“J’ai un tel faible pour la liberté que si l’on me défendait l’accès de quelque coin des Indes, j’en vivrais très mal à mon aise.” 1

The author of these lines is Michel De Montaigne, French philosopher of the end of the 16th century who sojourned in the lands of Lucca, appreciating the beauty of the landscape and the architecture and its atmosphere. Liberty is an aspect that surely bonds the literate to the city that has always been a banner and a bulwark of freedom through the different epochs and the many governments. Industrious city, it was defined by the French philosopher. And Lucca certainly is that, from antiquity down to our days, representing a reality known throughout the world for its industrial excellences in many fields, from paper to the technology applied to paper machines, to shipbuilding to the stone industry. It was defined the Myrmidon Republic by Charles De Brosses, 18th century literate and politician who wrote about ancient history and geography, bringing an important contribution to the discovery of Australia. He invented the name Polynesia, he was a predecessor of anthropology and modern linguistics, and wrote the famous “Voyage en Italie 1739-1740”. Lucca was called little Geneva by Edward Gibbon, the greatest English historian, personification of illuminist rationality and skepticism who, after having travelled throughout the peninsula, wrote his monumental work “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Georg Christoph Martini, the Saxon Painter, spent about twenty years in this city half way through the 18th century, leaving written works and pictorial images of the Lucchese nobles and describing the landscape unfolding outside the Walls: “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, disseminated in a territory around Lucca that for six miles, from the plains and half way up the hills, extends towards Florentine territory.” In the course of time, Lucca was retained an ideal stopover. British Consul Montgomery Carmichael stayed at the Hotel Universo in front of the Teatro del Giglio, where he shared his impressions and reflections on art and politics with John Ruskin and Harry Collingwood, pseudonym of William Joseph Cosens Lancaster, author of tales taking place on the great 18th century vessels. But John Ruskin is the lover of Lucca par excellence. The English-born art critic sojourned several times in the city. It is here that he found himself in 1845, thinking it would only be for a few days, and instead ended up staying for forty years. In the cathedral of San Martino, he discovers the famous sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto, still today Mecca of tourists from the entire world, made in 1405 by a young artist from Siena, Jacopo della Quercia. A figure having natural dimensions: “Her hair, adorned in rich braids, frame her pure and enchanting forehead; her sweet eyes with high-arched eyebrows, are closed; the absence of the sweet smile on those graceful lips reveals that the breath of life has ceased; and however, it is neither death nor sleep, but a pure and chaste memory”. Vernon Lee, pseudonym of Violet Page, English writer with great cultural relations, permanently settled in Italy and died in Florence in 1935 a Firenze, where she was considered a sort of ambassadress of literature. She felt that Lucca was the ideal place for the setting of romantic novels or to evoke them on the basis of suggestive denominations. Rudolph Borchardt, German writer who settled in Tuscany at the beginning of the 20th century, was the cantor of the famous Lucchese villas after the Saxon Painter: in his famous 1908 essay entitled “Villa” he describes the charm of these residences, jewels of art and architecture in the quiet of the countryside that surrounds the city Walls, places of otium for the city’s noble families who entertained relations and contacts with all of Europe and not only. Still today the Ville Lucchesi represent jewels of architecture, veritable treasure chests of history and masterpieces of art, many of which are open to the public. They are all part of an Association that preserves their absolute value through an itinerary across time and beauty.

The eye of the traveler is naturally led to grasp the overall image of a location. And what other place apart from Lucca has the virtue of presenting itself completely enveloped in its ring of Walls like the “citta’- vassoio” (Lucca is metaphorically compared to the religious image of a tray - vassoio - brandishing a precious relic.) vaunted by the Saints? What other city offers “the most beautiful promenade in the world” on those very same tree-lined Walls? Looking inside from those Walls, the city looks as if it is collected in a treasure chest, with its cusps, towers and steeples. Inside it, the history of different epochs has been deposited, with the different languages and different faces, from the re-utilization of Roman circus monuments to the exceptional blossoming of Romanic-Gothic art to Renaissance elegance to the composed Neoclassical magnificence. The contemporary visitor is called to distinguish the pitch of each of these voices, calling or underscoring the importance of the aspects typical of the city like the terrace gardens, the internal courtyards and gardens that attracted Montaigne too. The soul of Lucca’s historic center has an elusive and hence stimulating character; a city where, except for the Piazza del Duomo, there is no street that leads directly to the facade of a palazzo or of a church. Everything in Lucca looks like it is in perspective. This is not one of those cities that can be taken by surprise, from the rear, as American author Edith Wharton wrote. Once you cross the gate to the Walls, any gate, it is the city that takes the visitor by the hand and guides him through its network of streets.

Many travelers link the mercantile spirit of the Lucchesi people and their sense of independence with the more or less rooted presence of the principles of the Reform, although “many protestant families were forced to erect on the banks of the Lemano”, writes the Lucchese literate and journalist Arrigo Benedetti, “the community that it had been impossible to save on the banks of the Serchio”. Others, like German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, wrote in his “Taccuino lucchese” in 1963: “Who knows how many people have emigrated from this corner of the world into Canada, the USA, in Argentina”, underscoring how in different epochs the people of Lucca have moved to every part of the world in search of fortune and work. Still today, the Associazione Lucchesi nel Mondo, headquartered in Lucca, atop the city Walls, represents a fixed point in the history of the city and of the families who have settled and established themselves everywhere in the world and who, through the activities and the very thick network of relations between the different offices throughout the world, keep the very strong bond with their roots alive. Theodor W. Adorno continues by saying: “With no interruptions, like a rite, the expulsion from paradise repeats itself, and they must earn their keep with the sweat of their brows”. Perhaps, without knowing it, through this moving image, the philosopher from Frankfurt recovered one of the rhetoric locations typical of the 19th century that has defined this “corner of the world” as “a corner of paradise”.

What fascinates travelers today from the entire world is perhaps the unitary climate that pervades the city that developed in different times and styles, without ever contrasting the logic of its growth and harmony. It is what we can perceive in the mysterious and indefinable atmosphere of the city, once we have crossed the darkness of the gate. It is the impression, to use the words of Alfred Alvarez, “of entering inside a castle, in an isolated, independent world where we must assume an appropriate demeanor”. Maybe it is true that crossing the threshold, in Lucca, really means entering another world. *

1. “I have such a yearning for freedom that if you prohibited me access to any corner of India, I would feel very badly.” (The English version of the quotes featured in the Italian text is provided as a courtesy translation only.)

“Around the walls” of Nanni Delbecchi, The author describes the boundary between dream and reality which is the walk along the walls of his city, Lucca. Delbecchi describes the tour as the prototype of a dream, with the aim of describing the city and he says: “The first stroll in my life took place in a dream. To say the truth that dream was a walk”. This short story leads you through the secrets wonders of this ancient city which reveals itself as a dream-like place to live in. “The first stroll in my life took place in a dream. To say the truth that dream was a walk. I’m a baby and I am roaming around Lucca without seeing a living soul. I am drifting in search of something that isn’t clear, moving from Piazza San Michele and finally reaching the area between Piazza Bernardini and the Duomo, where are suspended in a cloud of silence – as if silence was empty – some of the most mysterious streets of the city. At a certain point I notice the twilight, an event that in the medieval centre comes along with vague premonitions: the last sun bursts on the higher marbles of the churches, the shadows that thicken until the lights of the shops turn on. During the twilight period, Lucca is crossed by a spine-chilling happiness that goes back to adolescence; in some streets life is concentrated in a frenzy way, but only an hour after that sudden thrill, it begins to fade away. When in Via Fillungo the Torre delle Ore beats eight strokes, the small capital seems dead. Together with the tourists only a few bums are still on the roads…”

Nanni Delbecchi is a modern traveler to the lands of Lucca: copy editor of “Il Fatto Quotidiano” newspaper, he began working at Montanelli’s “Il Giornale”, then at “La Voce”, and then others. He believes in chance. Born in Lucca in 1957, he became a journalist together with Idro Montanelli. With Marsilio he published in 2004 “I favolosi anni zero”. He is truly the only Italian journalist to have interviewed Mr. Ikea for Marsilio. For ZonaFranca publishers in Lucca he has written “Un giro di Mura”, a guide to the most hidden corners and characters of the city.

  • drawings by Andrea Cortopassi present in the book “Un giro di mura”
  • the amphitheater
  • the Church of San Michele in Foro
  • sculpture of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia
  • drawings by Andrea Cortopassi present in the book “Un giro di mura”
  • drawings by Andrea Cortopassi present in the book “Un giro di mura”
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