marvels from villa to villa
A diadem of noble dwellings crowns Lucca: sumptuous residences and vast parks where one could lose one’s way amongst statues, grottoes, jeux d’eau, “green” architectures, teatri di verzura, pools and romantic lakes. A treasure for all seasons, in Versilia’s backyard
Words by Cristina Conti - Photography Luca Lupi
From the 14th century onward, the noble and the wealthy families of Lucca built more than five hundred villas in the countryside near the city. Sumptuous residences, often majestic, in parks and gardens sparkling with fountains and artificial lakes, lemon houses, and stables, and as often symbols of status won through commerce and finance, emblems of nobility conquered, not inherited. The villas were locations for vacationing and entertainments but also for managing the cultivated lands around them and the families’ agricultural and other related activities.
Many of these villas, though owned by private citizens, are open to the public for visits; not a few may be leased for weddings and parties or for holiday stays. Just a short distance from Versilia, they are certainly worth more than one visit, especially by aficionados of architecture or such attractions as parks, gardens, and teatri di verzura: as a group they admirably represent the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles.
We might begin with Villa Reale of Marlia, one of the oldest and most luxurious in the entire province. It owes its name to Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca and Piombino, who purchased it in 1806. But its origins date much further back. In medieval times the stronghold of the Duke of Tuscia, it was later transformed into a noble palace by the Buonvisi family. In the mid-1600s it changed ownership again: the Orsetti brothers completely restructured the building and redesigned the park in Baroque style. Other innovations under the Orsettis were the Giardino dei Limoni, with two-hundred-plus plants, the Teatro d’Acqua, and the Teatro di Verzura. The latter is Europe’s oldest and one of the most beautiful, with its yew hedges sculpted into walls, a podium, a prompter’s box, stage, and wings.
In the early 1800s, Elisa Bonaparte gave the facades a Neoclassical makeover and partly modified the park to incorporate suggestions of the English formal garden. After the unification of Italy the estate went to the crown; Vittorio Emanuele II placed it at the disposition of the heirs of Charles of Bourbon, but changes in this family’s fortunes introduced it to the saddest period in its history. The complex was sold, the furnishings were auctioned off, and many of the park’s trees were felled for firewood.
The Pecci-Blunt counts purchased the property in 1923 and began restoration work. One of their additions was an artificial lake, which besides contributing a new touch of beauty guaranteed water for the gardens even in the driest months.
Almost one hundred years later, in 2015, a young Swiss couple fell in love with Villa Reale. Henric and Marina Grönberg purchased the property with the intention of restoring it to its ancient splendor and opening much of it to the public: the park and several rooms in the villa, as well as the Palazzina dell’Orologio, home to Countess Mimì Pecci-Blunt’s eclectic collections.
Villa Torrigiani, in Capannori, is instead one of the most outstanding examples of Baroque architecture in all of Tuscany. It was given its current aspect in the mid-17th century by Marquis Nicolao Santini (from whom the family of the current owners descends), ambassador of the Republic of Lucca to the court of the Sun King.
The villa and the park are theatrically triumphant in appearance, beginning with the long, cypress-lined boulevard that leads up to the residence and announces the sublime facade decorated with statues. It is again to Marquis Santini that we owe the Giardino Teatro di Flora with its flowers, grottoes and still-operational water features. The garden theme repeats inside the villa in the frescoes by Pietro Scorzini. Both the decoration and the original furnishings are perfectly preserved.
Villa Oliva, in the San Pancrazio locality a few kilometers from Lucca, dates to the 1400s. The Buonvisi family commissioned the building of Matteo Civitali, one of the era’s leading architects, who drew his inspiration from the Renaissance ideal of harmonious beauty. The residence is surrounded by an immense fenced park laid out with striking gardens of various types and constellated by fountains. The complex includes beautiful stables, the subject of an entertaining legend. It is said that Alessandro Buonvisi, convinced that his stables outshone all the halls at Versailles, laid a wager to that effect with Louis XIV of France. The king’s messenger found the walls of the stables to be entirely covered in gold coins bearing the Sun King’s likeness . . . and Buonvisi won the wager.
This brief tour of Lucca’s villas could conclude here in San Pancrazio, which also hosts Villa Diodati-Grabau. Built by the Diodati family in the late 15th century, in the mid-1800s it was purchased by the Cittadellas who altered its Renaissance aspect to Neoclassical. In 1868 it was purchased by the current owners, the Grabau family, to whom – in collaboration with the Botanical Gardens of Lucca – we owe the enormous variety of plants that grace the park. Its nine hectares are also home to a splendid 17th-century lemon house, the Teatrino di Verzura, an extensive 19th-century English-style garden, and an Italian garden with a great many lemon plants.
all about Lucca’s villas
The photos accompanying this article are taken from Giardini Lucchesi. Il teatro della natura tra città e campagna by Maria Adriana Giusti, the second volume of a trilogy devoted to the villas of Lucchesia published by PubliEd. The book (cover price €40.00) is available in Italian- and French-language versions and can be purchased directly from the publisher: firstname.lastname@example.org; or call +39 346 0941723.