Lucca was founded by the Romans. In fact, the word Luk, where the name Lucca probably comes from, means ‘marsh’ in the language of the Liguri/Apuani, an old population that was co-existing with the Etruscans in the hills of Lucca. True to its name, Lucca sits on a wide plane of marshy land, an hour west of Florence and about half an hour east from the seaside town of Viareggio. It is most famous for its walls, first built in Roman times, and then two more times as the city expanded.
Lucca flourished under Roman rule, and its legacy is visible – of course – in the roads. The cardo maximus is the name given to the major north-south road in any Roman development, which you can see in Lucca in via Fillungo and via Cenami. Via Paolino and its extension to via Santa Croce form the major east-west road, known as the decumanus maximus. The Roman influence is still visible in the rectangular structure of the roads in the town centre.
It has a rich and colourful history including rivalries with other towns. It is rumoured that Lucchesi parents, until recently, would tell their children ‘Let’s go, the Pisans are coming!’ in order to scare them. You’ll find this gentle ribbing as the Lucchesi talk about their superiority not just to Pisa, but also to other local towns.
While the Italy we know today is a Republic, it is still a relatively young country, having been unified in 1861 under King Victor Emanuel. This is relevant because it helps explain the rivalry between towns within Tuscany itself, as well as the history of the walls.
The walls were critically important as a defensive mechanism for Lucca, which unlike other parts of Tuscany, remained independent over the centuries. Lucca’s prosperity began with the silk trade in the 11th century. At this time Lucca had pledged allegiance to Rome, but was effectively independent and acted as the feudal capital of Tuscany.
Matilda of Tuscany was an important leader in this time, and one of only medieval women who was recognised for her military achievements. After her death in 1115, Lucca began to organise itself as an independent republic, a status it was able to retain for about 500 years. While the Medici family was reigning in Florence, it was the walls that helped protect the city when Cosimo de’ Medici declared war on Lucca after becoming head of the Medici family in 1429. By attacking Lucca, he invoked the wrath of the Milanese, who had spent the early 1400s conquering parts of what we now know as Tuscany. The war was unsuccessful and Cosimo was banished for 10 years.
Lucca remained – unlike the rest of Tuscany, independent, until it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805. He placed his sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi at the helm. Eventually Lucca became part of the Tuscan state and then part of the broader Italian republic.
Unlike nearby Pisa and Livorno which were subjected to bombing, Lucca remained intact after both World Wars, and although the fortifications around the walls were well-equipped, they were never employed in battle.
Lucca and Tuscany have a strong history of tobacco production and especially cigars, and the old tobacco factory in the centre (currently under redevelopment) is an important part of the city’s history, because the women who worked here – and they were all women – were some of the first to enter the labour force under conditions comparable to men, and were able to secure a kindergarten for their children to attend while they worked. No mean feat!
Composer Giacomo Puccini is a key figure in the modern and musical history of Lucca. Born into a generations-old Lucchese family, Puccini was famous not just as the second-most well-known composer of operas, behind Verdi, but also for his love of cigars and of Torre del Lago, a nearby town where he had a holiday house.
Today, Lucca is a vibrant town with a strong tourism sector. Visitors staying a few days have the chance to immerse themselves in one of the most charming and lesser-known parts of Italy. Lucca has dozens of historical churches as well as great food from street through to high cuisine, a fascinating history of independence and a contemporary arts and culture scene. Its proximity to Pisa, the north coast of Tuscany as well as the Apuan Alps mountain range make it the perfect base for exploring an undiscovered corner of the world.