The original building is very old. In the ninth century it was the mansion of the Dukes of Tuscia; subsequently it passed through the hands of the most important Lucchese families. In 1651 the villa was brought by the Orsetti family, who lavishly restored it and added extravagant Baroque gardens, many of whose features are still visible today. In 1806, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, whose brother Napoleon had named her Grand Duchess of Tuscany, took a fancy to the villa and forced the Orsettis to sell it to her. At the same time, she "acquired" the Bishop's palace next door, and immediately set about converting the gigantic new property into a realm fit for royalty. The breathtaking surprises throughout the grounds are too many to describe, but they include a "water theatre" with a grotto featuring Leda and the Swan, a Spanish garden, the Italian garden at the Bishop's Palace, a world-famous lemon garden and most memorable of all, a "theatre of verdure" (pictured here). Built in 1652, it is enclosed by a semi-circular wall of yew bushes; spectators sit on stone seats hidden inside smaller bushes, the prompter and the conductor have their own "boxes" inside two more bushes, and a row of smaller bushes imitate footlights. Many a great artist performed their works here; one of them was Niccolò Paganini. After the fall of Napoleon, the Villa Reale alternated periods of splendor with those of decadence. That lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was bought by the present owners, who have brilliantly restored it. If you can include only one historical garden on your itinerary, we suggest this be it.
Villa Reale or Pecci Blunt
Loc. Villa Reale, Marlia
Tel: 0583/30108 Fax 30009
Villa Bernardini was built between 1600 and 1615 among the green hills of Gattaiola. Its promoter, Bernadino Bernardini, wanted it to be built according to the principles of elegance and sobriety. Its plain, cubical shape, with a three-arched porch on the front, gives on the whole a feeling of simplicity, with just a touch of refined mawkishness in the group of openings at the first floor. The splendid garden is enriched by rare plants and trees, and by a beautiful lemon-house. But the treasure of Villa Bernardini is certainly the shrubbery amphitheater, dating back to the XVIII century, that offers a scenery of incomparable fascination.
Via del Cimitero di Vicopelago 573
Tel. and Fax 0583/370-327
The villa was built in the XVI century for Lodovico Buonvisi. A very famous sculptor and architect, Matteo Civitali, was commissioned to build it. The columns, of the so-called Matraia stone, are from a single block; the arches of the open gallery comprise the ground floor and the first floor, where the two living rooms are superimposed in the manner of the Lucchese villas. In the XVII century the villa belonged to the Cardinal Francesco Buonvisi, who promoted a formal meeting of the Sacred College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church on the villa's first floor, in the presence of Pope Alexander VII Chigi Della Rovere. The 11-acre park stretches over three levels and includes several ponds and fountains of considerable artistic value.
You might say that Villa Mansi is the poster girl of Lucchese villas. It stands out because of its magnificence and for a kind of Baroque that is seen only flightingly elsewhere in Lucca. The present look of Villa Mansi dates back to the years 1634-1635, when architect Maurizio Oddi rearranged the building for Countess Cenami. Later interventions further enriched the villa and especially the garden. In 1675 the villa passed to the Mansi family, who entrusted the great Turinese architect Filippo Juvarra with the task of renovating the garden. The whole park was thus transformed by his genius into the perfect scenery for many a legend, the most famous of which involves a young Mansi girl who made a pact with the devil to ensure youthful beauty for thirty years. They say that on her 30 th birthday, she was spirited into a carriage that was then set on fire.
Tel: 348/705-0145 Fax: 0583/385-840
The villa, which is one of the most opulent and spectacular in the whole Lucca area, dates back to the mid-16th century. The long and monumental avenue leading to the villa is lined with cypresses, and has a pompous gate from where the façade can be seen, so rich and adorned that it seems to be embroidered on the stone and marble in a triumph of niches, statues and balustrades. The original building dates back to 1500, but it was radically rearranged a century later by Maurizio Oddi, the same architect who had so deeply transformed Villa Mansi. The "garden of Flora" is the clearest example of Lucchese taste, an amusing and surprising ensemble of grottoes, nymph temples, flowers, masks, secret water games, all intended to make you feel as if you were in a fairy-tale.
Via del Gomberaio 3
55100 Camigliano Santa Gemma
Tel: 0583/928-041 or 339/692-9254
1868 the villa was bought by the Grabau family, originating from Hamburg. They are still the owners of the property. Its nine hectare park, one of the most interesting in the Lucca area, is made up of a box hedge theatre, a large English Garden with its many rare species of tall trees, and a great Italian garden, whose lawns, encircled by a large row of Holm-Oak and Laurel in exedra style, are decorated with over one hundred terracotta vases of 100-year-old lemon trees. The impressive Lemon House, dated 1700, is still used today to store the lemons during the winter. Fountains decorated with grotesque masks and valuable white marble statues, which are placed along the garden, tall hedges through which shady paths twist, give a romantic and mysterious atmosphere.
Via di Matraia 269
55010 San Pancrazio
Without a doubt, the nicest place to stay in Lucca is Palazzo Alexander. But book early, as this exquisite jewel-box has only 12 rooms!
A Garden in Lucca tells the entertaining tale of two foreigners who created their own local masterpiece.