Stories of devils and saints, intrigue and profanities paint Lucca in a magical and mysterious light. To look beyond the surface of this beautiful Tuscan city, all you have to do is open your eyes.
Saint Zita was born in Lucca in 1218. Of humble origins, she worked as a maid from the age of 12 at the Palazzo Fatinelli, beside the the Basilica of Saint Frediano. One day in the square, she came upon a beggar who was cold and, moved by compassion, ran to the palace to get a cloak. But Zita’s masters weren’t to know this because an angel waited for the young girl at the palace’s archway with a new cloak. Since then, the main door of the Basilica is called the angel door. Saint Zita’s body now rests inside the church and the city of Lucca celebrates her each April 27.
Local churches also bear traces of signs and symbols shrouded in mystery. First is the labyrinth carved on a column at the entrance to the Lucca Cathederal. The depiction is accompanied by an inscription that recalls the the myth of Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus and helped him escape the labyrinth after he slew the minotaur. Perhaps it serves as a warning to pilgrims as they rested here on their long journey along the Via Francigena.
Equally unexplained are the marks on the pillar of the Church of San Pietro Somaldi, which are called “the devil’s scratches.” Legend has it that the devil left the three scratches in a rage after being refused by Saint Gemma Galgani, who was praying in the church.
The Holy Face, the great crucifix of Lucca, is situated in the Cathedral of St. Martin. The crucifix is placed inside a little shrine that was built by Matteo Civitali out of Carrara marble in 1484. According to ancient legend, the Holy Face of Lucca was sculptured by Nicodemus, who’s mentioned in the Gospel as having witnessed the resurrection and ascension of Christ. The legend goes that Nicodemus left the crucifix incomplete but the next day, the face was completed; he had been helped by angels. The cross arrived in Lucca in 742 CE by boat in the port of Luni. Meanwhile, an angel appeared to the Bishop of Lucca, telling him to go and get the wooden crucifix.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is held on September 14, where an impressive procession takes place along the streets of Lucca and thousands of candles hang on the palaces. The event begins in the Basilica of Saint Frediano, where the Holy Face was originally situated, and ends up in the Cathedral of St. Martin.
In the early 1500s, the rich Bernardini family decided to erect a building in the square. During its construction, it is said that the devil convinced the family to remove a sacred image placed on a part of building not in line with that designed by Nicolao Civitali. When workers began to build the window jamb to the right of the entrance door, the devil decided to leave his mark in memory of the desecration and thus the stone remained hopelessly bent. Numerous attempts by the workers couldn’t fix it. The stone continued to sag. Even today, passing in front of the building, you’ll notice the strange position of the jamb.
On the top of the majestic Saint Michel Church, you can admire the huge statue of the saint, made in marble with his wings fashioned out of metal. According to the legend, there is a diamond in the ring he wears and if you’re lucky, you can see it shine.
Lucida Mansi was a Lucca noblewoman who lived in the 1600s and was known for her amorous adventures and the tragic end that was reserved for her lovers. However, it’s her great vanity that has become legendary. It’s said she sold her soul to the devil in exchange for a beauty that never faded. One evening, in the guise of a handsome young man, the devil seduced her into his fiery cart and, after having gone once around the walls, entered the waters of the pond at the Orto Botanico to return to hell. He had come to collect his due. On nights when the moon is full, you can almost hear the devil’s fiery carriage carrying Lucida Mansi once around the walls before diving into the pond at the Orto Botanico. Legend has it that on those nights, you can hear her cries of pain.