Lucca is one of the main cities of art not only in Italy but in the world. The amazing walls have preserved the historical city centre almost identical to its original appearance, with its many precious architectural trasures, such as the numerous spectacular medieval churches, towers, campanili (bell towers), and magnificent Renaissance palaces of great beauty and elegance.
At the same time, Lucca is less visited by mass tourism than the other great cities of art of Tuscany. This ancient mercantile republic, home to many wealthy families, is more discreet compared to the huge scenarios and piazzas of nearby cities like Pisa with its Piazza dei Miracoli.
We cannot list here the myriad beauties, historical and artistic attractions of Lucca. We will describe only some of the most unmissable.
Known as “the city of 100 churches”, Lucca, being an archiepiscopal city, does indeed have a great number of churches.
Many of them are built in a distinctive style also found in the neighbouring city of Pisa, the Pisano-Lucchese Romanesque: often with a Romanesque or basilican structure, rich Gothic external and internal ornaments and quadrangular campaniles.
Lucca’s main religious building, the Cathedral of San Martino (or Duomo di Lucca), often surprises the visitor because, unique among the great Italian churches, does not face an ample square but a small “piazzetta” by the same name, in harmony with the nature of this town which is free from ostentation. And yet this church is a true artistic jewel: its facade of polychromatic marbles makes it one of the most significant Romanesque buildings in Italy. Inside, along with Tintoretto’s and Ghirlandaio’s works, is the famous tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, created in 1407 by the Senese Jacopo della Quercia, the most important work of Renaissance Gothic sculpture in Italy. The Cathedral of San Martino was founded by Saint Frediano in the 6th century, rebuilt by the city’s bishop Anselmo da Baggio in 1060, and completed in the 12th-13th centuries.
Lucca’s main square, “denied” to the Cathedral, is home to another major church: San Michele in Foro, going back to the 8th century and built in its current form in 1070, a splendid church whose stunning Romanesque white facade is dominated by the statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. Inside the church is a magnificent glazed terracotta sculpture of Madonna and Child by Andrea della Robbia and a beautiful panel-picture depicting four saints by Filippino Lippi. The square where the church stands, by the same name, was the old Roman forum, and has ever since been the centre of the city’s civic life and even today is the main meeting point of the locals. On the square is also the beautiful Palazzo Pretorio (or Palazzo del Podestà), built in the 1400s by Matteo Civitali.
Lucca’s third most important church is the Basilica of San Frediano, on the square by the same name, one of the town’s most ancient churches, whose origins go back to the 6th century and was then rebuilt in 1112-1147. San Frediano’s original facade is decorated by a great mosaic added in the 1200s. Inside are precious works by Italian artists, including a superb Romanesque font. A convent is annexed to the Church (is a convent), (The church adjoins a convent,) home to the Museo Diocesano, which is one of the city’s two galleries of sacred art, the other being the Museo della Cattedrale.
Remarkable is also the Church of Santa Maria Forisportam, completed by the 12th century.
Lucca Palazzos, Squares, Galleries, Museums, Lucca Walls
In the city of Lucca, as well as in its province, there are both religious and secular art galleries and museums. One of the latter is Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, housed in the Villa Guinigi, built by Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca, around 1413, and exhibiting on various floors both an artistic and a scientific collections. The first contains archaelogical relics from prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman times, in addition to paintings, sculptures and other works of art dating from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. The second contains ancient medical instruments and measuring devices from the 1700s and 1800s.
Another art gallery is Pinacoteca Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, housed in one of the most luxurious stately palaces in Lucca, built in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The palace itself rivals with the art works of the gallery in beauty. Many rooms still maintain their original decor, with Baroque style interiors, stuccos, tapestries, ornaments. The art gallery (Pinacoteca) contains a vast collection of works from the 14th to the 18th century, including masterpieces by Jacopo da Pontormo, Bronzino, Domenico Beccafumi, Guido Reni, Tintoretto. Inside the palace, besides the art gallery, there is an important collection of Lucchese paintings, and a collection of fabrics, hangings and furnishings from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Lucca has several other cultural institutions, libraries, archives and so many more attractions that are worth visiting.
One of Lucca historic centre’s attractions is unique in the world.
We are talking about a remarkable square, although this is a misnomer as its shape is a closed ellipse or oval: the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, which owes its name to the fact that it was built on the town’s ancient Roman amphitheatre, and still retains its arena shape. In fact the whole place has incredibly maintained much of its original structure and size, which could hold about 10,000 spectators. The archways around the piazza mark the points where animals and gladiators would once have entered the arena, and now separate the houses and shops that line the oval centre. It is also known as Piazza del Mercato, due to its subsequent use as food market from the early 1800s until the 20th century. Previously it had been used as powder magazine, salt depot, and even as a prison. In the Middle Ages, when the current square was formed from the Roman amphitheatre, it was the place where Lucca citizens’ public assemblies were held.
The city walls, one of Lucca’s great prides, were built in different periods. The walls that we admire today, splendid and majestic, were reconstructed in partita nel 1504 e terminata solo nel 1645.
As in many other Italian cities, the Renaissance walls are but the last stage of Lucca’s fortifications. Lucca walls were built originally in Roman times, then in the Middle Ages and the mighty walls we see today are only the third circle of walls. Remains of past constructions still exist in various bulwarks and gates. For instance the gate Porta di San Gervasio, built in 1198, is part of the Medieval walls.
Lucca has always been a major musical centre. Many composers were born in Lucca, including important composers like Luigi Boccherini and Giacomo Puccini. Puccini, author of “La Boheme”, “Turandot” (which includes the celebrated aria “Nessun Dorma“), “Tosca”, “Madame Butterfly” and many other famous operas, is one of most important classical music composers. The house where he was born in Lucca has been turned into a museum and is open to the public. There is a Puccini Festival held every summer in nearby Torre del Lago, with his operas performed in an open air theatre by Lago di Massaciuccoli, the lake on whose shores Puccini lived and where his villa can still be visited.
Lucca is also a road and rail centre, and the market town of a prosperous agricultural area exporting, among other products, high-quality extra virgin olive oil.