In 1902 my great grandmother, Maria Bernardini Pieri, left her modest casa colonica in Piano di Coreglia and passed through the gates of Lucca with her two young daughters, my great aunt Liduina and my patriotically-named grandmother Vittoria Margherita, en route to Boston to meet her emigre’ husband. She died long before I was born but I have inherited typical hand-woven linens numbered and identified by her initials in the corners embroidered in red and a piece of lace crochet with two letters of her name mistakenly reversed along with the year of her marriage, 1888--items that she valued and packed in her trans-Atlantic steamer trunk. I was raised listening to descriptions, recollections, lullabies, and legends about urban Lucca and its countryside recounted nostalgically by my great aunt and grandmother in broken English peppered with Lucchese dialect.
These created a mental image of a city I could only attempt to envision in my childhood imagination. While Boston boasted a harbor and several early skyscrapers when I was growing up, the notion of a walled city could only be conjured from a few old postcards and bedtime stories. It wasn’t until college that I learned Italian formally and was able to travel to Italy. Eventually I studied Italian history in graduate school and on a very hot summer day in 1985, I took a break from my doctoral dissertation research in Florence to visit “la citta’ dell’arborato cerchio” for the first time. The massive and forbidding tree-topped brick walls, the city gates and baluardi astonished and intimidated me and yet, from all I had internalized as a child, seemed to welcome me home. I was instantly “inlucchesita” as I stepped off the bus in Piazzale Verdi and for the balance of my academic career I chose to focus my research and teaching on Lucca and its territory.
In 2002, precisely a century to the year of my maternal ancestors’ emigration, I arrived in Lucca as a professor of History with ten college students eager to learn about European walled cities and the walls of Lucca in particular. Prof. Carla Sodini of the University of Florence had graciously arranged for the course to be conducted at the most appropriate venue imaginable, the Centro Internazionale per lo Studio delle Cerchia Urbane (CISCU) housed on the walls. CISCU’s holdings, visits to the Archivio di Stato di Lucca and the Biblioteca Statale di Lucca, paintings of early modern warfare in the Palazzo Mansi and of the medieval city walls and of the “Miracle of San Paolino” in the church that bears the saint’s name, along with lectures by eminent scholars and architects from Lucca and beyond provided ample fodder for formal instruction, but the city walls became our outdoor classroom and most precious resource. On bicycle and on foot students explored the baluardi and underground gallerie with photocopies of engineering plans in hand, used historical maps and urban plans to visit and trace the remains of the city’s Roman and medieval walls, assessed the feasibility of Machiavelli’s advice on the construction and defense of Renaissance urban fortifications in the light of what they learned first-hand about Lucca’s walls, and even made a film reconstructing the difficulties an invading army might have faced approaching the city with cannon and troops across the green space of external earthworks and moats that ring the Renaissance wall.
“Lucca drento” quickly became home. Several students commented on the comfort and familiarity they felt in the historical center city and how departing the city gates signaled a sense of unease for them. As much as they enjoyed occasional excursions to Florence, Pisa, and the Garfagnana, when they headed back to Lucca they very naturally referred to it as “going home.” It became a game among them to be the first to espy the city walls to claim the small reward of a gelato at the Gelateria Veneta in Via Vittorio Veneto that I offered as a treat to the winner. At the end of the program, we did need to “go home” to the U.S. but it turned out that, just as the stories and handicrafts my great grandmother brought with her have survived now for well-over a century, so too our experiences of Lucca and its walls have had a number of unanticipated and enduring outcomes. Several of the students who became teachers in the U.S. designed lessons incorporating comparative studies of Lucca’s walls with other historical walled cities and fortifications ranging from St. Augustine (Florida), to Fort Ticonderoga (Vermont), and Xian (China.) The 2002 course in Lucca resulted in the presentation of two formal collaborative papers at History conferences in the U.S. A few of the students have, in more recent years, vacationed in Lucca with their families and one from that first course chose, as a result, to pursue a doctorate in European history.
I have been fortunate to return to Lucca one or two times annually (until my recent retirement) to conduct research in the archives, lead subsequent study programs, and visit friends there. A serendipitous meeting at a conference in 2000 with the indefatigable Lucchese scholar, Carla Sodini, provided the initial opportunity to collaborate on numerous endeavors over the years which began with Lucca’s walls. For close to a decade the city and its walls served as catalysts for forging a number of international institutional partnerships involving, at various times, Bridgewater State University, the University of Florence, Campus Lucca, the Comune di Lucca, the Associazione dei Lucchesi nel Mondo, La Fondazione Paolo Cresci, CISCU, and numerous archives, libraries, museums and churches in the city. Dearest to my heart were the summer courses on topics including Italian emigration, historical travel and pilgrimage, and Italian medieval and Renaissance republics (among others) that highlighted Lucca’s history, and which allowed more than 100 students from five countries to conoscere Lucca profoundly. The students’ first day in Lucca ALWAYS began with an orientation to the city via a bicycle ride atop the walls and each student bid the city good bye on the last evening by scanning the rooftops of the historical center and the defining circuit of walls from the internal core of the city atop the Torre Guinigi.
With the relative ease of air travel today to fly to Lucca for a visit in less than a day and the 1,940,000 computer links a Google search for “walls of Lucca” generates in .39 seconds, it is difficult to imagine the feelings evoked in my great grandmother as she left the city never knowing if she would see it again. She did, return to the Lucchesia , briefly for two years in the 1920s with her granddaughter, who would become my mother. It took another half century for me to walk in their footsteps atop the walls, though I continue to travel there frequently now. . . at least virtually . . . thanks to the Internet .
Luci M. Fortunato
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