Having spent seven years in an apartment on Corso Garibaldi directly opposite the Duomo di San Martino I feel like I know it better than most people. Our apartment had mostly east facing windows and a small balcony looking in the same direction so from morning till night the 200 foot campanile dominated the view and was inescapable.
But why would you ever want to escape it because of the 13 different homes in 8 cities across 5 countries that I've lived in over the last 66 years, this view was definitely the best (excluding the six months I worked as a student in Lucerne in 1975 when the view from my window was of Mount Pilatus across the lake).
In 2015 the Duomo was covered in scaffolding for more than a year while undergoing an extensive renovation, part of which was to allow access to the public via a climb of 217 steps to the top. It's probably worth the effort but if you're only going to climb one tower in Lucca then the Torre Guinigi is the one I would recommend.
Having seen the bell tower daily through every season and taken endless photographs from our balcony, my favorite view was always the sunset in spring when there was no humidity in the air and the sun was exactly aligned straight down Corso Garibaldi. In these moments the setting sun turns the brown limestone a deep shade of red and the whiter stone becomes the color of rich clotted cream (top photo).
At other times storms would appear high above Lucca from the direction of the Apennines while the late afternoon sun was still shining on the town from over the cloud free Mediterranean (above photo).
Rainbows over the Cathedral would sometimes appear in the wake of summer rain, and after dark on cloudless evenings there was yet another perspective.
From our particular viewpoint the moon would always rise to the left of the Duomo, disappear behind the bell tower and then re-emerge climbing high in the sky to the right, illuminating the tower as it went by. And every once in a while it snows in Lucca and another view of the Cathedral presents itself.
Another March photograph below of a strange early evening light seems to suggest that most of the interesting weather happens in the spring, at least for photographers.
San Martino in Italian Culture
The Duomo is named after San Martino, one of the founders of monasticism and one of the first non-martyr saints proclaimed by the Church. He lived in the later years of the Western Roman Empire and served for a time as a Roman soldier before leaving for France and ultimately becoming Bishop of Tours in 376, remaining in that position for the next 26 years until his death.
He is a very popular saint in both France and Italy and the date of his burial, November 11, is celebrated widely. Is it a coincidence that this date was the last day of hostilities in World War I or did the French make this choice deliberately given their reverence for San Martino?
In Italy there is a proverb relating to winemaking that also invokes this date: “a San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino”, ie. when fermentation of the new wine is traditionally completed.
In addition this is the date historically when many seasonal agricultural contracts ended in Italy and labourers would have to move out of any work-related accommodation, hence the expression “fare San Martino” came into use referring to moving home in a more general sense.
The most famous story about San Martino is the explanation behind the large marble carving above one of the main pillars on the Cathedral facade. According to tradition the Saint, on seeing a half naked beggar shivering from cold during a downpour, gave him half of his cloak and then shortly after gave the other half to another beggar. Immediately the sky cleared and it became warmer.
This story also gave rise to another expression in Italy when people refer to a late summer warm spell that in England is described as an 'Indian summer'. Here it is referred to as “l’estate di San Martino”. Traditional celebrations take place all over Italy on this date. Scanno in Abruzzo, for example, has a competition among the contrade as to who can light the biggest fire and in Veneto there's a specific type of dolce fashioned to resemble the saint.
The Cathedral history
There was a church on this spot in the 6th century but it was completely rebuilt in 1060 by the Bishop of Lucca who shortly afterwards became Pope Alexander II. It was consecrated by the Pope on its completion in 1070, the same year that he sent three papal legates to England to officially crown the new king, William the Conqueror, thereby giving his seal of approval to the new dynastic direction of the English monarchy.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries significant modifications were made to the Lucca Cathedral, including the addition of the bell tower using limestone from quarries in the nearby Pisa mountains.
The Romanesque facade and portico were completed and ‘signed’ in 1204 by Guidetto da Como; signed in the sense that there is a depiction of the architect on the facade holding a parchment in his hand with the date inscribed on it.
The design of the Cathedral was clearly influenced by the Pisa Romanesque style as there are obvious similarities with regard to the three tiered loggias above the portico to the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa. San Zeno in Pistoia is a less ornate, smaller version of this style also.
Work on the apse and the interior of the church took place throughout most of the 14th century recycling many of the materials from the old structure and it wasn’t fully completed until 1390.
When you see the facade and portico up close you quickly realize how intricate and richly decorated they are and what great condition everything is in. It is fashioned from white, pink and green marble with three arches opening onto the square whose function for centuries was the gathering point for money changers and merchants servicing the needs of the stream of pilgrims passing through on the Via Francigena, with Rome as their final destination.
San Martino himself is the prominent figure above the portico, inside of which there are numerous highly detailed decorations. Jesus and the Apostles are directly above the central door into the Cathedral (photo below).
On either side of the door there are the signs of the Zodiac. The oath of the moneychangers is on the left-hand side and on the pillar on the right at the base of the bell tower there is a mysterious carving of a labyrinth, similar to the one in Chartres Cathedral In France.
The Latin inscription at the side of the labyrinth translates as “this is the Labyrinth of Daedalus of Crete from which no one who entered could exit, except Theseus helped by Ariadne’s thread”.
In the loggias above the portico the knotted columns are the dominant feature and above each arch there are densely packed inlaid carvings of symbols and animals.
Probably the most famous object inside the Cathedral is the Volto Santo, a large wooden crucifix recently carbon-dated back to the last years of the 8th century, which makes it the oldest surviving wooden carving in Europe.
The legend around this carving of Christ attributes it to the disciple Nicodemus and describes its arrival from the Holy Land at the ancient port of Luni in 782 after having been discovered by an Italian bishop on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Initially placed in the church of San Frediano it mysteriously disappeared one night and was discovered on the site of the present Cathedral. Taking it as a sign from above, the citizens of Lucca decided to house it in a new church to be built on this site.
Every year on the 13th September during the most important festival in Lucca, called Santa Croce, the crucifix is paraded through the streets of the centro storico in a procession known as the Luminara.
All the windows along the route are illuminated by thousands of candles and all of Lucca’s religious and civil dignitaries participate together with crossbowmen and bands in medieval garb.
The procession follows the same ‘miraculous’ path that the crucifix supposedly took all those centuries ago, starting from the church of San Frediano.
Of the many paintings inside the Cathedral the two most noteworthy are probably first, Ghirlandaio’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, which was painted in about 1479 a few years before Ghirlandaio, as head of a studio, became the tutor of a young Michelangelo. The second is the last of Tintoretto’s various Last Supper paintings, completed with the help of his son in 1594, the year of his death.
Last but not least, in a separate room off to the right there is a white marble sarcophagus designed by the famous Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The tomb is of Ilaria del Carretto, with her dog at her feet, though her actual remains are nearby in the Church of San Francesco. She was the second of four wives of the early 15th century Lord of Lucca, Paolo Guinigi. She died at only 26 years old during the birth of her second child and centuries later she would be mentioned in Gabriele d’Annunzio’s poem about Lucca.