I never quite understood what was so great about St Martin slicing his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: why didn’t he just hand over the whole cloak and be done with it? He was a soldier – would he have to account to his superiors for a missing cloak, whereas half a cloak he could get away with?

St Martin’s generous gesture is memorialised on the façade of the duomo of Lucca (in a replica statue, the original now being placed out of the elements inside the cathedral), a splendid example of the so-called ‘Pisan Gothic’ style of church building in northern Tuscany, beloved of John Ruskin, and also seen in the nearby St Michele in Foro, where the warrior angel looms from the peak of the roof over a piazza which was originally part of the Roman forum.

The cathedral of San Martino at Lucca, its symmetrical façade curtailed by the adjoining and pre-existing campanile.

The scene is broadly unchanged since Bellotto painted this veduta, now in York Art Gallery.

Saint Martin wields his sword to cut his cloak in half.

Below St Martin, a man and a bear embrace, or possibly wrestle to the death?

San Michele in Foro, in evening light.

The warrior archangel, the Devil writhing on his spear, with two horn-blowing companions.

On the side of St Michele, a centaur(?) with a natty hat and an even nattier moustache.

Lucca has other remarkable churches: San Frediano, with its spectacular external mosaic, for example.

The mosaic façade of San Frediano.

I had no idea that Frediano was an Irishman who became bishop of Lucca in the sixth century, rebuilding this church after it was burnt down by pagan Lombards, and dedicating it to the martyr St Vincent of Zaragosa: he was buried in it, and his own name eventually supplanted that of the original dedicatee. He was also famous for using a rake to divert the river Serchio, notorious for flooding the city, into a less damaging course.

This predella in the Uffizi, Florence, by Filippo Lippi, shows Bishop Frediano with his rake; it’s reminiscent of the way small leats between fields are dammed up with mud and then reopened as need arises for irrigation. And it’s nice to see his companions holding his scarlet cloak out of the mud.

Inside the church is displayed the body of Santa Zita, exemplar and patron of maidservants and housekeepers, discovered uncorrupted 300 years after her death in 1272.

The body of Santa Zita, displayed in San Frediano.

Also within a stroll of the duomo are San Giusto, with its painted lunette surrounded by elaborate carving,

San Giusto.

and perhaps the second best known feature of the city, the Piazza del’Anfiteatro. Lucca was originally an Etruscan town, and its grid of streets closely follows the familiar pattern of the Roman colonia it subsequently became. The amphitheatre was robbed for its stone after the collapse of Roman authority, but the subsequent buildings followed the ovoid outline of the original arena. A palazzo in the centre was swept away in 1830 to recreate a large open space in which a food market was established, replacing that outside San Michele in the ancient forum, where scenes thought unseemly in the proximity of a church were apparently common.

The Piazza Anfiteatro, from a restaurant …

But the most famous feature of Lucca is undoubtedly its Renaissance ramparts, the most intact surviving such fortifications in Europe. Forming a complete circuit enclosing the city, with eleven bastions (some rounded, some pointed) at regular intervals, and six gates, it was turned into a recreational area for the populace by the so-called Princess of Lucca and Piombino, and later Grand Duchess of Tuscany, aka Élisa Bonaparte (1777–1820) younger sister of the more famous Napoleon, who gave her a chunk of Italy to rule in 1805.

A sculpture under one of the entry gates, now used as an art centre.

To be (grudgingly) fair, she seems to have made a reasonable job of it, although she damaged the historical heritage of the city when she demolished two churches to make way for a palace for herself and a piazza in front of it. She was an effective founder of hospitals, and of schools for girls as well as boys (she herself had been educated at Mme de Maintenon’s school for girls at St Cyr before it was (ironically) closed by the Revolution and turned into a military academy for boys). She also did her best to reduce her brother’s incessant demands for tax money from her impoverished subjects, falling out severely with him on several occasions.

One of the bastions, viewed from the rampart.

The ramparts are planted with different varieties of trees in the different sections (we were just too late for the flowering of the tulip trees, alas), and seem very popular with joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers as well as just strollers, with terrific views inward across the old city and outward beyond the (limited) suburbs to the surrounding hills. And they are good for wild flowers as well as trees.

Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), abundant on the ramparts.

Another Good Thing given to the city by Élisa (in 1811) was the Botanic Garden (another Orto Botanico ticked off, hurrah!).

Map of the Botanic Garden, tucked in under the ramparts (Mura urbane).

This small space in a corner of the ramparts (and visible from them) is exemplary in its maintenance and in its proper botanical labelling, with some really fascinating plants, including a most enormous Ginkgo biloba.

The massive (and almost hollow) Ginkgo in the Botanic Garden, with a human for scale.

I asked a passing gardener whether it was male or female, and he assured me that it was male, demonstrating with dramatic gestures the well-known disadvantages of the female in polite society.

Magnolia figo, its creamy flowers, like those of the banana, edged with pinkish purple. From China, it was first described by the Portuguese Jesuit missionary and naturalist, João de Loureiro (1717–91).

I was particularly taken with three plants: the Magnolia figo, or banana shrub, so called because of its banana-like flowers; the Pavonia multiflora in a glass-house, and the gorgeous Loropetalum chinense.

The Brazilian Pavonia multiflora, first described by St Hilaire in 1827. The bright red ‘flowers’ are in fact bracts: the flower itself (emerging in the centre) is purple, with purple stamens.

The gorgeous white (many species are pink) Loropetalum chinense, named by Daniel Oliver (1830–1916), who was Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew. (In 1864 he published a standard botany textbook, based on manuscripts left by Henslow and illustrated by the latter’s youngest daughter, Anne Henslow Barnard.) It is a witch hazel relative, and apparently hardy in the UK …

It was very much azalea, prunus and camellia time, and there were some staggering peonies on display, too,

Peonies in Palazzo Pfanner, just after the rain.

especially in the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly the house in which the first proper (i.e. German) brewery was set up in Lucca in 1846, at the demand of Grand Duke Charles Louis of Bourbon, by Felix Pfanner (1818–92), a brewer originally from Bavaria but then living in Austria.

Palazzo Pfanner from the garden. The wide loggia on the first floor would be perfect for sitting out of an evening and surveying the terrain …

The stairway up to the loggia with its painted ceiling.

Felix rented the garden and cellars of the seventeenth-century palazzo from the Controni family, who (like many other Lucchese) had made their fortune in silk production. The brewery and beer garden were so successful that eventually he bought the whole palace, and it became his family home, and that of his distinguished son Pietro (1864–1935) – surgeon, philanthropist and Mayor of Lucca from 1920 to 1922.

The view across the garden, with the ramparts (on which a cyclist can be seen) forming the backdrop.

Part of the house is an intriguing museum of his medical instruments, books, and other items (including a broad bean seed extracted from the nasal passage of a ten-year-old boy), but the garden – as formal and symmetrical as it can be in a rather asymmetrical plot (again, tucked under the ramparts) – is completely knock-out. We visited after a short shower (the only bad weather in five days), so that all the leaves and flowers on the beautifully tended plants were fresh and sparking: an unforgettable experience

Next stop, Florence – and yes, another Orto Botanico!


This entry was posted in Botany, Exploration, Gardens, History, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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