I guess that once you have climbed the walls and walked a little bit around, you immediately get the idea that the city skyline is featured by the tallest building ever raised by man: the tower.
Maybe in your mind and in your daily experience you are more used to see modern skyscrapers made of steel and glass, instead of bricks and stones. Materials have definitely changed since the medieval times, but maybe not so much the use and the purpose to construct these high buildings.
Around the 1300, the towers were mainly built for defensive reasons and apparently Lucca could count almost 200 towers, plus the medieval set of walls was marked by them and again they were the key essentials to protect the center in case of an attack from the enemies.
A wonderful snapshot of that period is definitely the painting “The Coronation of the Virgin Mary” inside the church of Saint Paolino. Just take a look at the bottom center of the canvas, it will all be very clear why the poet Fazio degli Uberti in the 14th century wrote:
On our approach, we saw enclosed within a circle
Towering Lucca, in aspect like a forest
In casual colloquy with meadows and the River Serchio.
I can’t help to imagine the feelings of a medieval pilgrim that after a long day, walking many kilometers, could spot this view in far distance.
However, later, the towers became a housing solution and eventually a social attribute. This architectural form was considered a symbol of wealth and power. The competition among the noble families could be measured in “the higher the tower, the greater was the power of that family”.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you who won this challenge, instead I will be happy to share less known legends and stories during a tour. My favorite of all time is this one: Emilio Grassolo built a fifteen storey tower so he could spy his lover Gemma Assunto, while she has having a bath in her private garden in Via del Loreto.
Later on the families lost interest in the tower game and found out the comforts of living a life horizontally in palaces, besides the City Council issued new rules and limitations regarding the height and the maintenance. So many towers were cut, abandoned or adapted in the new palaces.
Luckily, Lucca has preserved few good examples which nowadays are still a unique landmark outlining the cityscape and moreover they are open to visitors and I like to hear comments such as: “Look there’s people up there!”
So, these are the 3 stunners you can climb in the city.
Torre delle Ore – The Clock Tower
Even though it is centrally located on the main street, Via Fillungo, it might be easy to miss it, because you might be distracted by the fancy Italian fashion displayed in the clothing windows and the entrance is quite small and narrow . Gosh, I still remember the summer I worked in there!
There are not many historical documents about it, but very likely this solid and high building belonged to the Quartigiani family at least till 1390 when the City Council decided to make the most of its primary position and to install here the first public clock along with a bell.
In a couple of years, thanks to Labruccio, Lucca had finally this new modern tool (it was still without dial), which was necessary not only to strike the hours but even to organize the daily life and the military defense.
By the way, if you decide to climb this tower you will find a more modern clock dating back the eighteenth century, made by Louis Simon, a very famous Swiss artist.
It is absolutely fascinating to see all the mechanism, the wheels , the ropes and other fittings and realize that everything is still working. In 2017 the clock was restored and the sound of its bell is sometimes my reference point during the day.
Info Sheet for the Clock Tower:
- Where: Via Fillungo
- When: it is opened between March and October/November
- Price: 5€ (ask for the combo reduced ticket if you are interested to climb the Guinigi, too or to visit the Botanical Garden)
- The highest tower in the city: 50 mt
- 208 steps
- No windows or openings till the top, so not advisable if you are claustrophobic.
- Highlights: the wooden staircase, the XVIII century clock, the 360° degrees view over the city, to be in the legendary place where Lucida Mansi was kidnapped by the devil.
- Photo tips: you can spot the tower from the walls, but take a look the the tower from Piazza dell’Arancio, which is just behind, or even from the alley ending in Piazza Guidiccioni. Last but not least from the south end of Via Fillungo.
- Tour guide tip: just across the street you can admire the Barletti tower house with its three lights windows, putti and small columns.
Torre Guinigi – Guinigi Tower
Speaking of social statement, the Guinigi family clarified very well to have an important role in the city political life. They were bankers, silk merchants and everybody knows that Paolo became the Lord of Lucca in 1400.
The historians are still debating if he was a good governor or an evil tyrant, but this is not the only problem to sort out. The question is: why the trees on top?
The presence of seven holm oak trees, as far as we know, it was pretty common those days, I mean, it was not an exclusive idea of this family. However, there are several unconfirmed explanations: a private garden?
A way to distinguish a private tower from a bell tower of the church? A trick to make the tower appear taller? It is your turn to guess!
Info Sheet for the Guinigi Tower:
- Where: corner Via Sant’Andrea – Via delle Chiavi d’oro
- When: all year except Christmas day
- Price: 5€ (ask for the combo ticket if you are interested to climb the Clock Tower, too or to visit the Botanical Garden)
- 44 mt
- 232 steps
- Easy climb, stone thin steps almost till the top where there is steel, more narrow, see through staircase.
- Highlights: great view over the Amphitheater, San Frediano church and San Francesco square and a bit of the walls. To sit under the trees maybe during a concert with a glass of wine. The windows, during the ascent, allow you gradually see the rooftops and the panoramic view of the mountains: the Apuan Alps (north) and the Pisan Mountains (south)
- Photo tips: walk from via Canuleia to via delle Chiavi d’oro to see entirely the tower. On via Sant’Ansano, reach the church and look up to notice the tower between the rooftops
- Tour guide tip: do not miss the Guinigi palace, actually there are two palaces. One is on Via Guinigi, they are almost identical. Both of them are great examples of the medieval Lucchese architecture: three or four lighted windows, the horizontal bars and hooks for outer curtains, the coat of arms of the family.
Saint Martin bell tower
Quite a recent stunner, Saint Martin bell tower was opened for the first time in 2016 thanks to the huge restoration that mainly involved the cathedral. It is on the right hand side of the church and like the other towers, it has only one single entrance.
This bell tower is the reason why the facade of the church is so asymmetrical, art historians agree that it was isolated and prexisiting the portico. It is featured by this gradual opening of the windows (single-two-three-multi lighted windows)and by the use of two different kinds of material: the dark local stone from Guamo for the bottom part and the white limestone from San Giuliano for the top part.
This choice for a double coloured bell tower is another mystery to be solved.
Info Sheet for Saint Martin Bell Tower:
- Where: Saint Martin cathedral – square
- When: all year except Christmas day
- Price: 3€ (check the combo ticket with the cathedral, the museum or the archeological site of San Giovanni and Reparata church)
- 60 mt
- 217 steps
- 7 bells
- The first part of the ascent on the stone steps is steep, but the second part on the new iron staircase is easy.
- Highlights: great view over the cathedral square and from here your gaze can broaden outside the walls down the south and you can clearly see the XIX century aqueduct by Lorenzo Nottolini
- Photo tips: if you arrive by train, getting out of the station you will see the walls and the white top part of the bell tower. Go on the walls and between San Pietro gate and San Colombano rampart you will have great opportunities to snap a good photo.
- Tour guide tip: before or after the climb, make sure you try to find the way out on the engraved labyrinth at the base of the pillar. Do you know why this symbol is here?
So then have you chosen which tower will you climb? Or maybe if you have been to Lucca would you like to share which one was your best climb?
While I am writing this post, city rumors say that a new tower will soon be opened…
I give you a couple of hints: it is a bell tower and it is in the north part of Lucca. Once I will have climbed it, I will update the post.