18 November 2018

Torre Guinigi: The Tower with Oak Trees on the Top

The city of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, is famous for its medieval architecture and intact city walls.  Yet among all of its exquisite buildings one stands out.  The Torre Guinigi or Guinigi Tower in English towers over the city.

At the top of the 44.5 meter high tower is something of a surprise – a garden containing, of all things, oak trees.

High above the city this small wood has provided a haven of peace for centuries.

The tower was built in the fourteenth century when there were over 250 in the city. Although that number has, over the centuries, dramatically decreased, this one has survived.  It was built by the Guinigi, then the most powerful and influential family in the city. The tower represented the prestige of the family and was the largest in the city even when the economic boom of the late fourteenth century meant that towers were springing up all over Lucca.

The last descendant of the family gifted the tower to the city, as well as the palace at its base.  The roof garden at the top of the tower is, effectively, a walled box filled with earth.  There are seven oak trees there: it is believed that they were first planted in the 14th or 15th century but that over time they have been replanted. However, the ones atop the tower at the moment are still thought to be several hundred years old.

Yet even though the Guinigi’s possessed great wealth and power they were not the luckiest family in Lucca.  The generation which built the tower consisted of seven brothers, three of whom died of the plague and the oldest, Lazarus, was assassinated in 1399. Paolo the youngest took over eventually even though one of his surviving brothers, Nicolau (who was the Bishop of Lucca) opposed his rise to power. Paolo would, however, reign over the family and the city until 1430.

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It is said that the family planted the oak trees to represent renewal and rebirth. Surely it is no accident that there were seven brothers – the exact number of trees at the tower’s pinnacle? The tallest of the trees was said to have been originally planted by Paolo. He fell from power in 1430 and was imprisoned and then executed by Francesco Sforza.  A local legend has it that just before his execution all the leaves fell from the tree.

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The tower was certainly built to last. Started in 1384 it survived the many upheavals that Italy experienced over the centuries.  The hundreds of stairs are as they were originally built (but modernized) and the last leg of the journey to the top is effectively by short ladders.  Yet if you can face the prospect of the narrow and winding staircases the view from the top is outstanding.

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Although in terms of Italian towers the Guinigi is overshadowed by a certain edifice in Pisa, this is certainly unique in its own way. After all, how many renaissance towers are there in the world with seven oak trees at the top?

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