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Lucca in Winter: Opera, Jazz and Jail

Piazza San Frediano, Lucca at night with Puccini's words in lights
Piazza San Frediano

In December each year Lucca celebrates the birthday of its favorite son, Giacomo Puccini, by lighting up short phrases from his operas above the streets and squares of the town. The one above in Piazza San Frediano is taken from the romantic duet O Soave Fanciulla at the end of the first act of La Boheme. The fuller version of the line above is "in te, ravviso il sogno ch'io vorrei sempre sognare" (in you I see the dream that I would like to dream forever).

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca at night with Puccini's words in lights
Piazza dell'Anfiteatro

"L'arte è una forma di pazzia" (Art is a form of madness) is not from an opera but something Puccini once said.

Piazza Cittadella, Lucca at night with Puccini's words lit up
Piazza Cittadella

The above snippet from his best known aria, Nessun Dorma (no-one sleeps) from the opera Turandot, is harder to recognize because my wide-angle lens wasn't wide enough to capture it all. The complete lines are "Dilegua oh notte! Tramontate stelle. All'alba vincerò!" (Vanish night! Set stars! At dawn I will win!).

Many opera singers have belted out Nessun Dorma over the years but none better than the great Luciano Pavarotti.

The small figure sitting on a chair in the middle of the Piazza Cittadella is Puccini himself and there is a museum devoted to him nearby in the house where he was born on December 22 1858.

During the day in winter Lucca is left in blissful peace to its residents (above photos). The walls are almost deserted and there's no problem finding a seat outside for a morning coffee or a cocktail at twilight. If you avoid the wettest period of the year from the last week of October to the middle or end of December, the rest of the winter months can often have clear skies with daytime temperatures in the mid 50s falling to just above freeing overnight. Early December also brings the first snow to the mountains just to the north of Lucca (below).

Snow covered mountains near Lucca

But even when it's snowing at the higher elevations, the lower slopes still look very autumnal rather than wintry (below).

The hills north of Lucca as the sun sets in early December

The river Serchio on the other hand has a touch of winter about it in early December as it meanders past Lucca (below).

The river Serchio near Lucca late on an early December afternoon

Porta San Pietro, Lucca in the early morning winter sun
Porta San Pietro

The most impressive and busiest gate through the Lucca walls, Porta San Pietro, guarding the southern entrance to the centro storico can be photographed without the usual traffic and tourists as the sun rises on a winter morning.

the Lucca walls in winter

The wall above the walls on the far left hand side of the above photograph is the San Giorgio jail, surprisingly still occupying valuable real estate in the centro storico of Lucca.

San Giorgio jail next to the Lucca walls
San Giorgio jail next to the Lucca walls

For a year in the early 1960s a cell here was home to its most famous American inmate, the legendary Chet Baker who in those days was as good a trumpet player as anyone in the world including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and perhaps even Louis Armstrong.

There was a local jazz club just up the road in Pietrasanta called La Bussola that was started shortly after the war by a Lucca jazz quartet and by the 1950s it had become an established part of the European tour for American jazz greats on their swing through Italy.

Chet Baker first came to Tuscany in 1956 and became good friends with the Lucca jazzmen so he spent a lot of time here, always staying in room 15 at the Hotel Universo in Piazza Napoleone. He would serenade his fans in the square below when warming up with the window open for the gigs he used to play in Lucca at the Teatro del Giglio opposite the hotel.

Teatro del Giglio, Lucca lit up to celebrate Puccini's birthday
Teatro del Giglio dressed up for Puccini's birthday and Christmas

Unfortunately Chet was also a hopeless heroin addict and in the summer of 1960 he collapsed in a gas station washroom just outside Lucca after an overdose.

Lucca prison wall
The prison wall today

Subsequently arrested and given a lengthy prison sentence, reduced later to 16 months, he became a celebrity inmate drawing crowds on the walls outside the prison as he played his trumpet.

Some local jazz musicians would often gather there and join him in brief impromptu jam sessions and it is said that the marks on the prison wall outside are from Chet's new compositions in jail that were quickly scribbled on the walls by his fellow jazz musicians outside. I'm not sure I believe that story looking at the wall recently, but not being able to read music I can't really tell.

What is not in doubt however is the big celebratory concert that he and his jazz friends held in Lucca on his release just in time for his birthday (December 23) and Christmas 1961, exactly 60 years ago, and the following year four of his jail compositions were recorded in collaboration with Ennio Morricone. Three of them have Italian titles because Chet learned to speak fluent Italian while in jail.

‘‘Chet Baker has the face of an angel and the heart of a demon!

Trouble comes to anyone who touches him!” Fabio Romiti, Public Prosecutor, Lucca.

The confinement did him some good as he got off drugs (for a while) and composed more music and then spent much of the next 3 years in Italy working and recording.

The jazz club La Bussola was home to many great stars for several decades including Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and for those readers who know the legendary Italian singer Mina, it was at La Bussola in 1958 while on holiday in Versilia that thanks to the help and intuition of the owner, Sergio Bernardini, a young Mina Mazzini became simply Mina and a star was born.

Here's a short clip of Mina singing one of her famous songs at a live performance at La Bussola in 1972.


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