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Roman Ruins in and around Lucca

The remains of the Roman Venulei family villa at Massaciuccoli
The remains of the Roman Venulei family villa at Massaciuccoli

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 in the old forum where Piazza San Michele is now situated.

There are few physical remains of Ancient Rome in Lucca today but Roman history is visible in the layout of the medieval centro storico. Lucca's much smaller, original rectangular center was first enclosed with walls by the Romans to defend it from attacks from the north.

An empty Piazza dell'Anfiteatro in Lucca on a February morning
An empty Piazza dell'Anfiteatro on a February morning

The Roman perimeter of Lucca measured only about 2.7 kilometers with the amphitheater constructed just outside the town as was the Roman custom. In the 3rd century Lucca's fortifications were strengthened which enabled the town to withstand a long siege by the Byzantine army headed by Narses, one of the great generals of the byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Lucca eventually surrendered to Narses, who reconquered much of Italy by defeating the Goths and then the Franks before entering Rome triumphantly. The circumference of the present 16th century Lucca walls is 4.2 kilometers with the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro well inside the centro storico.

L'Anfiteatro, Lucca

As the city grew the Anfiteatro was incorporated into the confines of the town and during the medieval period the arena space in the middle was swallowed up by buildings and the original amphitheater effectively disappeared.

The Lucca architect and engineer Lorenzo Nottolini, who was the chief architect for the Duchy of Lucca for 30 years in the first half of the 19th century, was the person who restored the outline of the Roman amphitheater by demolishing everything that was occupying the inside area of the ancient arena.

The old Roman pillars at the eastern entrance to Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca
The old Roman pillars at the eastern entrance to Piazza dell'Anfiteatro

The new space became an outdoor market and the original elliptical shape of the amphitheater became visible again as the circle of buildings remaining around the edge of the arena in fact follow the old raised seating foundations.

The two remaining pieces of Roman wall on the east side of Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca
Two pieces of Roman wall on the east side of the Anfiteatro and above them the outline of the Roman arches

Nottolini is most famous of course for the long aqueduct he built to bring water to Lucca from the hills of Vorno.

All that remains today of the Roman amphitheater, at least above ground, are parts of the large stone pillars that stand at the eastern entrance to Piazza Anfiteatro and two other small vertical sections of wall nearby (right photo) that are still visible but have been incorporated into the medieval buildings that came later.

An early evening in summer in the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca
An early evening in summer in the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro

The Anfiteatro is a major lunchtime and dinner destination for tourists who come to Lucca, thronged as it is by restaurants, and there's always a convivial atmosphere here on summer evenings.

Massaciuccoli Romana

Roman Massaciuccoli was founded at the beginning of the first century A.D. and there are two distinct sections of Roman remains that are visible today. Up on a hill overlooking town are the walls of a large villa (top photo) built between 10-50 A.D., ie. the last years of the Emperor Augustus and the beginning of the reign of Claudius.

It belonged to the Venulei family who at that time was one of the most important families in Pisa. The Venulei family name was found inscribed on items both in the villa and also in the lower area excavations where a mosaic floor was uncovered. The lower area was a rest station with spa facilities available to travelers, further evidence of the prestige and wealth of the family.

The remarkably well preserved mosaic floor at Massaciouccoli
The remarkably well preserved Roman mosaic floor at Massaciuccoli

Despite the initial archeological discovery having been towards the end of the 18th century, followed by other discoveries intermittently since then, it wasn't until about 20 years ago that the municipality of Massarosa became serious about managing the site for the purposes of tourism, education, research and further excavation.

There is now a proper museum/exhibition pavilion enclosing the mosaic floor and other remains at the lower site along Via Pietra a Padule. Along the walkway inside there are information panels explaining the discoveries and the results of the research carried out as to their history and purpose.

Church of San Giovanni & Santa Reparata, Lucca

The Church of San Giovanni and Santa Reparata, Lucca
The Church of San Giovanni and Santa Reparata next to Via del Duomo

This church is in an attractive area of the southern part of the centro storico of Lucca next to the Via Duomo that runs from Piazza Napoleone to Piazza San Martino. It contains the most important Roman ruins and archeological site in Lucca and the basement level display of the excavations carried out in the 1970s traces the history of this building from the end of the first century B.C. to the high medieval period of the 10th and 11th centuries.

The Roman era sarcophagus in the Lucca church of Santa Reparata
A Roman era sarcophagus from the later part of the 2nd century A.D.

The Roman part that has some surviving mosaic tiles shows the rooms of a Domus which was subsequently converted into thermal baths by the end of the second century A.D. An early Christian church with a single hall divided into three naves was built over this Roman site by the middle of the 4th century and further modifications continued for several centuries thereafter.

This was the first cathedral of Lucca until the 8th century when work on the Duomo di San Martino started as a result of the Volto Santo mysteriously appearing there.

The inside of the Church of San Giovanni & Santa Reparata in Lucca
There are steps down into the basement level and walkways to observe the ruins up close

They have done a commendable job with the presentation of the ruins though more detailed information on the lower level would be useful in the same way that the exhibits are described in Massaciuccoli, especially as the basement here contains items from so many different eras.

During the rebuilding of the church in the 12th century the central part of the nave became a building site with circular kilns (top left) that were subsequently buried before being rediscovered. The bottom right photo above is of a baptismal font from the Paleo-Christian era.

Frescoes inside of Church of San Giovanni & Santa Reparata Lucca
Late 14th century frescoes in the transept showing the Madonna with various saints

Church of Santa Maria della Rosa, Lucca

section of Roman wall in Church of Santa Maria della Rosa, Lucca

section of Roman wall in Church of Santa Maria della Rosa, Lucca

Located just beyond the end of the street where we lived for 7 years, this church is on the eastern side of Duomo San Martino in the centro storico.

Built in 1309 it is quite small and not very impressive from the outside but it contains a perfectly preserved section of the original Roman walls that encircled Lucca.

Most Roman stones were re-used in the Middle Ages for other construction projects and over time disappeared into foundations or were covered over, but as the stones here form an entire wall of the church they have remained intact.

part of the old Roman walls of Lucca in Via della Rosa

Just south of the church on the small traffic island where Via della Rosa meets Via del Fosso there are about 10 blocks of stone just sitting on the ground between two trees with no plaque or sign and with weeds growing around them, as if they were simply abandoned builder's rubble.

Yet these are also part of the old Roman walls of Lucca and you would think perhaps that they would get a little more respect, being 2,000 years old.

Domus Romana - House of the Child on a Dolphin

The remains of a Roman house were discovered in 2010 in Via Cesare Battisti and it is now a one room museum containing various artifacts from the 1st century B.C., including a fragment of a terracotta frieze that decorated the lobby of the porch. Reconstructed it shows two children riding dolphins towards the head of a Gorgon, hence the name given to the Domus: Casa del Fanciullo sul Delfino.

Domus Romana Lucca

La Colonna Mozza, Lucca

the Roman column in piazza santa maria foris portam, Lucca

In Piazza Santa Maria Foris Portam there is a broken column that stands a little forlornly and neglected in the middle of passing traffic.

It is Roman stone that was probably taken from the amphitheater and placed here to represent the finish line of the palio that took place from the 12th to 16th centuries. It was such a prestigious annual event that even luminaries like Lorenzo the Magnificent entered horses in the race.

'Foris Portam' means 'outside the gate' and refers to the fact that in Roman times it was outside the city walls.


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