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Strolling around Lucca (still mostly in the rain)

Lucca day two continued


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

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Lucca street scene

We had bought a small book before leaving home, recommended by a friend, ‘Strolling around Lucca’ and for the rest of the day followed, more or less, one of the walks from this. This took us from the Duomo which we had visited that morning past the Archbishop’s Palace (now the city archive) with its beautiful old door adorned with a pair of cherubs.

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The Archbishop’s Palace door

Santa Maria della Rosa

From here we made the book's recommended detour to a church just inside the city walls, Santa Maria della Rosa. This church takes its name from a legend associated with this spot. The area just outside Roman Lucca’s city walls was used in the past for grazing cattle. A young shepherd, dumb from birth, noticed that his sheep were avoiding one juicy green bush so went over to take a closer look. To his surprise, because this was in January, he found a beautiful rose. He plucked the flower to take to show to his father, at which moment suddenly he could speak! When the bishop was told about this miracle he revealed that long ago there had been an image of the Virgin holding three roses at the spot where the rose bush grew. So a little oratory was created there, dedicated to the Madonna holding a rose, which later became this church.

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Above the door, Santa Maria della Rosa

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Carving details

There is a rose above the main door and others elsewhere in the carved decorations, including framing one of the side doors. The statue of the Madonna on one corner holds a rose – and also, it has to be said, possibly the ugliest Christ Child I have ever seen!

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Madonna of the Rose, Santa Maria della Rosa

Opposite the church, a plaque on a house identifies it as the former home of a relatively modern saint, Gemma Galgani, who worshipped at this church and had many visions as well as apparently being able to levitate. She died in 1903 at the age of 25 and despite her relative obscurity is still revered here in Lucca.

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Home of St Gemma Galgani

It was around now that I started to realise just how many, and how varied, were the ornate door knockers here, and to 'collect' photos of them.

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Door knockers

Villa Bottini

We decided to skip the nearby botanic gardens, given the weather, but did detour into the much smaller garden of the Villa Bottini on Via Elisa, passing this rather lovely old drogheria on the way.

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In the Via Elisa

The Villa Bottini is a sixteenth century palazzo now owned by the city and used to stage exhibitions and conferences. It was built by the Buonvisi family and at one time owned by Elisa Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon, who was installed as ruler of Lucca by her brother in 1805 after he successfully invaded this part of Italy (and was by all accounts a much more popular leader than Napoleon!) The villa is not in the best of conditions, and nor is its garden, but it’s free to wander around and was quite atmospheric in the dull conditions.

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Garden of the Villa Bottini

Porta San Gervasio

Turning back along Via Elisa we came to the Porta San Gervasio. This is one of the gateways of the old city wall, which was demolished when the newer one, a little larger in circumference to accommodate a growing city, was built. The gate dates from 1255 and is decorated with golden stars and religious frescoes.

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The Porta San Gervasio

Walking through the gate we found ourselves in the Via Santa Croce. We passed the church of Santa Maria Foris Portam which like Santa Maria della Rosa was unfortunately closed - unfortunately because our book had mentioned an interesting painting of Santa Lucia. She was the saint who famously gouged out her own eyes. The painting depicts her presenting them to heaven on a plate, but the artist was clearly too squeamish to show her as she would have looked, as she has both eyes in place!

There is also a camera obscura inside. A line runs across the floor and when sunlight shining in through a hole in the wall touches this, it is noon in Lucca. However, given the weather today I doubt we could have seen the effect even if we had been able to enter the church!

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Santa Maria Foris Portam

The church’s name means ‘outside the walls’, which at the time of building (the 12th century) it would have been. It is sometimes called Santa Maria Bianca, ‘the White’, by locals because of its limestone facing, but when it was extended upwards in the 16th century the new brickwork was never faced.

Our walk now took us along Via Guinigi, named for one of Lucca’s most powerful merchant families and lined with medieval palaces.

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Via Guinigi in the rain

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Street lamp, and architectural detail, Via Guinigi

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Door knocker, and graffiti, Via Guinigi

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More graffiti

Torre Guinigi

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Climbing the stairs

Like many medieval Italian cities Lucca has a fair number of towers, several of which can be climbed. I had passed on the opportunity to climb the cathedral’s bell tower, but this is Lucca’s most famous tower and I was determined to go up its 230 steps, despite the rain and my sometimes reluctant limbs.

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Stairs of the Torre Guinigi

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View west, with the Torre delle Ore

The towers were built to serve two purposes – to show off the wealth of the family (in this case the Guinigi) and to provide a place of refuge in case of attack. There would once have been several hundred dotting the skies of Lucca, but now only a handful remain, of which this is the most famous and something of an emblem for the city.

What distinguishes it from the other towers can be found when you reach the top, where a group of holm oak trees grow. It is thought the this was previously a kitchen garden, with the kitchen itself being located on the floor below, but some time in the 15th century the trees replaced the vegetables and herbs, and have been here ever since (albeit not the same trees). They are said to represent renewal and rebirth, so it is a bit ironic that the Guinigi family has died out, but not before the last surviving member bequeathed this tower to the city, in addition to the family palazzo which now serves as a museum.

Having made it up the stairs (which are relatively easy going for the first part but finish with a rather steeper section) you are rewarded with extensive views of the city and, in better weather than we had, of the mountains which encircle it. Watch your head though as you move around taking your photos, as the low branches of the trees can catch you out if not careful, as I found to my cost!

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Panoramic view south west

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View south, with the cathedral

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Torre delle Ore from the Torre Guinigi

Descending the tower we walked on, past the church of San Pietro Somaldi (another church that was closed today). It was named for the bishop who founded the church in 763. Above the door is a carving of St Peter receiving the keys of the kingdom, and a rather worn fresco of the Virgin and Child, framed by some appealing stone lions.

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San Pietro Somaldi

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Another door knocker, and a bear with a view!

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Rain in the Via del Portico

Piazza Anfiteatro

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Street near the Anfiteatro

Many of the streets in this part of town have a markedly curved shape, unlike the straight lines elsewhere, and the reason for this becomes clear when you enter Lucca’s most distinctive piazza, the Anfiteatro, named for the Roman amphitheatre which once stood on this site, built during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. This was built with fifty four arches and could accommodate ten thousand spectators who came to watch all the popular Roman ‘sports’ – gladiators fighting various wild animals and each other, public executions etc.

When the Roman Empire crumbled the people of Lucca moved into the amphitheatre, building houses in the centre and filling in the arches to create a defensive wall. Over the centuries marble from the structure was taken to help build the city’s churches and palazzi, and by the 19th century a market occupied the central space. But toward the latter part of that century the added buildings were cleared to create the piazza and the original footprint of the structure restored with the elliptical group of cafes, bars, shops and houses we see today, pierced by four entrance arches, one of which we had walked through.

That distinctive shape was a little lost for us, unfortunately, as marquees had been erected in the centre for the comics and games festival which was to start in a few days’ time, but the overall effect was still very attractive and there were some more interesting architectural details to photograph.

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In the Piazza Anfiteatro


Here we stopped for the day's obligatory gelati and found a very good artisan selection at one of the cafes - the lemon was especially good. As we ate our ices a very unexpected sight appeared - the sun! It was watery and intermittent, but it was there, and more importantly it had stopped raining. So once we had finished eating we strolled round the piazza, no longer encumbered by umbrellas although the puddles were still plentiful.

The well of Saint Zita

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The well of Saint Zita

Leaving the Piazza Anfiteatro by another of its arches we made a short detour to the well of Saint Zita, another local saint. She was born near Lucca around 1212 and came here to work as a servant for the wealthy Fatinelli family of silk merchants at the age of 12.

Zita would often take bread from the kitchen to feed the poor. One day she was accosted by her employer who demanded to know what she had hidden in her apron. She replied that it was only some flowers, and sure enough when she revealed her load that is what it was found to be. On another occasion she left her chore of baking bread to tend to someone in need. Some of the other servants told the Fatinelli family what was happening; when they went to investigate, they claimed to have found angels in the kitchen, baking the bread for her.

The well where Zita came to draw water is now a shrine, marked with this carving of her giving water to the poor.

Basilica di San Frediano

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Basilica di San Frediano


Frediano was an Irish monk who went on a pilgrimage to Rome, but reaching Lucca on his return journey decided to stop there and become a hermit, living in the nearby mountains. He was later made bishop of the city, which was regularly threatened by flooding of the nearby river Serchio. On one occasion the people appealed to Frediano to save them. After praying he took a rake to dig a furrow which he commanded the river to follow. It did so and was safely diverted away from the city.

Frediano had a church built on this site, dedicated to San Vincenzo. When he died he was buried in it and the church rededicated in his name. What we see today is its 12th century face-lift. Unusually it is built with the main entrance facing east, rather than the more usual west, owing to the proximity of the city walls.

The façade is unique in Lucca in being ornamented by a huge golden mosaic in the Byzantine style, which even on this dull day was gleaming. It depicts the Ascension, with Christ being raised to heaven by angels either side of his throne while the apostles watch from below. Originally the Virgin Mary stood in the middle of their line, but her figure was destroyed when an extra window was added.

This was the third church we were able to go inside today and as interesting as the others, with several significant sights. The aisle is lined with Roman columns taken from the nearby amphitheatre. Two still have the remains of the colourful frescos that once covered them all as well as much of the rest of the church.

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Frescoes on the columns

The main feature here is the 12th century baptismal font, the Fonte Lustrale, the work of three different sculptors. It consists of a huge marble basin which contains a bowl resting on pillars and covered with a tempietto. The basin is carved with scenes from the story of Moses, by an unknown sculptor, as well as two other panels depicting the Good Shepherd and Six Prophets, by one Robertus, who added his own name: ‘ME FECIT ROBERTUS MAGISTER IN ARTE PERITUS’. His Byzantine style, with slim figures under small arches, is quite distinct from the Moses artist. The third artist worked on the central bowl and tempietto, and his work has classical elements, depicting figures of the Apostles and the labours of the months.

Looking carefully at the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea on the large basin, in which the soldiers of the Egyptian army are depicted as medieval knights, you can see that one of the riders appears to be facing the wrong way from the waist down – no one knows why!

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The Fonte Lustrale
- the 'wrong way round' rider is near the centre, just to the left of the crack

Near the font is a glazed carving of the Annunciation, attributed to Matteo della Robbia, decorated with garlands of fruit and cherubs.

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Matteo della Robbia's 'Annuncation'

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Detail of the Matteo della Robbia Annunciation, and the main altar

Frediano is buried under the main altar, while a chapel to the right holds the preserved relic of the body of Santa Zita, whose well we had just visited. Zita is one of the ‘Incorruptibles’ – Catholic saints whose bodies have been miraculously found not to deteriorate. In 1580, her body was exhumed and found to be uncorrupted, so was put on display in a silver casket in the church where she had prayed while alive. She was finally canonised in 1696. Although her body is ‘incorruptible’, it is brown and wizened, most likely the result of natural mummification. Only her hands and face are uncovered for viewing, the rest is dressed as she would have been when alive. It’s a somewhat macabre but at the same time quite peaceful sight.

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Relic of Santa Zita

Another chapel holds the remains of Richard the Pilgrim. He was a former king of Wessex, in south west England, but gave up the throne to make a pilgrimage to Rome. He had got as far as Lucca when he caught a fever and died. After his burial here miracles started to happen near his tomb; he was canonised and is still revered by the people of Lucca who sometimes refer to him as the King of England! Lorenzo Trento, a wealthy merchant with a particular devotion to Saint Richard, commissioned this beautiful shrine, which was carved by Jacopo della Quercia (who was also responsible for the tomb of Ilaria de Carretto which we had seen this morning in the cathedral).

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Shrine to Richard the Pilgrim

Another artist we had encountered already today was Matteo Civitali, and San Frediano has his Madonna of the Annunciation, a colourful statue which depicts her throwing up her arms in surprise at the news brought by the angel.

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Madonna of the Annunciation by Matteo Civitali

The church also houses a work by Civitali’s less famous nephew, Masseo – a painted wood altarpiece showing the entombment and assumption of the Virgin Mary.

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Altarpiece by Masseo Civitali

Porta dei Borghi

Leaving the church we mistakenly turned north along Via Filalunga rather than south towards the centre of the city, confused for a moment by the unusual orientation of the church. But serendipitously this brought us to another of the old gates, the Porta dei Borghi. This is framed by towers which serve as private residences and has a frieze of the Madonna under the arch.

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The Porta dei Borghi

By now we were weary (well, I was!) so we turned back towards the apartment following Via Fillalunga, leaving the last part of the book’s route perhaps for a later day. It was time for a rest before dinner, to sort photos and relax for a while.

Osteria del Neni

We had aperitivi in the same bar where we had enjoyed breakfast, on the Piazza San Michele in Foro For dinner we went to a nearby restaurant, the Osteria del Neni on the Via Pescheria to the south of the square. This proved a real serendipitous choice, with good down-to-earth food, nice wine (a Montepulciano), friendly service and slightly kitsch Halloween decorations.

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Aperol time, and Halloween decoration in the Osteria del Neni

We shared the board of local cured meats and cheeses to start with, then Chris had gnocchi and I had a pasta dish with ricotta and parmigiana. We were too full for dessert, sadly, as the tiramisu here is particularly recommended. Our bill was really reasonable too, at just €54.

We strolled home through the piazza and along Via Santa Croce to the apartment, with the moon breaking through the clouds - a welcome sight after the earlier rain.

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San Michele in Foro at night

Posted by ToonSarah 08:36 Archived in Italy Tagged churches rain streets architecture restaurant history italy doors garden weather details street_photography Comments (12)

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