History of Lucca

History of Lucca

Etruscan in origin and even Ligurian before that, Lucca’s Roman history is apparent, with thistle and decumanus still evident (via San Paolino and via Fillungo). Its name derives, in all likelihood, from a Ligurian Celtic word "Luck", which means "Place of the Marshes". Since ancient times the city was an important road network, especially during the Roman period, when it served as the intersection for the Clodia roads, Aurelia and Cassia.

Lucca’s origins and the Roman period

Ebook di LuccaIt has held a strategic location - close to rivers (Arno and Auser - the latter the current Serchio) and well connected to the coastal urban centres, such as Pisa and Luni, and those inland (Florence, Pistoia and Parma). The Etruscans took over from the Ligurians, in turn overwhelmed by the Romans in the late third century BC. The influence of Roman rule has left many traces of itself on the urban landscape: the city's cross plan, the theatre, the forum and the amphitheater (outside of the perimeter of what were then the Roman walls), was used for official events. In 55 BC, a meeting of the first triumvirate between Gaius Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, was held in Lucca, in which Caesar was seen to extend the proconsul in Gaul for a further five year. The outer perimeter of Piazza Anfiteatro still shows the original outline of the Roman amphitheater. The most impressive public monument from the Roman period was the amphitheater, which could hold over 10,000 spectators. Today, on top of its ruins, lies a beautiful rounded piazza, the current Piazza Anfiteatro, where you can imagine gladiators fighting in ancient times, whilst simply sipping a beer or eating a pizza.
From Christianization to Middle Ages

San Paolino, the local patron saint, was responsible for bringing Christianity to the city 50 years after the birth of Christ. Lucca was the first capital of Lombard-Tuscia, then part of the Kingdom of the Franks under Carlo Magno. It was the Lombards, recently christianized in the area by the bishop of Lucca Frediano (later made a saint), who organised the first diocese of the city and dealt with the constitution of the Pievi, the typical rural churches in the surrounding area. We would have to wait a few more centuries, coinciding with the first Crusade, in which many Lucchese took part, to witness the rapid development of the area. Lucca’s fame began to cross Italian and European borders, especially thanks to its clever merchants. The city was greatly enriched by silk production; trade in precious stones and the currency exchange business, with links throughout Europe. The high quality of the Lucchese cloth was due to the thinness of the material and the beauty of the decoration created by skilled craftsmen. At Palazzo Mansi, you can visit a workshop on cloth production with antique looms.

In the two centuries which followed, the city was embellished further in architectural beauty, with the construction of the second ring of walls and many churches, including the Cattedrale di San Martino. The houses began to take the form of tower-houses (as was the case in other Tuscan cities during the same period), of which the Guinigi Tower is the most dramatic example remaining today. The city became a city in 1161; in the second half of the 1200s the city walls were widened, incorporating some of the outlying areas such as San Frediano and the Amphitheatre. The growing wealth also brought about the beginning of many bloody struggles between the aristocracy and the mercantile bourgeoisie, events which were destined to last for centuries to come. These factions were called Guelphs and Ghibellines, the two opposing factions in Italian politics which existed from the twelfth century until the birth of Lordships in the fourteenth . The former were supporters of the pope, the latter the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Holy Face of Lucca - Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages the city grew significantly thanks to the presence of the Holy Face (Il Volto Santo), a venerated relic representing the crucified Christ, which is kept in the Cathedral of San Martino today. The presence of this sacred artifact made ​​Lucca an essential stopping point for pilgrims on their way from Rome to Canterbury on the ancient Via Francigena, (Lucca was the stage n. 26). The Francigena was at the time one of the most important transport routes in Europe.

For the people of Lucca, much of the 1200s was a period of great commercial development, manufacturing and sales, despite the constant clashes with the rival city of Pisa. With banking trade and a virtual monopoly in the silk trade, the Lucchese became so wealthy as to be able to lend their money to half of Europe, including many crowned heads of the time, even becoming the "merchants of the Pope". By 1200, the city had established itself as the second largest Guelph municipality in Tuscany, after Florence. Later it became Ghibelline at the behest of Castruccio Castracani of the Antelminelli family, born in the present Piazza Bernardini, and who in 1316 became the Lord of Lucca. The latter implemented a policy of expansion at the expense of the neighboring cities and especially challenged Guelph Florence, succeeding in a clear defeat in 1325, in the Battle of Alton, and even threatening to conquer it by digging under its walls.

Castracani ordered the construction of the Augusta fortress, to be built where Piazza Napoleone todays stands, as a symbol of his power and a reminder to the city. In 1328 Castracani was powerful enough to have the privilege of accompanying the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Louis of Bavaria, to Rome for the coronation. Castruccio was struck suddenly with malaria which led the city into anarchy and his son Henry was unable to govern and to succeed him. The German mercenary troops, who were in the territory of Lucca under the pay of the emperor, began to revolt and took possession of the Duchy of Lucca, offering it for sale to the highest bidder. Thus began a long decline for the city and the area became very appealing to a number of foreign powers. Ultimately, the Visconti of Milan prevailed and twenty years later the city underwent a disdain still remembered to this day: its submission to Pisa for 27 years, from 1349 to 1367. Lucca regained its freedom in 1370 through the intervention of Emperor Charles IV, who reconstituted the city republic in 1372. The new freedom coincided with a new economic recovery, during which, with a shrewd foreign policy, the city managed to regain some reputation in Europe, thanks to its bankers and the silk trade.

The Signoria of Paolo Guinigi

A very important figure of this period was Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca in 1400, an enlightened ruler and governor, he took it upon himself to bring about peace, the return of political exiles and an even greater economy. At that time Guinigi was one of the richest men in the world. The tower that bears his name is still the symbol of the city and the prestige that his family gained in the past. A massive building, standing on the corner of Via Sant'Andrea and Via delle Chiavi D'Oro, known everywhere for its green clumps, can be seen from far away. Due to the five oaks growing from its top, it is impossible not to see it, from any perspective in Lucca. The tower was designed both to highlight the importance of the owner’s family, as well as for defensive purposes. It was part of a closed complex, a real compact urban retreat, whose narrow streets were easily barricaded and defended. In the early fourteenth century, Lucca's urban landscape was dotted with more than 250 towers and many bell towers.
In 1403, Paolo Guinigi married the young Ilaria del Carretto , he a widow, she young and beautiful. The marriage came about for political reasons, as was custom at the time, but the love story between Paolo and Ilaria blossomed . Tragically, after only two years, Ilaria died giving birth to their second daughter Ilaria minor. Her wonderful memorial, created by Jacopo della Quercia, immediately became an icon of art history, admired in later centuries by poets and artists from all over Europe . Today it is kept in the Cattedrale di San Martino, and still arouses the wonder of those who visit it. Buildings, such as Villa Guinigi, now home to the National Museum and the Guinigi tower, still bear witness to the great power that his family held. A few years later, in 1438, a conspiracy put an end to their power, when peace with Florence was supported militarily by the Visconti of Milan.


1500 and 1600

The territorial integrity of the republic had been compromised by its political fragility. Garfagnana had been invaded in part by the Este, Barga was finally passed to the Florentines, while Pietrasanta was first occupied by the Genoese and then by the Florentines. Despite this, territorially the small republic had almost become a city-state, succeeding in developing economically in the second half of the fifteenth century through international business activities, such as the production of fine fabrics. The silk industry was in crisis in the sixteenth century, due to competition from other European centres. The crisis caused discontent and culminated with the famous " episode of 1531" also known in history as the "revolt of the ragamuffins "; a derogatory name given to silk weavers by the town’s oligarchy.

Thanks to its contacts with northern Europe, the city welcomed in part the Protestant Reformation: in almost all major towns merchant families were present, tolerated and somehow hidden from "heretics". However, due to heated clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Europe on the eve of the Thirty Years War, many Lucchese citizens went into voluntary exile to Geneva and other northern cities for fear of a Florentine cross blessed by the Pope. The departure of some of the most important families impoverished the city from capital and human and cultural resources. The Lucchese Republic became even more oligarchic with the reforms by Gonfaloniere Martino Bernardini of 1556. The latter made public office accessible only to the families of the most ancient ancestries. Between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the city began to change; many of the aristocratic town buildings were renovated according to the canons of Renaissance architecture. The medieval towers were abandoned, almost all demolished during this period.

The 1600s were quite a quiet century for Lucca. With the exception of the Wars in Garfagnana, (1604-1620) successfully conducted against the Este family to regain the territories lost earlier, the city enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, until the arrival Napoleon's troops in 1799. With a cautious diplomatic policy, which had the primary objective of maintaining the independence of the city, Lucca chose to remain cautiously on the edge of European political events, to avoid any possible clash. As a means of defense and deterrent, it was decided to create one last mighty system of walls whose construction was dependent primarily on the state budget. The project was completed in 1645. The end of the religious wars created new problems due to the protectionist policies of France and England. Trying to overcome this new situation, the Lucchese merchants found new commercial outlets in northern and Eastern Europe in countries such as Germany, Poland, Scandinavia and Russia. Nevertheless, they failed to relive the mercantile glories of the past. The economic crisis had not affected the cultural vitality of the city, which maintained fervent activity both the editorially and theatrically. On the 1st January, 1675, the Theatro del Giglio was inaugurated, the artistic point of reference throughout Tuscany. Several theatre performances were even held in the private villas of the Lucca countryside.
From the sixteenth century, Lucca found it increasingly difficult to invest capital abroad. As a result, the city began investing more resources locally in agriculture, with land reclamation and cultivation extended to the entire territory of the Republic, further enriched by noble villas like Villa Reale in Marlia. Even by the eighteenth century, Lucca was a small and prosperous republic whose secure state of finances permitted the elimination of public debt.

From the 1800s to the present day

In 1800, two women played an important role for the city: Elisa Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon and Maria Luisa of Bourbon, daughter of the King of Spain. Lucca, contested by both Austria and France, managed to maintain its autonomy in 1801 compared to the "Kingdom of Etruria" created for the Duchess Maria Luisa of Bourbon. The state formed a republican system, managing to maintain diplomatic relations with France, and achieved a certain political balance, succeeding in fostering social progression, such as the establishment of a University in 1802, the reorganisation of the road system and the creation of a network of local channels, fundamental for agricultural development. Napoleon appointed a French ambassador of Corsican origin, Antoine Christophe Saliceti, who restored the city, formed a new governmental structure, opened schools and houses of assistance and changed the structure of the republic in the principality. For the Principality, French preference went to Felice Baciocchi, husband of Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister. Baiocchi was a military man, rather than a public administrator, and he willingly gave all control of the state of Lucca to Elisa. The latter immediately showed intelligence and resourcefulness, surrounding herself with skilled employees and carrying out important public works. At Palazzo Ducale she had a refined courtyard built, inspired by the imperial court of Paris. She acted as patron of the arts with artists and writers and was involved in local government and in the court life of the patricians of Lucca. Although Elisa’s time in the city was limited, she nevertheless remained in its memory as one of its most popular characters.

After the fall of Napoleon in 1817, Elisa followed Maria Luisa of Bourbon, who established cities of absolutist government , with positive effects in the economy . Maria Luisa made ​​the Palazzo Ducale her residence, modifying it according to her taste and making it one of the richest ruling posts in Italy, thanks to the architect of the court, Lorenzo Nottolini. Alongside the latter, her court merited Lucchese associates of the highest level, such as Ascanio Mansi and Antonio Mazzarosa, who carryied out important public interventions along with the promotion of education.


Through Maria Luisa, the Walls became a public park and the first ornate trees were planted to decorate the avenues, drawing the admiration of walkers and visitors to this day. Maria Luisa, her health deteriorating, fled Lucca leaving power to her son, Charles Louis, a character portrayed as capricious and bizarre with little capacity for governance and much more adept to the worldly life and gambling. In the mid-1800s, incapable of governing and facing financial ruin, he gave Lucca to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II of Lorraine, who in exchange recognised the annuity and the usufruct of his private properties in the area. Annexed to the Grand Duchy, Lucca lost its age-old independence.


Carlo Ludovico of Bourbon sold the wonderful Lucca Palatine collection to pay for his gambling debts , including paintings by Michelangelo, Titian, Guercino, Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Van Dyck, Dürer and many others. These are now in some of the most famous museums in the world, purchased at this time by art dealers, especially English. An incalculable loss for Lucca and the whole of Italy. Given the passion of the Duke for gambling, it is not surprising that close to Lucca, he opened Bagni di Lucca, the first European casino.


The birth of the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca (Bank of Lucca), dates from this period, in 1835 to be precise. The historical headquarters of the bank is in Palazzo Gigli, in Piazza San Giusto. The headquarters of its most recent subsidiary, founded for the promotion of culture and territory, is in the San Micheletto, near Porta Elisa; a beautiful building with adjoining open cloister. The foundation often hosts exhibitions and free admission events.

Like the rest of Tuscany, between 1860-1861, Lucca became part of the Kingdom of Italy. The administrative reform of 1865 transformed the city from a small capital to a provincial city, leading to a significant economic and cultural decline. The largest population growth in the period forced many people to emigrate. It was the emigration which characterised the city at the beginning of the 1900s . Many Lucchese inhabitants, driven by necessity, left for distant countries like the United States, South America and Australia; many found their fortune abroad thanks to their skills . The name Lucchesi is associated throughout the world with exciting stories of men and women who sought to find a better life and new opportunities far from their country and family. An interesting story from this period can be found in the Paolo Cresci Museum of Emigration.

Towards the end of the 1800s Lucca had the fortune of giving birth to Giacomo Puccini, one of the greatest composers of all time. More detailed information can be found about the composer in our article, where we explore his personal life and incredible career inlcuding his world-famous and much-loved operas La Boheme, Tosca, Manon, Lescault, Turandot etc.
In the 1900s the city's infrastructure grew and agricultural and textile manufacturing companies prospered. One ancient tradition in the province is the manufacture of paper , due to the abundance of water present in the area.



The first record of paper production dates back to 1307, when the Guild of Stationers of Lucca was established. The first real paper mill was born in the mid-1500s. At the end of the 1600s there were 8 paper mills and their numbers gradually grew until, in 1834, the invention of the straw paper (yellow wrapping paper, made at the time with water, lime and straw) gave an extraordinary impetus to growth in the sector. Straw paper was easy to produce and inexpensive and production took off: in 1911 there were 106 mills and in 1971 there were 211. Such was the importance of straw-paper, that in Lucca’s Borgo Giannotti district, just outside the walls, the cost of the raw material (straw) set the retail value for the whole of Europe. When the demand for straw-paper came to an end, the production of paper for domestic use and corrugated card began. Some Lucca brands (Regina, Time, Pearl etc.) are known throughout Italy and today Lucca is a papermaking centre of global importance.

On the coast, at the beginning of 1900s, the tourist industry of Versilia was born and has continued to develop since the 1930s. Shortly after, Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi became the favorite destination for many celebrities: sports stars, celebrities of TV and cinema, politicians. La Bussola e la Capannina become historic places along the coast.

Lucca was spared from the bombardments of the Second World War, which, nevertheless, took the lives of many of its inhabitants. Nowadays, it attracts many national and international tourists, is renowned for its food and cultural excellence and hosts small and large events, ranging from the historic exhibition of antiques (every third weekend of each month), to very large events such as the Summer Festival (music festival held outdoors in July) and Lucca Comics & Games (international festival held in Autumn, dedicated to comics, role-playing games, video games and cosplayers), events drawing ​​hundreds of thousands of people to the city every year.


Who are the Cosplayers who invade Lucca in the Autumn? These are people who dress, talk and behave like a character of their choice from the millions that appear in video games, comics, animations etc. The word Cosplay is a neologism, a combination of the English words costumes + play. If you are visiting Lucca during this period, be prepared to bump into Darth Vader from Star Wars, Daenerys Targaryendarth from Game of Thrones and maybe also Lupin III , Nobi, Nobita , Pikachu, pirates, nymphs, robots ... curious?  



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