Piazza San Michele is the true center of Lucca. Piazza Napoleone may be larger, the Anfiteatro a more interesting shape and Via Fillungo may have all the shops, but Piazza San Michele is the place to sit and drink a morning coffee or enjoy an evening aperitivo before dinner.
It's also the square that's most loved by the Lucchesi themselves and whenever you want to meet someone in town it's always here in this charming piazza.
And even if you’ve had your fill of old Italian churches and are feeling a little jaded, the church of San Michele in Foro right in the middle of the piazza is a sight to behold. The facade alone is worthy of your undivided attention and will demonstrate why a cell phone camera sometimes isn’t enough. Because to appreciate all the rich detail and its significance you’ll either need a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens of some sort.
The in foro in the name refers to the fact that this piazza was the forum in Roman times, the center of day-to-day life and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Luca (as Lucca was known back then) has an important place in the history of Ancient Rome for it was here that the First Triumvirate was renewed at a meeting between Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus in 56 B.C., held presumably in the old forum where Piazza San Michele is now situated. In the outline below of Roman Luca, the current Piazza San Michele is the white square in the middle and the Anfiteatro is outside the city as it always was in Roman times. This much smaller town was enclosed by walls even then, because of its vulnerable location on an open flat plain.
There are very few physical remains of Ancient Rome in Lucca today and Piazza San Michele is surrounded instead by medieval architecture, for the centro storico of Lucca is very much a medieval town. The church in its present state dates back to the 11th century and it dominates the piazza with a large open space on three sides around it.
It's a highly adorned version of the Romanesque style known as Romanico Pisano and has one of the most intricate and interesting facades anywhere in Italy with enormous detail in each of the five levels.
The larger lower part is made up of white and grey marble with arches and columns in the Greek Corinthian style. Under each of the three arches on either side of the central arch there are three dimensional diamond shaped decorations. The main portal in the center has a carved relief depicting mythical creatures, the centaur and siren, and Saint Michael slaying a dragon topped by a rose window flanked by lions. This reflects the many Biblical references to Saint Michael as God's general slaying the dragon as the symbol of the devil.
The four logge (levels) above this look like a giant wedding cake full of masses of intricate carvings. Each pillar is different, some are carved and others are overlaid with detailed patterns and shapes using different colored marble. Above the pillars in each of the four sections there are carved impressions of animals, both real and mythical. The animals are inlaid in white marble against a background of green marble.
It's not obvious to the untrained eye who all the carved heads represent on the four logge (at the bottom of this article there is an explanatory diagram) and many were reworked and replaced in the late 1860s, partly because of natural deterioration over the centuries and partly to update them to reflect the recent historic events in Italian life.
King Richard I of England (known as Lionheart) and Charlemagne always retained their places because of their single minded dedication to the crusades but the Tuscan Bettino Ricasoli as well as the Piemontesi Cavour and King Vittorio Emanuele II were new additions reflecting the 1861 unification of Italy.
As expected, Dante, Columbus and Galileo have been ever present but they were joined in the 1860s by Napoleon Bonaparte, who seems an odd choice to me given his role as yet another foreign invader in Italian history. And not just any invader, but someone who busied himself taking back to Paris as much Italian heritage as he could steal, especially from Venice. It's even stranger to see him on a church because Bonaparte was often in conflict with the Pope and forced him into exile to Savona in Liguria for several years until 1814. His nephew Napoleon III was also added, presumably for his recent actions sending troops to defend the Pope's hold on Rome.
Noticeably missing, given the inclusion of the other leading members of the Risorgimento, are Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. This is because when these changes were made Garibaldi and Mazzini were still fierce advocates for the inclusion of Rome in the newly united Italy but the Pope, with the aid of Napoleon III, held on firmly to his personal control of the city until 1871.
So for the Catholic church in the 1860s it would have been unacceptable to have these two great heroes of the Risorgimento included in a place of honor on a church, given their profound opposition to the secular power of the Pope.
At the very top of the church there is a free standing sculpture of St Michael with bronze wings, now a weathered green, again with a dragon at his feet. He is flanked by two angels with trumpets, also a bit like figurines on the top of a wedding cake. It’s certainly a strange and interesting shape at the top because this part of the facade rises beyond the height of the actual church building and is narrow and unsupported on the sides.
Behind it there is a diagonal staircase leading from the roof to directly behind St Michael. The interior of the church however is something of a disappointment, as it’s very plain compared to the outside.
As you walk around the piazza you will come across at least five cafes and we would recommend two of them, both at the northern end of the square. Turandot (below left) gives you the best view of the front of the church and has the advantage of having the morning sun if you’re visiting in one of the cooler months, though service here is a bit aloof.
The other a few yards away, Bar Al Mercato (above left), is the only cafe in the piazza frequented by locals so you will at least hear some Italian being spoken. It has the advantage of being shaded by the church in the morning, which in the summer months is essential, and service here tends to be a little friendlier. In the evening all the bars in the square fill up quickly by 6.00 pm so finding an outdoor table for your aperitivo can be a challenge in high summer.
Also worthy of mention is La Tana del Boia on the eastern side of the piazza (above right photo with the purple awning). It’s a very small wine bar with a good selection of Italian wines, including local wines, and serves a range of local products including gli affettati (cold cuts of meat and salami), cheeses and a range of interesting sandwiches for lunch or a simple dinner.
It also now has a selection of birra artigianale in keeping with the microbrewery trend that continues apace in Italy. The evolution of the birreria in Italy is following along the same lines as the US with most of the beers being not particularly subtle and quite high in alcohol.
There is just one statue in the piazza and surprisingly it was added only 158 years ago. It is of Francesco Burlamacchi and Lucca was perhaps still feeling a bit guilty when they commissioned it. Burlamacchi was the Gonfaloniere of Lucca, an elected position carrying certain executive authority, when in 1544 he conceived of the idea to organize Lucca, Pisa and other Tuscan territories to overthrow the powerful Medici rulers of Florence and in their place put together a federation of all the Tuscan cities under the protection of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was basically trying to unite the existing region of Tuscany centuries before it actually happened.
The Lucca government became aware of the plot and had Burlamacchi arrested, probably to avoid provoking Florence. Cosimo Medici however had also heard of the plot through his network of spies and demanded that Lucca hand him over. Lucca, still very much an independent entity and in the process of building its walls to protect it from Florence and the powerful Medici dynasty, sought a compromise which resulted in Burlamacchi being sent to Milan, with his fate to be decided by Charles V.
Maintaining the status quo caused the least trouble for Charles so he had Burlamacchi summarily executed, probably a result that suited everyone except the unfortunate Burlamacchi. After Italian unification in 1861 Lucca wished to honor his premature idea of uniting Tuscany and the statue was commissioned shortly thereafter.