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Exploring Lucca, mostly in the rain

Lucca day two


View Birthday trip to Italy on ToonSarah's travel map.

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A wet day on Via Guinigi

The forecast for today had not been good, and unfortunately it was right. We woke to dull skies that were soon to become drizzly ones, with occasional spells of heavier rain. Oh well, at least it was much warmer than at home, and we had come prepared with umbrellas.

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In the Piazza San Michele


We started the day with a small but leisurely breakfast at a café in the Piazza San Michele in Foro, not far from our apartment - cornetto (the Italian version of a croissant), fresh orange juice and coffee. Then we walked south past the Piazza XX Settembre with its statue of a winged angel dedicated to those who died in defence of Italy.

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In Piazza XX Settembre, and San Girolamo from the Piazza del Giglio


After taking a few photos here we carried on towards the Piazza del Giglio, the square of the lily. It surprised us a little that the square isn’t named for Garibaldi, like so many in Italy, as a statue of him dominates the piazza. Instead it takes its name from the theatre on its south side which in turn was named for the Duchess of Lucca at the time of its foundation, Maria Luisa – her family coat of arms was adorned with three golden lilies.

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Statue of Garibaldi in the Piazza del Giglio

Cattedrale di San Martino

Just beyond this square to the east is the Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata, formerly Lucca’s cathedral, but we left that for later and made our way instead to the present day cathedral just beyond. It was Sunday so we went to mass and afterwards lingered to explore (on a Sunday mass-goers are, it seems, spared the 3€ entry fee).

The cathedral is dedicated to St Martin and parts of it date back to the 11th century when it was founded here by the then Bishop, Anselm (who late became Pope Alexander II) – namely the impressive campanile and the apse.

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Lucca cathedral and campanile

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Cattedrale di San Martino, Lucca

The façade is especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the columns really are all different here, and according to legend there is an explanation for their differences. The story goes that the city held a contest for the best column design. Artists came from far and wide bringing their sample column, but the inhabitants of Lucca decided to take them all, without paying the artists and used them all in the construction of the cathedral!

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The labyrinth

Another interesting feature can be found by looking carefully at the right pier of the portico, where you can see this labyrinth or maze. Its history is uncertain but it is believed to date from the 12th or 13th centuries. A Latin inscription beside it refers to the ancient Greek legend about Theseus:

HIC QUEM CRETICUS EDIT. DAEDALUS EST LABERINTHUS. DE QUO NULLUS VADERE. QUIVIT QUI FUIT INTUS. NI THESEUS GRATIS ADRIANE. STAMINE

[‘This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread’]

It is possible that this small carving may pre-date the famous Chartres maze, yet it follows (pre-empts?) the Chartres pattern that became a standard for mazes.

The large carving above the right-hand door depicts St Martin giving half his cloak to a beggar. The story goes that he had a dream that night that Jesus was wearing his cloak and the next morning woke to find the missing half had been restored. As with the Madonna outside San Michele in Foro, this statue is a copy – we will find the original (dating from 1233) inside the cathedral.

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Statue of St Martin on the outside (on the left) and inside (on the right), Cattedrale di San Martino

The smaller carvings above the doors are by Nicola Pisano, the famous Pisa sculptor partly responsible for the Baptistery there. They depict other scenes from the life of St Martin, and also the months of the year and the tasks that had to be completed in each.

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Carvings by Pisano on the façade

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Carving details

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Detail of the façade

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Inside the cathedral

Inside there is plenty to be seen in addition to that original statue of St Martin and the beggar. The most famous by far is the city’s most precious relic, the Volto Santo di Lucca or Holy Face of Lucca. This cedar-wood crucifix and image of Jesus is housed in a small shrine or tempietto, the work of Matteo Civitali (who carved San Michele’s Madonna and many other works in the city’s churches).

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The Volto Santo

It is said by legend to have been carved by Nicodemus, who according to St. John’s Gospel helped in preparing Christ’s body for burial. The legend explains that the hand of God took over from Nicodemus and carved the face. The crucifix was carried on a crewless ship to Luni, a Tuscan port, and thence to Lucca on a driverless cart. It was placed in the church of San Frediano, on the north side of the city, but the next morning had disappeared. A search led to its discovery in the garden of San Martino, which was interpreted as a hint from God, so the crucifix was given a permanent home here.

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The Volto Santo

This is however just a legend, as the crucifix has been dated to the 13th century, but it is nevertheless a very precious object and the focus of worship in the city. Once a year its arrival here is celebrated in a torch-lit procession, the Luminaria di Santa Croce, following the route from San Frediano to San Martino; in the past the crucifix itself was paraded in a bejewelled robe, but is now considered too delicate so only the robe is carried while the Volto Santo remains in the cathedral.

There are lots of other legends about the Volto Santo. Our guidebook recounts the tale of the silver slipper. A poor minstrel came to Lucca and wanted to offer something precious to the relic, but had nothing. So he gave the only gift he had and played beautifully on his lute. Jesus rewarded him by dropping a silver slipper for him to pick up, which he did, but the authorities arrested him for theft, not believing his story, and condemned him to death. The minstrel prayed desperately for help and Jesus sent an angel who interceded for him and corroborated his story, with the result that his life was spared. The guidebook also mentions that the Volto Santo appears in the Divine Comedy. Apparently Dante was famous for populating his stories with people he didn’t like. One of these was Martin Bottario from Lucca, who Dante thought had once over-charged him. Bottario appears in the book in the fifth pit of hell, where sinners are immersed in boiling pitch and tortured by devils. The devils tell him there is no point in praying to the Volto Santo of Lucca because he is already in eternal damnation.

It is pretty difficult to get photos of the relic behind the ornate grille of the tempietto, but I tried!

Nearby is another work by Civitali, a statue of St Sebastian. Another famous artwork in the cathedral is the Last Supper by Tintoretto, a pupil of Titian, painted between 1592-94.

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St Sebastian by Civitali, and The Last Supper by Tintoretto

There is also a ‘Madonna Enthroned with Saints’, by Bartolomeo della Porta (known as Fra Bartolomeo), dating from 1509, which depicts St John the Baptist and St Stephen. And another Madonna, with time with Saints Peter, Clement, Paul and Sebastian, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1479).

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‘Madonna Enthroned with Saints’, Fra Bartolomeo, and detail of Ghirlandaio's Madonna

The painted ceiling is stunning, as are many of the stained-glass windows. A saint in one of them appears to me to be holding the city of Lucca.

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Ceiling of the Cattedrale di San Martino

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Details of ceiling and stained glass

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More stained glass

Tucked away in a chapel to the right of the altar is the cathedral’s most famous monument, the marble sarcophagus of Ilaria de Carretto. She was the second wife of Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca from 1400-1430. They married in 1403 when she was 24 years old, but sadly she died in childbirth just two years later. The ornate memorial (her actual tomb is thought to be in the Guinigi family chapel in the cloister of San Francesco) is tribute as much to Guinigi’s desire to show off his status as it is to any affection he felt for her. It was carved by the Sienese artist Jacopo della Quercia and show her lying in the robes of a noblewoman, her little dog at her feet.

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The tomb of Ilaria de Carretto, and statue of St Martin

I was also taken by a small marble carving of St Martin on the opposite side of the cathedral. At first I took it to be quite modern, and was surprised by the sign which dates it to the second decade of the 14th century.

Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata

Leaving the cathedral we returned to the church we had passed earlier. As I mentioned above, this was once Lucca’s cathedral but is now deconsecrated and serves as part museum, part concert venue - performances of works by Puccini, Lucca’s most famous son, are staged here every evening. Perhaps because it is no longer a functioning church there is a small fee to pay for entry (the cathedral was the only other place of worship where we found that a ticket was needed).

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In the Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata

A church was first built here in the 5th century on an area of Roman settlement, and although the main structure that we see today is 12th century (and the façade from the 16th), the columns that support its impressive roof are nevertheless Roman in origin.

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In the Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata

Compared with the cathedral and San Michele there are relatively few works of art of any significance here – the main draw is the access it offers to the Roman and medieval remains beneath.

You descend an iron staircase in the north transept to the archaeological dig below, which exposes five levels of history going back to Roman times. If very interested you can hire an audio guide, but the most significant finds (such as medieval and Roman paving) are labelled, which was enough information for us. There is nothing here really impressive or extensive however – the one large and colourful section of Roman mosaic discovered on this site was removed and is now on display in the museum in the Villa Guinigi.

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The archaeological dig

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Roman pavement (1st century AD), and later mosaic

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Early Christian mosaic from the 4th or 5th century

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Caffe del Duomo

Perhaps because of the drizzle, and the challenge of juggling umbrella and camera, I didn’t take any photos of the façade of this church.

By now it was lunch time so we stopped for a drink and sandwich at the nearby Caffe del Duomo where the service was friendly, the food just what we were looking for, and the freshly squeezed orange refreshing.

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Lunch at the Caffe del Duomo

Like us, you are probably in need of a break now, so I’ll continue with the rest of our day’s explorations on a subsequent entry.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:54 Archived in Italy Tagged buildings rain architecture history ruins statue church italy cathedral romans street_photography Comments (13)

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