When pilgrims, merchants and travellers flocked to Lucca
The history of a Cathedral in symbols, relics and works of art.
“Old Lucca is one of the most extraordinary towns, a medley of churches, turrets, bell-towers, and grand buildings scattered throughout lovely winding streets and tiny squares” 1.
Lucca, the city of a hundred churches, a republic with an independent spirit, free and proud for over 400 years, has assembled in its cathedral – the religious heart of the city – the symbols of that age old culture which have made it a regular port of call for those travelling through Italy for whatever reason. Devout pilgrims, wealthy merchants, tireless travellers, all have acknowledged these precious symbols and admired the serene beauty of the city and the pure white, delicate marbles that decorate the façades of its churches.
THE MIDDLE AGES, THE VIA FRANCIGENA AND THE PILGRIMAGE TO ROME.
Lucca was a major stopover on the route of the medieval pilgrimages from northern Europe to Rome and then on towards the Holy Land. It stood on the Via Francigena, which developed from an ancient Roman route to become one of the most important arteries of medieval Europe. The city played host to many of the most important figures of medieval history and, particularly between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, became the hub for a continual flow of pilgrims en route for Rome.
Lucca rapidly developed a cosmopolitan aspect, building churches, numerous hospices and shelters where hungry pilgrims were regaled with cereals, flour, fruit, oil and wine, as the mediaeval chronicles report. In the square around the Cathedral of Saint Martin, the bustling heart of the city, they would find moneychangers, craftsmen, doctors, guides, minstrels and street performers. A curious stone plaque in the Cathedral records the oath taken in 1111 by merchants and moneychangers, pledging that they would deal honestly in their business with the pilgrims.
FOR PENITENTS TRAVELLING TO THE HOLY LAND, THE CATHEDRAL CONTAINED MANY SYMBOLS AND RELICS TO WHICH THEY PAID HOMAGE: the Labyrinth carved in the stone which can still be seen today within the Cathedral porch – now worn by the many hands which, out of devotion or curiosity, have traced out the “right path” over the centuries – represented, in medieval tradition, a visible symbol of the soul’s tortuous path towards God. But this Labyrinth also acted as a signal, or rather as a signpost, to the traveller: it informed him that, by following the Via Francigena, he had arrived in one of the key places on the ritual journey in his pilgrimage towards purification.
But for pilgrims the most important aspect of their stay in Lucca was always the visit to see “the most precious relic of the Holy Face, consisting of a crucifix which”, the legend goes, “was thought to have been painted by Nicodemus. When it came to painting the head, he was overwhelmed at the prospect of depicting the face of Christ and fell into a sleep” 2 but “he was helped by the angels who were watching him. They took the brush from his hand and completed the work” 3.
Preserved in a chapel, this impressive crucifix, “wearing a fine red velvet cloak, and a crown of precious stones like a king” 4, is a religious symbol, an object of devotion famed throughout medieval Europe.
Travellers of every time and every nation have retold the legend of the Holy Face and how it appeared mysteriously at Luni from the Holy Land and was brought to Lucca in 782 AD on an unmanned cart drawn by oxen.
THE PILGRIMS, CONSTRAINED BY THE IRON LAW OF THEIR PILGRIMAGE, HAVE LEFT NO WRITTEN RECORDS, and the merchants, too busy reporting their business deals, failed to record their impressions of the medieval city with its turrets, pierced bell-towers, red palazzi and white churches.
It was thus left to the first professional travellers, the great European scholars, geographers, artists, students from aristocratic families and their tutors, to draw the first portraits of the city and its people towards the end of the sixteenth century.
From the sixteenth century onwards, European travellers universally praised the mercantile strengths of the people of Lucca and the prosperity of the city and its territory. The French writer Michel de Montaigne, in Lucca in 1581, wrote that “the city is densely populated, particularly by silk weavers…
Here nobles and soldiers alike are all merchants”. By the fourteenth century, the pilgrim route from north to south was already being used in the opposite direction by the merchants of Lucca who, invoking the protection of the Holy Face – which also appeared on the city’s coins – travelled north to conquer foreign markets and the fairs in Flanders, France and Germany.
LUCCA, A SMALL GREAT MERCANTILE CITY
also earned the respect and admiration of the Emperor Charles V who commented: “this city does not seem to be the small town that was described to me.”
In the eighteenth century, the golden years of travel and of a cosmopolitan and mobile culture, the Republic of Lucca saw the printing of the Italian edition of the Encyclopaedia and was a favourite Grand Tour destination. Many accounts survive, by travellers from Addison to Montesquieu, Goethe’s father to Gibbon, all keen to “observe different customs and manners”. And Lucca fascinated eighteenth century travellers in the Enlightenment because of its type of government, the strength of its institutions and its independence.
DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, THE ROMANTIC TRAVELLER WAS FASCINATED ANEW, THIS TIME BY THE “STONES OF LUCCA”, and in particular by the fifteenth century masterpiece of sculpture jealously preserved in the Cathedral: the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Iacopo della Quercia. Travellers and writers up to the present day have written emotional accounts of this remarkable ethereal female figure blessed with the gift of eternity.
The English writer and critic John Ruskin 5 wrote: “In the Cathedral of Lucca, near the entrance door of the north transept, there is a monument of Jacopo Della Quercia’s Ilaria Del Caretto, the wife of Paolo Guinigi. […] She is lying on a simple couch with a hound at her feet […] The hair is bound in a flat braid over the fair brow, the sweet and arched eyes are closed, the tenderness of the loving lips is set and quiet, there is that about them which forbids breath, something which is not death nor sleep, but the pure image of both. The hands are not lifted in prayer, neither folded, but the arms are laid at length upon the body, and the hands cross as they fall.”
On November 24th 1874, during a lesson held at Oxford University dedicated to Jacopo Della Quercia, John Ruskin stated that if one of his students had the time to see only one statue in Italy, it would have been undoubtedly the sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca’s cathedral, ” the only monumental work in the world… that unites, in an perfect equilibrium without errors, the most delicate mysteries of feeling with the implacable severity of science”.
AND A GREAT ITALIAN POET OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, PIER PAOLO PASOLINI, paid his tribute to Ilaria in these lines:
“Within the cloistered transept/ as in an aquarium, serene marble/forms her eyelids, her breast/where her hands are clasped in calm/distance.” Throughout the twentieth century Lucca continued to be celebrated by writers and poets for its enchantments and its magical atmosphere, moments such as those when “we come across the Cathedral and its bell-tower by day, in a deserted square where one or two old buildings in dark, well-fired brick stand dozing in the sun” and “the mind is overcome by a voluptuous reverie”6.
1 Cesare Brandi, (1906-1988), the greatest Italian theorist of the art of restoration.
2 Georg Christoph Martini, Viaggio in Italia (1725 – 1745)
3 François Maximilen Misson, Nouveau Voyage d’Italie, 1687 – 1688
4 Charles De Brosses, Lettres familières écrits d’Italie, 1739
5 John Ruskin, Modern Painters II
6 Felix André-Yves Scantrel, Voyage du Condottière, 1932