The Keys to Lucca

The sculpture of the Holy Face in Lucca

In these days of quarantine, our individual freedom has been significantly limited, but we have accepted this small sacrifice for the good of the community. In fact, if we look back in time, we will find that often the needs for protection and defense were put before the needs of the individual.
I am referring to freedom of movement and controls in the days of the Republic of Lucca.

The actual Walls were constructed to defend the Republic. It was a large-scale human and economic endeavor and a piece of innovative military engineering, well ahead of its time. The gates to the Walls were the weak points of this powerful defensive instrument and were considered a possible source of danger should they not be adequately protected.
In the first half of the 17th century, when the walls we see today were completed, the defensive machine was fine-tuned.

At that time, the gates to Lucca were three: the south gate, Porta San Pietro, the west, Porta San Donato, and the north, Porta Santa Maria. No east gate was opened because it was in the direction of the number one enemy and the reason the walls were erected: Florence.
In addition to an armed guard, each gate had its own castellan, who resided in the building over the gate itself. He could only leave his post for religious services and would be severely punished should he let someone enter that did not have a pass for the ‘Castle’, and should this happen at night, he would be condemned to death by beheading.

The opening and closing of the gates would occur at sunrise and at sunset respectively.
When the morning star appeared, things would slowly come to life. Each appointed Commissioner would report to the gate of his competence with a squad of soldiers. The “Targettos” (key-bearers) would depart from the Palazzo of the Government (today Palazzo Ducale) with the bags containing the keys to the gates. The gates were opened very gradually and with the utmost caution.
After tending to the operation, the Targettos would put the keys back in the bags and return to the Palazzo. Once they arrived, the bells of the Palazzo tower would would ring out to announce the gates had been opened.

During the day, there were strict controls at the gates with no exceptions. Carts were subject to thorough inspections but those transporting the sick, wounded, children or pregnant women were given special license.
Foreigners arriving in Lucca would be registered and could only enter the city through Porta San Pietro. If they intended to remain, they needed a pass, a type of authorization, called “la bulletta”. This would allow them to look for lodgings and also to leave the city.

At sunset, the Targettos would depart from the Palazzo once again with the bags of keys, this time to lock the gates. There are several accounts of residents who, for some inconvenience or another, would arrive late and would have to spend the night outside the walls because Lucca was already shut.
Darkness was synonymous with insecurity, danger. The streets would empty and the city would withdraw into itself. I believe that, today, we are experiencing something similar at night in Lucca:
there are no groups of young people making a racket, no tourists, just the sound of the bells of the clock tower and that of the footsteps of the few who walk their dogs.

The keys to the gates became four in the early 19th century when Porta Elisa, the east gate, was opened. To pay homage to the Volto Santo (Holy Face) of Lucca, an equal number of keys were presented to the wooden crucifix. Today the keys and their story are proudly on display in the Museum of the Cathedral of Lucca.
Have any of you ever seen them by chance?

PS Next time, we’ll talk about Porta Elisa. Talk to you soon!


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