I have lost count of the number of times a disorientated tourist has stopped me to ask where the Roman amphitheatre can be found especially when I find myself in Via Fillungo (the main shopping street of Lucca) near the church of San Frediano. I can comprehend their puzzlement when I point to a narrow street where the buildings aligned hide from view the remains of the amphitheatre which dates from the I – II century ad. Few people realize that to stand before a simple Renaissance or late Gothic palazzo (building) in Lucca is like having Doctor Jekyll or Mr Hyde before you: you have two or more personalities within the same body. In this town, it is often more interesting to not stop at external appearances, but investigate further, get to the roots, and discover with pleasant surprise, things and places with hidden fascination.
In regards to the amphitheatre, it is amusing to see the bewilderment on a visitor’s face as he proceeds to walk along the dark, narrow, winding street, where there are at first glance, only trattorias and mouth-watering delicatessens. It is also puzzling to see that the palazzo that appeared to be linear on Via Fillungo, now winds also. Lo and behold, a bit further along, if you step back from the structure you can see the double row of white marble arches and bricks that have been covered somewhat by plaster and the roundness of the structure. Yes, this is the amphitheatre and its remains have been absorbed by the existing buildings.
You can feel the visitor’s disappointment. He was expecting the Colosseum, Russell Crowe (The Gladiator), and pleading Christians fed to roaring lions! Well, a few years have gone by and as everywhere, towns change with time. Today, newspapers would probably decry this as an architectural monstrosity that ruins the surrounding environment, but such a large building could not have been left unused for so many years. Let’s face it, by the end of the IV century ad, Russell Crowe and fellow gladiators had retired, all the lions had been killed, and the majority of Romans had become Christians.
This ancient amphitheatre has proudly withstood its 2000 years and has had a number of uses: amphitheatre, military fortress during Lombard reign, prison, barns, housing, vegetable gardens, shops, storerooms, open market, etc. Well, dear visitor, now walk through the large arch and behold one of the most beautiful nineteenth century piazzas of Italy: Piazza dell’Anfiteatro of Lucca. Its unique ellipse shape is harmonious; its an ingenious compromise between functionality and history, planned in 1830 by the semi-obscure Royal Architect, Lorenzo Nottolini.
I often enter the arena with tourists, but I also like to enter it by myself when it is empty. I like to think of it as mine. I shut my eyes for a few seconds and let my imagination wander. I hear voices in the distance: humble women calling out to passers-by on a Sunday inviting them to play a sort of bingo on the empty wooden carts of merchants, the hooves of a horse entering the piazza, a cry of a man in chains, and even the mighty roar of a lion! Startled, I open my eyes and look round, but I am alone. Where did the sound of the lion come from?
A youthful man around fifty years of age, with a smile, calls out to me from a window. “Excuse me, sir!”
“Who, me?” I ask, shaking out of my reverie.
“Yes. I often hear and see you with tourists. You’re a tour guide, right?”
I nod yes.
“Are you perhaps looking for a lion?”
I stare and smile unbelievingly.
“I have a lion right here in my house. Come up and see for yourself!”
I turn the corner and climb a long, narrow ramp of stairs moulded into the framework of the old amphitheatre. The apartment is small, tidy, and multi-coloured. All at once, I notice a beast with a full mane. It really does exist, but it doesn’t frighten me. It’s a lion, sculpted in sandstone, in Romanesque style, tightly fitted into the wall of the apartment. Its jaws are wide open in defence of the property. How it found its way there, I have no idea, but I know that it is the last of the mighty lions of the Roman amphitheatre in Lucca.