What is that miniature circular Doric temple next to Lucca station I’ve sometimes been asked? It is in fact a water cistern, the destination point of one of the greatest engineering marvels of nineteenth-century Lucca – indeed, Italy. Beyond the cistern, almost five hundred arches of quasi-Roman grandeur, for a length of over three miles, step across the sweet landscape of the Piana Lucchese to the Pisan mountain and constitute the city aqueduct built by the “Italian Telford” (he did, indeed study with the Scotsman), Lorenzo Nottolini, in the 1820s’ and 30’ by command of the Duchess of Lucca, Maria Luisa di Borbona.
Lucca was heading towards a drinking water crisis at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Various previous projects had been started and abandoned but Nottolini (1787-1851), appointed Royal architect and subsequently water and roads Chief Engineer for the Duchy of Lucca in 1818, carried it through to success.
And what a feat Nottolini’s aqueduct is! And how beautifully it sits in the landscape! I wish all engineering works could merge practicality and gracefulness in the way this aqueduct does. Just imagine how the slight angle necessary for the water to gravity –feed Lucca had to be so exactly measured and graded. The aqueduct carried two channels – one for domestic drinking waters the other for water to supply the monumental fountains in the city. The aqueduct was in use until the last century but today, with mechanical pumps, it is no longer in operation. However, water is still collected from the same area and now carried in underground pipes along its length.
That afternoon, after my stint at the paint factory I decided to re-visit this truly marvelous but quite neglected sight of Lucca. You can walk all the way from the aqueduct’s finish at the San Concordio temple to its collecting point at Guamo where there is another Doric-style tempietto. It’s a truly pleasant walk and you can also gauge the awesomeness of this epic work – a worthy successor to those once crossing the campagna and bringing thirst-quenching liquid to Rome’s citizens at the time of the Emperor Claudius.
But how was Lucca’s drinking supply collected? You continue the walk to a quite extraordinary area known as “le Parole d’oro” (so called because locals would rip out bronze letters inscribed on parts of the aqueduct and sell them for gold) which looks like a fantasy park. Here a system of canals, weirs, barricades, waterfalls, bridges and chutes collect, filter and purify the water through stones and gravels before sending it down its three mile journey to Lucca. It’s lovely to walk in this wonderland landscape, hear the waters ripple, lie in multicoloured meadows, take in the pine resin, listen to the bird-song, smell the heavy scent of cascio blossoms – and all just a stone’s throw from the city of Lucca and its industrial estates.
The neglect of Nottolini’s aqueduct does add to its melancholic charm but I feel a lot more could be done to make it one of Lucca’s main attractions, perhaps by having a secure walk-way on its top and converting at least one of the tempietti into a visitor centre. Imagine a pedestrian sky-trail from the centre of Lucca to the sylvan slopes of the Pisan Mountain –it would be really something! In fact, the aqueduct could become part of a major Nottolini trail incorporating many of his most famous architectural and engineering works. One could start at the impressive Ponte delle Catene at Bagni di Lucca, proceed below the heavenly whiteness of the Convento dell’Angelo near Ponte a Moriano, descend into Lucca passing the city cemetery, have lunch in amphitheatre square or the monumental fountain in Piazza San Martino before taking a leisurely stroll along this truly magnificent and awe-inspiring aqueduct. What an imagination and technical skill this Nottolini had to be able to construct all those works…