Historical reasons for a celebration: the 500th anniversary of Lucca’s town walls

For a good part of the fifteenth century relations between Lucca and Florence were difficult. After the Peace of Lodi (1454), although Lucca had joined the alliance among Francesco Sforza, the Republic of Venice and Florence, the last of these had tried to plot a conspiracy against it. The same happened in 1490 but without any concrete result. The situation seemed to change suddenly in 1492, the year in which Lorenzo the Magnificent died and the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia was elected to the papal throne with the name of Alexander VI.

The relationship between the two Tuscan towns became critical again when Charles VIII arrived in Italy and Florence was the only city to resist his army headed for Naples, while Pisa used the opportunity to throw off the yoke of Florence counting on the help of Lucca. The terms of the dispute concerned the apparent possession of Motrone and Pietrasanta that the Republic was forced to purchase for a large amount of money paid first to Charles VIII and then to his successor, Louis XII. The French adventure in Italy came, however, to an end in 1504, with the armistice of Lyon, and France kept only the duchy of Milan. Meanwhile, after the brief pontificate of Pius III, Giuliano della Rovere ascended the papal throne as Julius II, who after inducing Venice to give up his conquests on the mainland, turned his sights against France (Holy League) in alliance with the Swiss cantons, Spain, England and Venice itself. Under pressure on all sides and although winning on the field, Louis XII preferred to withdraw from the scene leaving Milan forever. In this tumultuous series of events and wars, Lucca tried to get by struggling to solve, with the money of its merchants, its most difficult challenges. Florence, however, was aware of the repeated attempts to help Pisa even trying to attract Genoa and Siena also to the side of the rebellious city. Florence responded with real acts of war that included also an unusual plan to boycott trade. After devastating Versilia in 1508, Florence forced the city to accept the commitment of absolute neutrality to ensure the suspension of the award of possession of Motrone and Pietrasanta. When, however, on June 7, 1509, after a brave resistance, Pisa was forced to surrender to Florence; the latter completely ignored their alliance signed only a few months earlier (January 1, 1509).

Lucca answered by appealing to the Emperor Maximilian I to whom a gift of 9.000 gold ducats was granted and consequently, he was ready to recognize the possession of Monte Carlo and Barga by the munificent city. The death of Julius II, who in 1511 had launched an interdict against Lucca for having given hospitality to some cardinals directed to the council held in Pisa with the aim to depose him, seemed to resolve the difficult question of the possession of Garfagnana, which had been the real bone of contention between the Pope and the Republic. Instead, the election to the papacy of Leo X, namely Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo, increased the differences between Lucca and Florence. Called, in fact, to act as a referee between the matters of the two states, the Medici Pope showed himself immediately very sensitive to the demands of the city where his family had just regained power. Motrone, Pietrasanta and Barga passed definitively under Florence and Lucca was forced to give up even possession of Garfagnana after the reconciliation between the Pope and the Este family. 1

Terrified by the power of the Medici and the prospects for a joint action between Florence and Rome in order to subdue her like Pisa, Lucca inaugurated an imposing defensive policy trusting in the resourcefulness of the merchants and persuasiveness of their money. In the meantime, however, Lucca decided that the time had come to show her force but, unable to field a strong army, for lack of men and especially of skilled and faithful condottieri, decided to reorganize her defensive walls according to the new technologies of military science of the time.

For this reason, in July 1513, the Consiglio Generale initiated the program to provide security and for the fortification of the city and its suburbs and after a valuation carried out by the experts of the town, they proceeded to demolish the buildings around starting “from the foundations of monastery degli Angeli, beyond the Porta San Pietro, up to where it is believed that the demolition should be done”.2 Then construction was started on the first towers that still, can be seen embedded in the bulwarks,3 and which represented the most modern tools of defence against the new techniques of siege. "Without space outside there can’t be a modern fortified architecture," Amelio Fara observes adding "The town protected by modern walls must be surrounded by a strip of land of adequate depth and free of visual obstructions, called an open space.” 4

The ability of a walled city to resist depended, in fact, largely on external devices that prevented the approach of the enemy. That's why the year 1513, when the suburbs of San Pietro and San Donato were torn down and all the trees were cut down, and even the grapevines uprooted within a radius of half a mile around the city, can justifiably be considered the beginning of the system of fortification, completed over the course of a century and a half, which even today survives architectonically intact.

At first glance it might seem that this step was not particularly difficult, but it is not. First, most of the chosen land and buildings to be destroyed were privately owned. For this reason the “Offizio sopra le entrate” was commissioned to estimate the value of land and buildings. It was also necessary to clear the area by fallen trees and debris from the destroyed villages and, for this purpose, the “Offizio sopra le fortificazioni” was authorized to requisition wagons and pack animals throughout the state. As you can imagine, the public estimates were often not considered satisfactory by the owners and there was strong opposition to the demolition of houses and religious buildings such as the churches of San Pietro and San Donato, despite the promise to rebuild them elsewhere.

In the so-called Libro A delle note di cose attinenti alla chiesa e priorato dei Santi Paolino e Donato, once kept in the parish archives, the prior Paolo Guidotti recounts in a mournful tone, and not without a bit of polemics, how the demolition of his church (located roughly where the bulwark of San Donato now is situated, in the direction of Via San Paolino, at the end of which stood the western gate of the Roman and medieval town walls) began: «A di 28 di agosto 1513 fu per il Comune di Lucca con grande strepito et rovina cominciato a buttare a terra la chiesa di S.Donato extra et prope portam Sancti Donati et così seguì alla rovina di essa e della canonica con stalla et altre sue circostanze, la quale canonica sola con i suoi membri compresi insieme fu stimata per Stefano Bertolini, stimatore degli insolubili di detto Comune et di Commissione del Magnifico Gonfaloniere Matteo Trenta et Antiani. La chiesa non volsero stimare la quale per la maggior parte dei capi maestri che si trovavano alla rovina la stimorno che non fusse stata fatta manco di 20.000 scudi».

The words of the prior Guidotti, who in his report provides evidence that the church had "14 very beautiful and tall columns of Carrara marble " show the disappointment of the clergy and the lack of confidence in the local estimator who, in the interests of the State, merely assessed the accessories without remarking about the church. The behavior of Bertolini can be easily understood. Even knowing that the sacred building should be compensated, he avoided any comment on its value because the public debts were so many that they surely could not be borne by the annual budget and it was therefore necessary to defer compensation over time. The delays in revenue owed the Church were such that 16 years later, in February 1529, the apostolic protonotary Bartolomeo Arnolfini harshly scolded the members of the Consiglio Generale about the church of San Pietro Maggiore, which had suffered the same fate as that of San Donato, because they could provide “discretamente alle dicte cose tanto della Ecclesia, quanto interessi e danni et sgravar le loro coscienze et sua e non buttarsela dopo alle spalle come insino a qui si è fatto”.

The fact that the construction of the actual structure of the new walls began in 1544, with the architect Jacopo Seghizzi, is due not only to the difficulties encountered by the Republic in finding engineers willing to settle in Lucca, but also to financial constraints determined by reimbursements for the cutting of trees and the demolition of buildings, to which is added the economic crisis. In 1540 the City to pay its debts - "pro inveniendo modum et viam ut nostrum Commune eximatur to multis debitis"-had to launch a “decretum resecationis,” what we would now call cuts in public spending, a goal which was then also achieved by reducing the salaries of state officials. The lower classes fared no better, if the Consiglio Generale had not almost begged the merchants not to interrupt production to prevent the poorest artisans would have been reduced to starvation, to which was added the scourge of plague: “Quod hoc tempore pestis mercatores nostri non cessent ab ipsorum exercitio artis serici ut pauperes artifices victum parare possint”.5

Romano Silva, Carla Sodini

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