The Italian journalist Corrado Augias, well-known for his presentation of documentary TV programmes on RAI is also the author of a series of books (still, alas, not in English translation) called “I segreti di Roma”, “I segreti di Parigi” and even “I segreti di Londra”, which all make fascinating and informative reading.
As a lover of secrets I also look forwards to reading the books in English on the secrets of Florence, Tuscany and London written by Niccolò Rinaldi and mentioned in a recent post by Debra Kolkka.
The definition of a secret is something which is kept apart from general knowledge, either on purpose or because it’s not considered important for any mention, or even because it’s actually been forgotten. Regarding London, I would put the anti-nuclear bomb underground headquarters of HM government as the first type of secret – although much of it has now become a tourist attraction, rather like Churchill’s war-time basement rooms in Whitehall.
Of the second type of secret I would put some of the great public administration works regarding London’s sewage system as worthy of mention, especially the great pumping station in Erith, south London.
Of the third type of secret I would put many, many Victorian gothic revival churches, art-deco villas and even abandoned underground stations. This third type of “secret” represents for me the one most neglected and the one most at threat of disappearing entirely.
What secrets then does a city like Lucca hold? Would they be enough to fill the covers of that book mentioned recently by Debra Kolkka in her post? Does Lucca have any secrets? Why of course it does! Like any old and historic city Lucca has all three kinds of secrets and in some considerable quantities too.
Of the first type of secret – the one once considered secret on purpose for such a long time – I would definitely put the intricate and lengthy system of underground passageways which burrow their way through the walls of the walled city par excellence. A few of these are open to the public at particular times. For example, the passages under the bulwark of San Regolo can be viewed when they are open for the Murabilia garden festival and I managed to walk a few hundred yards of them on a recent visit to the botanical gardens which hold another secret (type three) which I mentioned in another post on those wonderful gardens.
Of the second type of secret I would put the old pumping stations and the dams which have prevented Lucca from flooding. One of these can be seen near Porta Santa Maria but most of them are situated along the overflow canals regulating the unpredictable Serchio river as it enters Lucca and some of them can be seen clearly on the cleverly designed “river walk” which is being opened up throughout the length of the Serchio.
Of the third type of secret there are as many as one cares to mention, particularly in a country like Italy which, too often, regrettably neglects so many of its greatest “minor” gems because it has a literal surfeit of them (over halt of UNESCO’s cultural goods are in Italy!) Of these, in Lucca, I would mention the church of Santa Caterina near the west end of the city – the church which the tobacco factory workers would drop into for a prayer or an illicit meeting with a loved one and which, fortunately is now being restored and revalued and, thus is, no longer such a secret. But the nearby tobacco factory still remains a secret, however. How many of us have entered its neo-gothic forms or admired some of the plaques on its façade? What a great museum of cigar making in another era it would make (with the usual health warnings of course!),
I still have to decide what types of secrets the following items come under. They are all highly fascinating and alluring features for me when I visit this city which, in many respects, is a whole secret unto itself, walled within its ramparts and with a population which leads its own secret lives so different from the more public community displays one gets in places like Pisa or Livorno.
Some of these are the other towers one can climb up, quite apart from the Torre Guinigi (the one with the holm oaks on top – evidently this used to be a regular feature in mediaeval times when a law forbade defensive towers from beating a height limit. The inhabitants found a way round it by saying “my tower is unfortunately the same height as your one but the trees I’ve planted on top of it are higher than yours!” Among these towers are the campanile of the baptistery of San Giovanni and the Torre delle ore (the one with the big mediaeval clock on top – in my opinion even more of a marvel than the Torre Guinigi.)
The others of the “hundred” churches one can never get into and visit represent a great neglectful secret. We all have our own list of these. When will we get into them for a visit?
The “hidden” theatres which have been closed for ages but which now can be visited on a special visit to its forgotten and once-used places of entertainment represent another Luccan secret.
Unusual workshops, from making mediaeval psalteries to binding manuscripts (including Puccini’s when he was around) to making the original bucellato, or fruit cake, abound everywhere just for the discovery of the curiously inclined.
Scouring the basement of houses in search of Roman walls, temples and even villas is revealing. There is at least one of these basements now open to the public thanks to the initiative of the proprietor who discovered the archaeological remains when they were restoring their home and where roman banquets are now served (no dormice on the menu, dormice lovers please note!)
Unusual buildings which have been made redundant abound. I’ve mentioned the tobacco factory but this has actually moved to a new location outside town and people still have their choice of doing their lungs in if they wish on inhaling the excellent “Toscano” cigar which now comes in various flavours, including liquorice and grappa.
More unusual is the executioner’s house near Porta Elisa which gave adequate work to its occupant before the death penalty was finally abolished by a liberally –minded Tuscan grand-duchy. It is now fortunately being restored, not because the post of grand executioner has been reinstituted, but because it will provide a pleasant refreshment and information point on the walls.
One secret which must be known to at least a few is the fact that the statue of Maria Luisa di Borbona in Lucca’s Piazza Napoleone has the body of Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, but the face of Maria Luisa – a fine example of statue recycling after a regime change. (Fortunately in London Nelson still remains Nelson!)
I would be most interested in hearing about other features, buildings and places which other visitors to this exquisite city may consider secrets of some sort. I’m quite sure that after my breakfast more secrets will come to mind and I might even mention them in a future post.
In the meantime there is no secret about today. It is Italy’s liberation day – a national holiday to celebrate its reprieve from Nazi-fascist oppression. All I can say about today is that thank goodness that war didn’t last much longer than it did otherwise there would have been a lot less beautiful villages and towns and a lot less secrets to mention in this very public but also very secretive country!
(Florence 25th April 1945)