This morning I woke up to to a red globe inching its way over the walls of Lucca. . . Buongiorno!
The sun has been greeting me this way since I moved into my sparkling white apartment on March 26. Each morning since then I have been pinching myself to make sure I’m awake: Am I really seeing this?? These walls have served as a focal point in my life, the most solid and reliable base on which to anchor my disjointed identity. And here they are — the view from every window of my new residence. It is temporary, I realize, only for the next few weeks, but right now, they are mine.
I first saw them when I was two or three years old, on my first trip to Italy — for, by an ironic twist of fate, I was not born here, but in Canada. The plan was to settle in one of the nearby cities, possibly Viareggio or Lido di Camaiore, where our family was actually from (Lucca is simply our municipal hub, how we identify ourselves to other Italians, i.e. we are from the provincia di Lucca — as opposed to Siena, Florence, Pisa, etc). I don’t have a clear memory of that first experience. What I do remember is my nonni, my grandparents, and all my aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. . . this whole world of family I had never met before, and of which I was immediately an integral part. And, having met them, I certainly didn’t want to leave them again — but leave I had to, several times. And through those years of comings and goings, the walls of Lucca have always represented home to me.
After the Second World War, my father decided to leave this land, to go exploring, to see the world, to have adventures. Or so he said. He had witnessed horrible things during the years in which the front was stalled in our area, north of the Arno River (the German Gothic Line) and, I suppose, he felt the need to get away to a place where he would not always be reminded. Whatever the reason, he left. He first went to Venezuela — his first adventure — and returned a year later to marry my mother. Soon after, in one of those snap decisions he became known for, he decided to try Canada instead. I mean. . . why not? Despite the desire to leave Tuscany as a young man, his dream, like that of most immigrants, was to return to his homeland with his family. Unfortunately, when he tried to re-establish himself in the Lucchesia, (area around Lucca), he found he could not reintegrate, for reasons that remain unclear to me. After several failed attempts, the last of which was in 1965, he finally made peace with his adopted land.
Which brings me back to my walls.
These ramparts are impressive. Massive. Solid. They are the newest incarnation (1550 – 1650) of a series of walls erected to protect this proud city-state from a host of enemies, among the most contentious being the neighbouring state of Pisa. They are a minimum of 100 feet in width, equipped with eleven heart- or ace-shaped bastions which
could house armories, stables, storage rooms, and even kitchens to help keep the troops in mint dying condition. Surrounding the ramparts, the land was cleared to the length of a cannonball trajectory; this was done in the hope that these newly discovered implements of destruction would not be able to reach the protective walls, let alone penetrate the 100 feet of brick-encased dirt. Ironically, no one even tried. To this day, the walls remain untested in war. Lucca has been fortunate, indeed: It remains one of the few cities or towns in the area that escaped bombardment in WWII. I’m certain that the forward-thinking city fathers that judiciously planned to keep Lucca impenetrable in the 16th century, are also taking full credit for this 20th century coup.
In 1799, the walls were officially demilitarized. Maria Luisa of Bourbon assigned her royal architect to turn the top of the ramparts into a promenade for the citizenry. The walkway was lined with shade plants, mostly chestnut and plane trees, sometimes in double rows, as though awaiting military review. With the advent of cars, the promenade was expanded to a two-lane road, with paths and trees alongside. As a child, I remember cars speeding beside me while my mother and I strolled along the paths on top of the walls. Now the only vehicles one typically sees are of the municipal variety: trucks for garbage collection and tree trimming, industrial lawn mowers, and police vehicles. There are also a few cars which come and go to the Villaggio del fanciullo (an orphanage) which sits on the wall, directly across from my palazzina, my apartment building. The rest of the 4.5 km. span is reserved for the enjoyment of people: joggers, strollers, power-walkers, cyclists — not to mention, dogs and children. The tops of several bastions now host a parco giochi, a playground for kids and families to enjoy, as well as a couple of restaurants and bars.
There is much to entertain me as I walk that beautiful promenade each morning: the view of the ancient city on one side, and emerald fields on the other; the wisteria in full bloom along terrace railings; the men, women, and students, all gesticulating as they make their point — and there is always a point to be made. . . ! One of the most amusing sights, however, (or horrifying, take your pick), is that of a man or woman, often older, riding a bike gently along the road, while Fido, on a leash, gets his exercise by running alongside. Efficient.
Among the benefits derived from the zealousness of the 16th century planners are the expanse of prati which surround the historic Lucca. Thanks to this overpowering cannonball paranoia, the perimeter of the city is left with verdant fields, sometimes interrupted by remnants of an extensive moat. The area has not been built on in 500 years (the anniversary was in 2013). This peaceful view ensures a very pleasant walk. Even the more modern cityscape beyond the prati seems too remote to really affect the sense of calm one experiences.
This peace I speak of has been less obvious in the past few days for there has been a great deal of activity on and around the walls. Huge lawnmowers and an army of weed-whackers have been out in force, trimming everything to within an inch of its life. The lawns and slope leading up to the walls were mowed just after I moved in, but not with the zeal I’ve witnessed since Monday. Blame it on the G7. Yes, the Foreign Ministers of the G7 countries are meeting in Lucca from Sunday, April 10 to Tuesday, April 12. This is just one of nine cities in Italy being subjected to heightened security, very restricted traffic and parking, and armies of lawnmowers. The minesterial meetings will culminate with the actual summit in Taormina, in Sicily, at the end of May. The Lucchesi are none too pleased. These meetings will cause majour traffic upheaval in this ancient city where travel is already hindered by labyrinthine streets the width of a corridor. I, like all other visitors, have been issued a special ‘pass’ which states that I am a temporary resident here — in case any official takes issue with my presence. I suppose it would be a good couple of days to take the train into one of the nearby cities. And hide.
Apparitions in passing. . .
As I was making my way around the walls this morning, I was stopped short by the sight of a figure sitting at a picnic table on one of the bastions, Baluardo La Liberta’. It was my father. He was sheltered by early morning shadows, ball cap on his head, left elbow resting on the table, hand holding a cigarette between thumb and index finger, his whole body leaning in. His right hand gripped his right knee, elbow pointing away from his body — much like the stance of Judas in Ghirlandaio’s Cenacolo. It was my father the way I’d seen him sit on countless of occasions as he contemplated his abundant vegetable garden — his pride and joy — from the picnic table in the backyard of the family home. It was my father. . . Such a strange sensation, this apparition. For me it was simply more proof that body language is not only genetically imprinted through family lines, but is painted with far broader strokes; in this case it seemed a direct result of more general lucchese genes. I got the impression that I might encounter many of my fathers, were I to remain here on a permanent basis. I fought the urge to get closer, to get a better look at this old man, so content in the shadows. After a few seconds I took a deep breath and continued on my way. I felt as though I’d seen a ghost. And who knows, perhaps I had: papa’ come home to rest.