Le Casermette di Lucca and what Goes on Inside Them

Although it’s the walls started in 1544 and completed in 1650 that first greet one when approaching the historic centre of Lucca they are just the third in sequence from the ancient Roman walls, of which there are traces in via della Rosa with a whole wall remaining in Saint Gemma’s favourite Church della Rosa, to the mediaeval walls, of which the best remains are the great gateways of San Gervasio and Porta dei Borghi.

Lucca’s latest set of walls are perforated by six gateways going, in a clockwise direction, as follows:

  1. Porta Santa Maria (1592), the one you meet when coming from Bagni di Lucca.
  2. Porta San Jacopo alla Tomba (1930), the most recent gate.
  3. Porta Elisa (1811), built by order of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi, to open up a route to the east towards Florence, which was previously treated as a hostile force.
  4. Porta San Pietro (1565), the one you enter in if travelling to Lucca by train.
  5. Porta Sant’Anna, (1910) the one with the bus stands beyond it.
  6. Porta San Donato, (1629) the one you go through if you walk from the big car park on the west side of the walls.

I won’t at this stage go through Lucca walls’ list of Vauban-style bulwarks except to state that there are eleven of them. I won’t even say anything further about any of the walls except to remark that on top of them one comes across the “casermette”, or guardhouses, usually situated near the gateways and which are today dedicated to various (non-military) purposes such as associations, bars, or museums.


The casermette, following again in a clockwise direction, are as follows:

  1. Antica porta San Donato, today the tourist information centre.
  2. Casermetta di San Martino
  3. Casermetta San Pietro, headquarters of Lucca’s cross-bow society (well I suppose that’s still a military use)
  4. Villaggio del Fanciullo, a children’s play-centre and village.
  5. Casa del Boia, chief executioner’s house. Now that that job’s happily gone it’s being transformed into a museum of the via Francigena pilgrim’s route and a hostel for present-day pilgrims.
  6. Casermetta San Salvatore.
  7. Ex-Casermetta Daziaria, the old customs house.
  8. Casermetta San Regolo.
  9. Casermetta San Colombano.
  10. Tettoia San Colombano, bar.
  11. Castello Porta San Pietro HQ of the” Lucchesi nel mondo” association.
  12. Casermetta Santa Maria, with the famous Caffè delle Mura, a neo-classical coffee house
  13. Casermetta Baluardo San Paolino
  14. Casermetta San Donato, where Lucca’s mint museum is situated (not the after-eight variety but the one that made coins).
  15. Castello Porta San Donato Nuova
  16. Casermetta Santa Croce
  17. Casermetta San Frediano
  18. Casermetta Porta Santa Maria. HQ of the Lucca Bridge Club and the Associazione Viviani

At regular intervals there is a city lottery in which different associations submit their request to use one of the casermette for a defined period of time. The casermette are much-sought-after locations. Placed on the wonderful tree-lined boulevard laid out on the wide city walls they are easily found and popular meeting places.

I met up in one of these places, the Casermetta di Porta Santa Maria, not to play bridge but as a guest of the Cesare Viviani association. In case you didn’t know who Cesare Viviani (1937-1993) was he was a brilliant Luccan writer, poet and playwright famous for using the local dialect for many of his works. (see http://www.luccavirtuale.it/rubriche/viviani/ ).

Fortunately, Luccan dialect is not as intractable as many other Italian dialects which almost seem like different languages (Bergamasque and Calabrian are cases in point where even for fluent Italian speakers interpreters may be needed. Certainly subtitles appear on news items when some inhabitants from far flung areas of “the boot” are interviewed). If you have difficulty in understanding Luccan dialect there’s a very good on-line dictionary to help you at http://www.giacomopaolini.it/dizionarietto.htm. It’s a proper literary language, not just a sort of “cockney” for Luccans.

Much to my surprise a well-known Italian teacher of English, a member of the association, had translated several of my poems which I had sent her upon request. Not only was I amazed at Giuliana’s grasp of the subtleties of translating English into Italian and turning them into the best translation of anything I have written but I was also astonished at the comments she made for each of them. The sequence of poems was based on Italian paintings of the renaissance and, in each case, a reproduction of the picture was shown followed by Giuliana’s comments on their significance and iconography which in many cases was certainly not simple.

These comments were succeeded by my original English version read by myself, and then followed Giuliana’s Italian translation read by a native speaker. After these poems, there was a section on Haiku I’d written for international women’s’ day and the session was concluded by another of my “picture” poems, this one based on Poynter’s famous painting of the feeding of the sacred Ibis in the temple of Karnac, Egypt.

Everything was written out beautifully by Giuliana with full instructions to produce a veritably wonderfully organised evening. Thank goodness it was for, very sadly, on the day prior to the presentation Giuliana’s husband suffered a serious and totally unforeseen heart-attack and is at present in a serious condition in Lucca’s new San Luca hospital.

We are naturally all very concerned about the event of course but I was so struck by Giuliana’s courage in being able to deliver the goods as the tragedy struck that I dedicated the late afternoon session at the Casermetta to her work and to wish a speedy recovery for her husband.

The session was introduced by another well-known writer Martino de Vita (author of  Una coscienza inesistente, ed. Kimerik, Patti (Me) who asked me how I’d decided to live in Italy. Clearly, my love of Italian life, landscape and art had a lot to do with it and that is why I chose to present the visually-oriented poems. Other questions followed of a very perceptive nature and I realised that the best way to discover who one really is and what makes one tick is not merely through an often hazy process of self-analysis but by being asked clear questions by a prepared and cultured audience.

I enjoyed the evening very much and, evidently, I understand it was much enjoyed by the audience too. Hopefully, next time I turn up at the Casermetta I will hear good news about Giuliana’s husband. In the meanwhile I send her congratulations for her labour of love and best wishes for a full recovery for her husband.

By the way what about the poems themselves? Well, here’s one of them about Piero di Cosimo’s Cephalus and Procris in London’s National Gallery, yet another great London institution (I am also thinking of Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden) who now has a director of Italian origin, Gabriele Finaldi.  (Incidentally, educated at the same school as I was at Dulwich which in its picture gallery also has a Piero di Cosimo. Coincidences never cease……). Here is the Dulwich painting:


And here is the National Gallery one on which my poem is based:

 download 2

My translation of Giuliana’s Italian notes on my  poem on the painting follows:

Cephalus and Procris is based on a painting by Piero di Cosimo.

The Death of Procris is an oil painting on wood by Piero di Cosimo, dated around 1495 and preserved in the National Gallery in London.

The story of Cephalus and Procris is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. While Cephalus was out hunting, armed with an infallible dart and a bloodhound who always managed to catch his prey, Procris hid to spy on him, fearing he was double-crossing her with Eos. Cephalus mistook her for an animal and killed Procris.

Ovid states that Cephalus was a satyr, as shown in the painting, but this iconography of the myth is already found in other representations. The horizontal layout of the panel is taken up by the relaxed female body caught in death’s sleep, with wounds to her throat, wrist and hand. At the sides the two dark figures of the satyr and the hunting dog balance each other, while behind them lies a lake with a bluish haze and populated by animals (other dogs, a pelican, herons) and boats that revolve around a faintly visible port.

Here is my poem (one of a series of ten on Italian renaissance paintings)


Dark-curled, sharp-eared, goat-hoofed, he touches her,

red drape unloosed from her small-breasted shape

laid out on flowered turf without a stir,

abandoned auburn locks upon silk nape.


His curious eyes caress a deathly face,

the wound upon her throat where blood still streams,

those golden-sandalled feet, that skein of lace,

limp hands and unseen eyes and broken dreams.


And at their side a hound sits passively:

beyond, an estuary with diving gulls

and further dogs upon the shore, and lee-

wards ships set sail to port with laden hulls.


For something’s happened which I cannot know

except she’s gone and tears begin to flow.


Here is Giuliana’s gorgeous Italian translation.

CEFALO E PROCRI (Pietro di Cosimo)


Coi ricci scuri, le orecchie appuntite e gli zoccoli caprini, la tocca,

il drappo rosso è scivolato via dal piccolo seno

e giace immobile sul prato fiorito.

I riccioli ramati sciolti sul collo serico.


Gli occhi curiosi di lui accarezzano il volto esangue,

la ferita sulla gola da dove ancora sgorga il sangue,

i piccoli piedi racchiusi nei sandali dorati, gli ornamenti di pizzo,

le mani abbandonate, gli occhi nascosti e i sogni spezzati.


E al loro fianco un cane da caccia siede immoto:

al di là c’è un estuario dove si tuffano i gabbiani

e lungo la riva altri cani e navi con i pesanti scafi

navigano sottovento verso il porto.


Quello che è successo io non lo posso sapere

So solo che se n’è andata e mi metto a piangere.

Incidentally, the Cesare Viviani association meets at the casermetta di Porta Santa Maria every Wednesday at 5.00 PM. If you are a writer or interested in writing there is no better place to go to in Lucca and meet very convivial and cultivated people. For more information see their facebook page at




5 thoughts on “Le Casermette di Lucca and what Goes on Inside Them

  1. Comment from Giuliana:

    Dear Francis, compliments on your excellent article. Thank you for praising my work so generously and for highlighting the work which is done at the Casermetta. (Sono commossa!!!) Had I been there, I would have liked to give you my book SU DUE PIEDI E QUATTRO ZAMPE, which has been assessed both as a children’s and adults’ book, especially if the adult readers love dogs in the same way as children often do.

  2. What a lovely article on the Casermetta. Its so enjoyable to walk the Lucca walls and from now on we’ll be armed with the knowledge to appreciate it even more. Sounds like the Cesare Viviani association is a natural home for you. The depth and breadth of Italian culture is so impressive.

  3. What a most interesting blog I never knew about these casermette most informative too as usual! Well done with your work it seems to me that you are working more as a retired person than ever before but this can only keep one in good form active mentally as well as physically in fact I was thinking just the other day the great way that the Americans look after themselves in old age in protected areas they do it all themselves so everyone has a go in their chosen area and they all keep active no sitting around in vegretative states as once was the norm in the UK so called OAP homes this is no longer acceptable in fact one wonders what will happen in the future we will all need computer points to keep our paraphanalia charged up etc etc will be chaos I suspect! We should maybe ask our friend Rondina to create a good scheme for OAP ‘s rest homes for the newer generations what fun! After all we are all living longer and we all have our aspirations for our futures crazy idea or what?

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