While the New World boasts the retrofitted railroad spur in New York City as the High Line, the Old World has its own elevated linear park – and its made out of a 500-year-old a defensive wall.
A defensive wall does not have much use anymore. In Lucca, a city where people have settled for over a millennium in Tuscany, the defensive wall-turned-greenway perfectly encircling the city is a reminder of the peaceful times we now enjoy, relative to the almost unrecognizable past of wandering armies sacking unsuspecting cities and villages. Today, riding a bicycle on top of the Renaissance-era wall or having a picnic on one of the the grassy bastions is a common sight but a unique experience one could only find in the Old World.
The wall of Lucca is the second longest in Europe. The perimeter of 4.2 kilometers and 223 meters of embankments is copiously planted with trees that shade the walkway, some of which are ornamental and change colors with the season. Exhibiting the plant diversity, each of the four principal sides is lined with a different tree species. The walls also provide a panoramic viewpoint of the churches and towers of Lucca on one side and the Apuan Alps on the horizon. Outside the walls there is a large green field protected from development.
An intact defensive wall is uncommon, as they were seen in much of the 19th century as archaic and were deconstructed in order to modernize cities. Other factors included the change of defensive strategy, which focused more on the defense of forts around cities; and the invention of gunpowder rendering walls less effective, as siege cannons would be used to blast through walls allowing armies to simply march through.
Although many walls that lost their use were torn down and their materials were allotted to other projects, the walls around Lucca’s old town were kept as the city expanded and modernized because of two women: Elisa Bonaparte and Maria Luisa of Bourbon. Bonaparte (Napoleon’s sister) ruled Lucca from 1805 to 1814 and extended the perimeter of the walls to include the current port Porta Elisa (the side facing the long-time enemy Florence). The next ruler, Luisa saw the wall’s potential early on. As the Duchess of Lucca she promoted public works and culture in the spirit of the Enlightenment. After the turn of the 19thcentury the walls of Lucca were not being used in warfare anymore and Luisa inaugurated the walls as a place to walk. She chose architects facilitate this new purpose, appointing Lorenzo Nottolini as the lead architect to transform part of the walls into a green space, which was later turned into a public park in the late 1800s.
Now known as the Passeggiata delle Mure Urbane (“Walk of the City Walls”), there have been a total of four periods of construction between 200 BCE and the 17th century. The first wall had its origins in about 200 BCE as a Roman square plan surrounding the city, and a few traces still remain to this day. The second period of construction came in the 11th and 12th centuries renovating the previous walls into medieval-style walls* (high but not too wide), completed around the middle of the 13th century. Due to urban expansion, from about 1350 to the first decades of the 15th century, the previous walls were extended. The last expansion of the walls represents a striking example of a Renaissance–style wall in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lucca’s walls are the only surviving example of a Renaissance defensive structure in the whole of Italy. The construction of the walls was decreed the Republic of Lucca in 1504 to keep pace with progress in military technology and to guarantee better defense of the city, in fear of the Florentine’s Medici expansionist policy.The last expansion never saw the anticipated Florentine invasion, but it did protect its inhabitants from severe flooding from the Serchio River in 1812.
The wall is punctuated by 11 bastions, all different in structure. There are 3 gates of entry into the city:
Porta San Pietro, totally preserved in the original prospectus outside
Porta Santa Maria, dell'Emeroteca Municipal and ancient mechanism for lifting the door
Porta vecchia San Donato seat Tourist Office, which Dates to the first half of 600 and adorned by marble statues of San Donato and San Paolino
Two modern ports include Porta Elisa and Porta Vittorio Emanuele.
Today, the wall offers many spots to play and relax, especially around the bastions and ramparts, equipped with benches, tables, drinking fountains and games for children. The pedestrian promenade surrounding the old town is frequently used by the public, and much like the High Line, beloved by locals and tourists alike.
*Medieval walls needed to be very high and not too wide to deter climbing and stave off arrows.
**The use of gunpowder made Medieval walls susceptible to powerful cannon assaults, and Renaissance walls were lower but still very large made of brinks and filled with soil to withstand cannon balls. Even the towers were made round so they were less susceptible to artillery damage.