The botanical gardens of Pisa lay claim to being the oldest botanical gardens in the world and were established in 1544 under Cosimo I de Medici. Lying very close to the famous Piazza dei Miracoli with its unparalleled arrangement of cathedral, baptistery, leaning tower and cemetery, the gardens are near, in my opinion, to being a second “miracle square” and a lovely place to retire to after the hordes of tourists at the main sights.
Rather later come Lucca’s own botanical gardens founded in 1820 by Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma. Are they then older than London’s Kew gardens? Yes and no. Although Kew gardens were started up in the eighteenth century they were not officially recognized as botanical gardens until 1840.
One thing is certain, however: Lucca’s own gardens with an entrance fee of three euros (£2.50) are rather more affordable than Kew’s admission ticket at £14.50! (I am old enough to remember the times when Kew gardens had an entrance turnstile in which you put in a penny to enter…and that was in 1977).
I found myself yesterday morning in the delightful Lucca gardens which nestle in an inner corner below the city walls, after recovering from a dental appointment (always a nice place to recover from such things) and spent a couple of pleasant hours among its various sections.
The arboretum is full of magnificent species including that living fossil the Gingko Biloba or (as the Italians say) l’albero dei ventagli, named after the shape of its leaves. Actually, the leaves were just sprouting out so I couldn’t see their fan shapes yet.
When fully sprouted the leaves look like this:
Cinnamon trees come in two varieties: true and false. A blackbird was singing on the true one.
The sequoia sempervirens are as ever spectacular with their great heights and amazing bark.
The majestic cedar of Lebanon with a six metres round trunk and 22 meters high was planted in 1820.
Of bushes, the magnolias, rhododendrons, japonicas and camellias were showing their true colours:
There is a section given over to medicinal plants which also appeals to non-sighted people who, everywhere in the gardens, have their braille signs and touch-pictures.
Water plants abound in the little lake which also has the claim to harbour that devil-woman Lucida Mansi.
If you don’t know the story then here it is:
The beautiful noblewoman Lucida Mansi, spoiled and a lover of the excesses of unbridled luxury, made a pact with the devil. One day, noting slight wrinkles on her face, she began to despair regretting spent youth. She wept so much as to draw the attention of the devil, who appeared in the guise of a beautiful boy offering three decades of youth in exchange for her soul. She accepted without hesitation, spending thirty years of sexual pleasures and debauchery in unchanging youth until the day when the Devil came to collect his credit. He dragged her, screaming, off with him, on a fiery chariot crossing the entire city to the jeers of the population to eventually be swallowed up in the little lake of the botanical gardens. It is said that, even today, in the nights of the full moon, the face of Lucida can be seen reflected in the waters looking at herself in the mirror.
That, of course, is also the same story behind the Borgo a Mozzano Halloween event. But there poor Lucida gets thrown into the river Serchio from the devil’s bridge. What sacrifices have to be made for a life of debauchery, I regret to say…
The relatively recent and well-designed greenhouses (there is even a panoramic walkway on top of them) host an amazing variety of succulent and tropical plants.
There is a montagnola (little mountain) where plants native to our own Apuan and Apennine mountains are displayed.
A museum and library of over 2000 volumes some of which date back to the seventeenth centuries is being re-arranged and will again be open to the public
The gardens take part in two of Lucca’s gardening festivals: Murabilia in September and Verdemura in April.
The botanical gardens aren’t just about plants. In summer we’ve been to great concerts in the greenhouses – I particularly remember the Liszt recital given by a brilliant young pianist. They form part of the “Song of the Trees” festival. On one of these events the full moon shone and I can verify that I saw the face of Lucida in the little lake… (or was it the grappa?)
And every Christmas the botanical gardens make up a special crib decorated with plants from the Holy Land.
What more could you want for an entrance fee of £2.50?
PS. The gardens’ web site is at http://www.ortobotanicodilucca.it/