Lucca & Pisa
More photos here
During the COVID years I'd
had a guided art history trip to Lucca first postponed and then finally
cancelled, and then last October another guided trip there was booked but
I had to cancel it when a COVID jab resulted in so much leg pain I
couldn't walk. So to lift the curse I've booked a solo trip, in
combination with a few days in Pisa to finish a churches page I began
before the pandemic.
Afternoon flight, trouble-free journey to Heathrow, short queue at automated bag-drop, and no wait at all at security or at Pret for the veggie New Yorker and mango juice. But then boarding was delayed, we took off late, and arrived about half an hour late in Pisa. (In flight I asked for my usual black coffee and shortbread, and the attendant asked if I wanted English Breakfast or Earl Grey. When I restated 'black coffee' she said 'yes you want it black but which type?' She eventually realised her mistake, but the whole exchange had a weird scripted Monty Python feel.) Then the baggage carousel at Pisa airport jammed and after some waiting and confusion the rest of our luggage started appearing on a different carousel. My hope of catching the 7.20 train from Pisa Centrale was thereby dashed, but by catching the 8.50 I got to meet Ilene and Gary of ouritalianjourney.com The journey flew by, thanks to story-swapping and Lucca gelateria tips, and they also helpfully walked me to my hotel, the Ilaria, where my welcome was equally warm. When I reported on my airport problems the desk clerk said 'Oh you came in at Pisa airport then'.
A good quiet night, but having got in late last night too tired to venture out and eat I sure needed my breakfast. A good sized mug of black coffee, tasty granola, fresh croissants and (gasp!) good fresh orange juice earned the hotel high marks. But the airy breakfast room filled up, and exploration beckoned. But after a slice of apple cake. And some more coffee.
I decided to have an investigatory wander on my way to the Duomo and confirmed my impression that Lucca sure has a lot of churches. The Duomo has an impressive exterior and is famous for the Volto Santo: a crucifix supposedly carved by Nicodemus and miraculously transported to Lucca in 782. It usually lives in an octagonal tempietto in the nave but it's currently laid out in the left transept in a plywood restoration lab. The right transept is a feast tombs for fans of local Renaissance sculptor Matteo Civitali. In the sacristy nearby is the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto Guinigi by Jacopo della Quercia. The altarpiece in there was my highlight, a shining panel by Ghirlandaio.
Across the Duomo's picturesque piazza is Santi Giovanni e Reparata. which has a rather lovely Romanesque interior. but is now deconsecrated and devoted to Puccini concerts. It's north transept is a large baptistery, with some nice fresco panels and considerable archaeological remains below.
Lunch was a mozzarella and tomato panino, with lime and pepper crisps, taken back to the hotel and eaten on the first-floor terrace. Tea was then taken in my room before my traditional siesta.
Afterwards I walked the top of the wall clockwise as far as Piazzale Verdi and then came down to ground level to find some churches. San Frediano was open and I had an hour, but it was not long enough. It's a Romanesque asymmetrical treat with odd chapels and views, and was a joy for not being busy at this time of evening. The best bit is, arguably the unusual four-bay baptistery, with two more chapels beyond, (see far right) containing a fine 12th-century font with reliefs of the story of Moses, with an odd-shaped cover. Behind it is a lunette of the Annunciation by Marco della Robbia and two fine fresco fragments. A 19th-century monument, to Lazaro Papi. provided an unusual highlight (see right) in the evening light.
After more warm walking east I ended up in L'Oste di Lucca with a pizza bufala with basil and onion and a malty Moretti La Rossa. The bill had to be paid in the sophisto food shop next door, which was odd.
In the evening my room benefited from the sound of a nearby brass band.
To the church of San Michele first, One of those roughish barely-decorated well-used city centre churches, but old and pretty unrebuilt. On the inner facade is a nice 14th century fresco of the Virgin and Child and to it's left in the corner is a worn Virgin and Child statue made for the façade by the ubiquitous Matteo Civitali, but replaced outside with a copy. There's also a terracotta relief of the Virgin and Child attributed to Luca della Robbia and a Filippino Lippi panel of four saints which doesn't fit its decorated niche well, so I guess it wasn't painted for here.
Heading west and ticking off some more closed churches I ventured outside the walls to find the city cemetery. It doesn't have the reputation of the likes of Bologna and Verona but it did not disappoint. I had a good hour there but it was hot and I was somewhat unnerved by the place closing for lunch. So I headed back, through a different, and worryingly deserted dank and labyrinthine entrance through the wall, picking up a mozzarella and tomato panino and some pear and yoghurt sponge.
Afterwards I went the opposite way around the walls, so got to San Frediano quicker, for a second visit, and the nice man accepted my ticket from yesterday. Another hour was spent inside and San Frediano is set fair for a Best Church in Lucca award. Odd fresco bits, asymmetrical layout, odd chapels and a mysterious Roman pillar - what's not to like. Carrying on anti-clockwise around the mura urbane I came down to ground level and wandered, buying some expensive pear jam and mostardina toscana, and eating at La Piadineria. Their Levante was grilled veggies, hummus (crema di ceci), tomato and rocket in a folded circular flatbread, and molto tasty.
This morning I made for a couple of churches I was told would best be investigated on a Saturday, Angeli Custodi and San Francesco, and my luck was in. On my way I found Santa Maria Fuorisportam open and it had the usual Lucca grey stone interior, fresco fragments, a strigillated Christian sarcophagus adapted as a font and placed in a decorated niche, and two altarpieces by Guercino. It also has a somewhat dominating 19th century tomb in the north transept of one Antonio Mazzarosa (see detail right), a reformer and writer who died only a few weeks after unification.
The oratory of the Angeli Custodi had been described to me as 'a scream' , and it did not disappoint - a small barrel-vaulted church, but with the walls, the apse and it's arch all hugely covered in mind blowing large-scale trompe l'oeil frescos, with masses of putti, angels and garlands (see right). San Pietro Somaldi looked open but a red rope a cross the door and big flower action inside presumably presaged a wedding. San Leonardo is a sober pale green box inside, with dark blue vaulting and marble pilasters, but has a surprise large circular chapel, handsome like the best funerary chapels in monumental cemeteries, and presumably is 19th century too. San Francesco is a bit plain too - big long bare box, stripped down and cleaned up for concerts, with an impressive altar-like tomb of a bishop, with the more modest wall tombs of composers Geminiani and Boccherini opposite. The chapels either side of the apse/choir (bare but with stalls) have some nice fresco remains, but that was about it.
The Villa Guinigi art gallery nearby was opening at 12.00, so I killed 15 minutes on the old Mura Urbane and then had the gallery to myself, just me and the attendant, following me around the rooms and making calls. It started to rain just as I left the gallery, of course, and so as I neared the centre of town, and lunch, I was really quite wet. Then a regazzo sitting on a wall got up and ducked out of sight and as I passed spat into the side of my face and ran away laughing with his two mates. A nasty AND stupid ambush, as I was pretty soaked to begin with.
For my last evening I decided on another visit to the cemetery as I'd only seen one side of the old cloister. A certain cavalier attitude to fences was needed to investigate chapels and arcades where dust had been settling, birds crapping and ceilings crumbling, seemingly for decades. It's the most neglected cemetery I've visited anywhere, and the bar of care in Italy is not high. Having slipped through some fencing I disturbed a large ginger cat, who presumably sees very few people, who scarpered even before I could focus my camera.
Today's gelato: a grapefruit and almond crunch cono on the way to the cemetery; today's dinner: a piadina on the way back at the same place as last night.
John Spencer Hill Ghirlandaio's Daughter
I reviewed The Last Castrato, the author's first in the Detective Carlo Arbati series, set in Florence, years ago. This was number two, and begins a few months later with an elderly Brit toff, living the good life in a Guinigi mansion outside Lucca, killing a surprise American visitor with a statue. In the dead man's pocket is a piece of paper with just the word Ghirlandaio on it, and he's also found to be carrying a gun and silencer. As the Brit had been employed as a restorer by the shady art dealer who owns the villa we begin to suspect some dark art deception. As we learnt last time Mr Hill can hardly be accused of a lean writing style, and so when added to this heady brew are the various wives, maladjusted and surly children, and mistresses of the figures involved, who are mostly very hard to like, the sweaty sex and much imbibing of strong liquor, we are in for the proverbial bumpy ride. Arbati is in Lucca for a break, but can he resist helping his colleague, and the pretty American wife of the nastiest piece of work? There is plenty of local Lucca detail, including a visit to the Duomo, and the art chat rings true. There's a truth to the psychology and characters, and joy to be had with period details like Sony Discman CD players, trains with compartments and cameras that use film.
The Villa San Felice seems to be based on a real Guinigi villa in Capannori (see above), currently on sale for €10,000,000.
Brian Robert Lindquist
The Wanderer's Guide To Lucca
It's all there is in English apart from those, sometimes OK, guidebooks available in gift shops in the city itself. A good three-quarters of the book is devoted to the churches, but they are weirdly not in alphabetical order, but seemingly grouped geographically, maybe to follow a walk which was not then written. All very odd.
Florence // London
// Berlin // Trips