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Three great churches

3 big churches of Lucca

Lucca is known as the city of a hundred churches. Within the Renaissance walls there is a rich heritage of religious architecture, small oratories, private chapels of noble palaces and big churches, representing architectural and artistic, as well as a religious heritage.

Three great churches, in particular, illustrate the centuries of the Middle Ages, a period that is anything but dark, but rich and fruitful for the history, economy and culture of the city, with important changes for men and lifestyle. There was the influence of the Lombards and later of the Carolingians, the Goths from the north and the monks from the east who, according to legend, introduced the little worms that produced silk and the fortune of Lucca, and consequently an original and rich culture summarized in the illustrations on the facades of the churches.

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The church of San Michele and the cathedral of San Martino collect suggestions from different tangible historical moments and places. Among oriental-style colonnades and Nordic decorations, some designs of wefts and warps wrought by the famous weavers from Lucca can be noticed: brocades, damasks, shot fabrics.

The church of San Michele is located in the area where the city originally arose: the ancient forum of the Romans with the cardo and the decumano maximus, the streets that formed the structure of the city still present on the south and the back side of the church.

From the same period as the church of San Martino, the church of San Michele, however, has a more harmonious design, more cultured proportions and references in its forms and decorations.

On the facade a great amount of inlays, bas-reliefs, sculptures, many Christian and pre-Christian, Masonic, esoteric and scientific symbols. Animals and plants, human, historical and mythological creatures, careless sirens, archers, griffins. On the top, between two angels, the large statue of St. Michael, a Saint, Archangel and warrior, in the act of killing a dragon.

Visitors are impressed, as happened to the poet Ruskin during his visit to Lucca, to see these figures together with the portraits of Count Cavour, the Supreme Poet Dante and other modern characters positioned at the top of the columns during the first nineteenth-century restoration.

On the south side, medieval graffiti of ships and cities of the East testify to the use of the square as a market. It is certainly not a waste of time to examine these illustrations.


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The design of the cathedral of San Martino is more concrete and dynamic, collecting images of everyday life in the rich iconographic representation: the journey of pilgrims, the work in the fields, the trade and commerce that will carry the name of Lucca throughout future Europe.

The church is named after Saint Martin from Tours, famous for the episode of the cloak shared with a poor man, depicted on the façade with a large equestrian sculpture which was used to be decorated in occasion the name day celebrations and "the summer of San Martino "(11 November) until the 17th century.

The facade of the church is a version of the more complex San Michele facade, with evident asymmetries, intersecting volumes, a contrast of full and empty spaces. In one corner, among  many representations, the "portrait" of the architect Guido, author of the fourteenth-century restructuring of the building.
It is easy to identify the mystical labyrinth on the facade, like a vow, a profession of faith, a reminder of the passage of the numerous pilgrims on their way to Rome.

The interior is a precious treasure chest that holds what is most dear to the inhabitants of Lucca: the Volto Santo, a wooden crucifix that miraculously arrived in Lucca centuries ago. A great devotional icon, a miraculous image, a pilgrimage destination, a symbol and protection of the locals wherever they are in the world. To honour the Volto Santo, the Luminara procession is held every year in September, where all inhabitants of central and outlying Lucca never miss to be part of.

The beautiful Ilaria del Carretto sarcophagus, sculpted in the early 15th century by Jacopo della Quercia, is currently kept in the sacristy, and is the homage of her husband, Paolo Guinigi, lord of the city in the 15th century, on the occasion of her untimely death.


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The basilica of San Frediano, is finally the most austere and traditional church. Sober and imposing, it refers to the east in the basilica plan and in the large mosaic that adorns the façade, with the bell tower with Guelph battlements in the background.

The elegant and bright interior is related to the cult of San Frediano, whose stories tell about his ability to dominate materia, to move rivers and huge stones with the power of his words. The concerned river is the Serchio, and the recalled episode is illustrated in the Aspertini chapel, near the side door, on the left. The stone refers to the large table, currently leaning against the wall next to the main altar.

At the entrance to the church there is a beautiful baptismal font in Romanesque style. A large decorated basin by two different authors with scenes from the life of Moses that follow one another in a very lively and quick story. The more calm and mysterious figures occupying the neat architectural space may refer to the symbols of the planets or of the virtues. In the centre, the basin and cover with representations of the months of the year and the apostles.

In the nearby chapel, you can visit Santa Zita. The little Saint of the flowers lived in Lucca in the 13th century and was mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy as an example of welcoming and generous Lucca. Her body was miraculously preserved and is kept inside a reliquary.

Along the walls, the story of the life of the Saint and her numerous miracles are illustrated. The best known, in which her faith transformed bread into flowers, is the one that inspired the celebrations dedicated to her, on April 27: a large flower market in the nearby Piazza Anfiteatro and floral arrangements in all squares of Lucca.