Lucca – A Tuscan Town

A CITY in Italy is a very different thing from a city in England. The history of England is great and glorious, but scarce one of her cities has any story that could properly be called history. It is very different with the cities of Italy, which have each, of themselves, the separate histories of great and independent nations: Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples, for example;—or take smaller towns, Bologna, Parma, Modena; Siena, Pisa, Volterra; Pistoia, even, or Padua:—to know the chronicles of such cities is a lesson in universal history and no mere study of everyday municipal life. Think only for a moment of Dewsbury or Hartlepool; of Manchester, Liverpool, or Leeds; of Glasgow, Middlesborough, Birmingham, or Cardiff:—here we have fruitful industry, busy stirring events, individual heroism and enterprise, but not history on the universal scale. The mere mention of such cities by name serves of itself to bring out the contrast with the dominant note of an Italian city.

In the rich galaxy of the histories of Italian cities I doubt if there is a story more striking, more enchanting, than the story of the Magnificent People and Commune of Lucca. I cannot write the history of Lucca in a brief chapter, but I must spare a paragraph or two to the changes of dominion she has undergone, without which it would be impossible to understand many common-place allusions and everyday events in the old town. Lucca maintained her existence as an independent State down to the year 1847, and she is still the capital of the modern Italian province bearing her name. I should be afraid to say when her separate existence began, but the year 116o saw her a Sovereign Republic with great power and many privileges. The first two centuries of the Republic’s freedom were broken by the domination of an occasional tyrant—Uguccione della Faggiola, Lord of Pisa, for example, who made himself Lord also of Lucca, until expelled by the famous Castruccio Castracane (” then the greatest war-captain in Europe,” says Mr. Ruskin), who in turn became Duke of Lucca, and proved a kindly and beneficent despot. Lucca fell under Pisan domination from 1342 to 1369, but from that year onwards down to the year 1799, coveted by all, subdued by none, she enjoyed an uninterrupted, contented, proud, and extremely prosperous existence as a free and independent Republic. Unlike the Republics of Genoa and Venice, she even escaped annexation by France. True the French in that year insisted upon her Republican constitution being brought up to date, but the Lucchesi survived the ordeal, and the Fathers of the city seem to have behaved with great courage and patriotism under circumstances very distasteful to the majority of the people.

Napoleon made a definitive end of the Re-public in 1805, and erected Lucca, along with Piombino, into a Principality for his sister Elisa and her husband Count Felice Baciocchi. The good Count was little more than a figurehead, but Elisa succumbed to the fascinating influences of the Lucchese character, and ruled in an en-lightened and exemplary fashion. She was forced to leave Lucca in 1814 when the change in her brother’s fortunes at length came about. Lucca was made a Duchy at the mischief-making Congress of Vienna, and given temporarily to Maria Louisa of Bourbon, Duchess of Parma (who had been Queen also of the short-lived Kingdom of Etruria), in compensation for Parma, which was given to Napoleon’s Empress for life. Maria Louisa died in 1824, and was succeeded by her son Charles Louis, Duke of Lucca, who in 1847 ceded Lucca to the Grand Duke of Tuscany,’ and two months later, on the death of Napoleon’s widow, became Charles II., Duke of Parma. Mother and son were greatly beloved for their justice, generosity, and the lavish benefits they conferred upon a people to whom they were only temporarily tied. They have left a grateful memory behind them in the old Republic, and Maria Louisa’s statue by Lorenzo Bartolini is still allowed to adorn the Piazza Napoleone in Lucca. I have been as brief as possible with these dry details, but I can assure the intelligent reader that he would not long be comfortable in Lucca without a familiar knowledge of them.

One word more on the history of Lucca. There is perhaps no State of which the history might be written so fully and so vividly, thanks to the careful custody at all times of the State’s Archives. All the material is there ready to hand, and it has already been digested in the splendid “Inventario “l of the late Salvatore Bongi, who, during his long term of keepership, reduced the Archivio to its present most perfect methodical order. The Archivio di Stato of Lucca, with its wealth of parchments (the earliest bears date the 2nd April 790), with its immense collection of charters, statutes, edicts, treaties, letters-patent, bulls and briefs, and imperial privileges, is one of the most interesting places of the kind in Italy. I recommend even a cursory visit to the speeding traveller, and his lot will be enviable if he have the good fortune to find in his guide Baron Francesco Acton, one of the assistant keepers, and, in a sense, an Englishman.

In approaching Lucca you will come either from Pisa or Pistoia, and either way your eyes will be made glad by the rich and beautiful country through which you have to pass. It is the country of the husbandman, the country of the vine, the olive, the mulberry, of tall maize and waving corn, of the scarlet trefoil and the purple vetch. On either hand you behold one vast fruitful stretch of fertile land all assiduously cultivated by the hand of man; it is hard to understand in such a place why Italy is the poorest and not the richest country in the world. And as you approach Lucca, you will see that it is a city entirely girded by a stout brick wall of closely wrought and very perfect masonry, and that this wall and its rounded bastions are planted with avenues of shady trees,—maples, acacias, limes, and elms. From the station you will enter the city by the Porta San Pietro, where over the stood the arms of were not perfectly intelligible to every Italian peasant, and as if liberty were not all the more glorious for being as old as the Latin language.

Having passed through the gate and satisfied the courteous octroi (dazio consumo) officials that you have nothing to declare, you will, if you take Mr. Hare’s advice, drive straight to the Albergo dell’ Universo, and take your ease in that inn. It is good, sound, and serviceable advice. The hotel occupies the first floor of the old Palazzo Arnolfini (sixteenth century) and fronts the Teatro del Giglio, where in September there is excellent opera. Mr. Hare, who is usually reticent in such matters, launches into quite unwonted praise of the old inn. ” It is,” he says, ” most excellent and reasonable. It has a small garden, and its large lofty rooms are cool and airy in summer. This inn deserves special notice, because, without losing its character as an Italian albergo, it has all the comfort and cleanliness which English travellers require.”

In turning over the leaves of the visitors’ book at the inn, I discovered unexpected and exalted testimony to its worth. Here is what I found

” Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Collingwood stayed here three weeks in the October of 1882; and have been entirely comfortable in the care of M. Nieri and his servants.”

The Lucchesi remember Mr. Ruskin’s several visits very well, and with much pride and plea-sure. They tell many an anecdote about the “gran scrittore inglese,” who used to go about with a man bearing a ladder, and scale the facades and interiors of their churches, peering into all manner of nooks and crannies with strange persistency and devotion. And the landlady of the Universo will tell you, not without a touch of compassion in her voice, how the “povero Signor Collingwood ” was made to lie on his back, and copy the design on the ceiling of the master’s bedroom. Small wonder when one has seen the design, which is delicate and extremely beautiful.

The first glimpse of the city from outside is so entrancing, that leaving for a moment churches, palaces, monuments, and picture galleries, our natural instinct leads us straight back to the walls. The walk round these walls still remains one of the most beautiful in Italy. It is not what it was (alas!), for the moderns cut down many portions of the splendid avenues which sweep right round the ramparts. Still on the bastions many old trees have been left standing, and the young avenues on the curtains are growing apace and thriving. No one who did not know the splendour of the old order would dream of quarrelling with the new. On some of the bastions there are statues. Mazzini and Benedetto Cairoli are here, far from home, and seemingly out of their element: King Charles 11I. of Spain seems more in place, for he was at least grandfather to Maria Louisa, first Duchess of Lucca. The city is entirely surrounded by hills and mountains, with the ‘exception of a gap to the east, but the hills are at a respectful distance, so that the city is not uncomfortably inclosed. The prospect is gentle and most alluring. From the walls, due south, one gets a good view of the handsome aqueduct that brings cool sweet drinking-water from the hills to the town. It is composed of 459 arches, and is a good three miles in length. This is one of the many benefits for which the Lucchesi bless the memory of Maria Louisa of Bourbon, their Duchess.

Lucca has ever been, and still is, a very religious city. To satisfy the spiritual wants of a population of some 22,000 souls there are about seventy churches and chapels, many of them still in use. Here and there the powers that be have seized upon a church or a monastery—often with too little regard for Lucchese tradition and sentiment—and turned it to secular uses. San Francesco, the fine church of the Conventual Franciscans, which contains the tomb of Castruccio Castracane, the ” war-captain,” is now a busy military store; and in order to gaze upon the modest resting-place of the great warrior, one has to obtain a permit from the Colonel in command. Here too is the mausoleum of Mon-signor Giovanni Guidiccioni, the elegant poet and polished litterateur, whose letters are an Italian classic. It is boarded up, and may no longer be seen, though I have read somewhere that it is of great beauty.

The three most interesting of the seventy churches are the Duomo (San Martino), the Lombard church of San Frediano, and the church of San Michele (“a noble piece,” says John Evelyn). Both San Frediano and San Michele date in great part from the eighth century, but you learn in Lucca to take dates of three figures without drawing breath, and soon come to regard the eventful century of St. Francis and St. Dominic as matter of very recent history. On the topmost point of the facade of San Michele is a huge sculptured figure of the Archangel, which dominates the whole city. In San Frediano there is a majolica Annunciation of the Della Robbia school, literally a dream of beauty, and one of Francesco Francia’s best pictures, a Coronation of the Virgin. Here likewise is the tomb and incorrupt body of Santa Zita, model and patroness of waiting-women, who is honoured even in far-away London by the English branch of the servant-maids’ Guild of St. Zita. Of the rich treasures of the Duomo it is impossible to speak in a brief chapter. Professor Ridolfi has devoted a stout volume to the subject, in which the curious may revel and riot.’ But the Duomo contains the greatest of all Lucca’s treasures, that which throughout the ages of faith caused the eyes of all Christendom to be turned upon her, in comparison of which her exploits in war, her flourishing commerce, her triumphs in art, were as nothing in the estimation of the nations this is the VOLTO SANTO, and of this singular treasure, too easily dismissed by the enlightened traveller, I crave leave to say a word or two.

The Volto Santo is a cedar-wood crucifix about thirteen feet in length, the figure of it clad in the seamless coat reaching to the feet. It was carved at Ramah, a city of the tribe of Benjamin, by that master of Israel whose name was Nicodemus, and while he slept an angel finished the face which he had feared to begin. Then it passed to the custody of holy men, who jealously shielded it from the fury of the Iconoclasts, until 782, when it was discovered to a pilgrim bishop from Piedmont, Gualfredo by name, by an angel of the Lord, who appeared to him in a vision. Gualfredo, always instructed by the angel, put it on board of an empty bark in the neighbouring port of Joppa, and committed it to the mercy of the waves. The bark was miraculously guided to the old city of Luni, near the modern Spezia, and here sojourning at the time of its arrival was Giovanni, Bishop of Lucca. Giovanni, admonished he too by an angel of the Lord, was commanded to bear the holy image to Lucca. But the people of Luni not unnaturally objected to thus losing this miraculous treasure. Finally, it was agreed that the Volto Santo should be placed on a cart drawn by two white oxen, and that wherever these oxen went, there the Volto Santo should remain. The oxen went straight to the city of Lucca, and there the Volto Santo has ever since remained, working great wonders, and drawing to this day vast crowds of pilgrims from all corners of the Catholic world.

The wonders and marvels of this old legend are not so wonderful nor so marvellous as the Volto Santo itself, which you may see with your own eyes at Lucca on any of the four or five days of the year on which it is exposed to the veneration of the faithful. Look at the representation of it here reproduced; look at this face so full of pathos, of infinite love, and pity, and sorrow, so Divine in fact, and you feel quite naturally that you are on the borderland of miracle, and insensibly nearer to understanding what manner of man was He who was despised and rejected of men. It is easy to prove that the Volto Santo has been in Lucca over a thousand years; it is easy to prove that it came from the East. Whether Nicodemus carved it, or whether it came to Luni in an open boat, does not seem to matter much. All our interest in scientific methods of criticism fades in the presence of a face that is so little terrestrial that it is difficult to understand how the mind of man can have imagined, or the hand of man have fashioned it. The piety of ages has added to the simulacrum. a rich bejewelled robe of velvet covering the old cedar-wood robe, and a massive golden crown studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, a marvel of the goldsmith’s most elaborate art. The feast of Santa Croce on the 14th September of each year, when the Volto Santo is exposed, is still the greatest day in the Lucchese calendar.’

Lucca can boast of one supreme artist, the sculptor Matteo Civitali, who was born in 1436 and died in 1501. There is an old tablet in existence which says he was a barber until he was forty, when suddenly seized with a love of sculpture, he as suddenly developed into a sculptor. Certainly no record tells who his master was, and the learned Marchese Mazzarosa thinks that he had no master. It is likely enough, for spontaneity is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his work. It is pretty certain that Matteo took to sculpture quite late in life, for there is no known work of his before the year 1472, when he was thirty-six years of age. He was a Lucchese to the finger-tips, and, with the exception of six statues for the Chapel of San Giovanni in the Duomo of Genoa, he did no work that was not destined for his native city and her territory. To this day, outside Lucca, you cannot well study Civitali. There is his statue of Faith in the Bargello at Florence; a frieze, two tabernacles, and statuettes of the Virgin and St. John Baptist at South Kensington the head of a woman at Berlin—these, and the statues at Genoa, are (I believe) the only works of Civitali that have found their way beyond the borders of the old Republic. The Duomo of Lucca is full of his masterpieces. There is the tomb of Pietro da Noceta (1472), the secretary of Pope Nicholas V., whose recumbent figure, with its startlingly sweet and peaceful face, makes you more than half in love with death; there are the two adorable Angels (1477) in adoration, one on either side of the Tabernacle, in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament; there is the modest tomb and beautiful bust of Domenico Bertini (1479), the pulpit (1494-1498), the altar and tomb of St. Regulus (1484), the figure of St. Sebastian (1484), the first genuine instance perhaps of mediaeval sculpture in the nude, and amongst other works, two exquisite holy-water stoups. Outside San Michele there is a Virgin and Child, inside San Romano the tomb of the saint. But the crowning glory of Matteo Civitali (to my mind) is the Madonna delle Tosse, the sweet figure of the Blessed Virgin with her Infant at the breast, which is hidden away—and almost forgotten—in the Church of the SS. Trinita. Santa Trinita is an obscure and barn like church of the cinquecento, out-of-the-way and most uninviting in its exterior. Civitali’s priceless work is covered by a curtain (for it is an object of devotion), so that unless you know of it and ask to see it, you will miss one of the greatest sights of Lucca. Some of the subtlest qualities of the work—a certain fresh youthfulness that in the original tempers the idea of the mother and the matron—seem to have evaporated in the photograph from which this engraving is reproduced, but happily the sweet expressive mouth and loving eyes have been to the full preserved. The statue could only have been designed by a man of the softest heart, and indeed it is precisely in the expression of love and tenderness that Matteo excels all his fellows. Civitali was, moreover, a fine and practical architect. He is thought to have built the Palazzo Pretorio, and to him belongs the honour of having built the dome-like chapel (Tempietto) in which is preserved the sacrosanct and venerable Volto Santo. In r893 the Lucchesi, with much ceremony, placed a very creditable statue of him in the Loggia of the Palazzo Pretorio.

Lucca is a curiously recondite city. It abounds in treasures and surprises, but few of them are patent. You must live there a long time, and be patient and very courteous, if you would fathom its secrets. Gradually you will become aware that there is matter of interest hidden away in the old town abundant enough to last a lifetime; gradually the full fascination of this unique place grows upon you; with difficulty you tear yourself away from it and go back to the rough, jostling, immoderate and unmeasured life of the world outside, but never do you succeed in rooting out of your heart the sweet ennobling memories of this most favoured spot of God’s earth. And perhaps the warmest corner of all in your heart will be reserved for the Lucchesi themselves. What a people! What a nation! Piety, probity, frugality, the quality of honest pride born of long independence under wise, just, and free government—perfect skill in manufactures and agriculture, idiosyncratic, unparagoned, the growth of illustrious and sane traditions—all these characteristics of their national individuality still survive in the Lucchesi, and have not yet given way before the automatic uniformity that has too mercilessly been adopted by the modern unity. Heine—the semi-pagan Heinrich Heine—has luminously described the Lucchese territory in a single sentence of two solitary words. Nirgends Philistergesichter, he says: nowhere may you see the face of a Philistine. This high eulogium of Lucca by one of the dearest favourites of the modern world should surely cause the busy sightseer to turn aside for a moment from the beaten track of travellers, and behold with his own eyes a city that is free of Philistines and a country that recalls all the glories of the Promised Land.