Lucchese Lorenzo Nottolini was, by all accounts, a busy man.
At the same time he was completing his studies in architecture and engineering, he was recruited by one of his teachers to assist in the redesign of probably Lucca’s most famous villa, Villa Reale in Marlia. A great start to any career, it also allowed him to make connections with then-Duchess of Lucca, Elisa Baciocchi, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister.
After subsequent study in Bologna and Florence, sponsored by the Duchess’ husband Duke Felice, the young Nottolini moved to Rome to study fine arts.
His connection with the reigning Duchess’ of Lucca continued when, after the fall of Napoleon, the new Duchess, Maria Louisa of Bourbon (or Spain) hired him not just to design and construct an aqueduct to supply water to the city – but also as Royal Architect (under the Kingdom of Etruria, which included Lucca), which meant he was also responsible for a host of other projects in the city too.
This aqueduct, and his urban renewal project in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca, are probably his most famous achievements, though it is the aqueduct that is most visible to those who don’t know Lucca, as it was broken up in part by Mussolini’s government in the late 1920s in order to build the Autostrada running from Pisa to Florence, which it now straddles, meaning its arches are visible as you drive through.
It is here we set off on our trip along the via degli acquedotti, a path that takes us along the Lucchese aqueduct, over that autostrada, past the the domed temple-shaped cistern at the little village of Guamo to Le Parole d’Oro. The architectural innovation of the young Nottolini is evident in construction of the manufactured waterways that cut gentle curves through the hills between San Quirico and Vorno. It’s a beautiful and unusual match of nature and human creativity.
The uphill sections to Vorno are pretty gentle – anyone with a little walking experience can manage them easily. Between the Parole d’Oro and Vorno itself the waterways give way to forest, then to olive groves and ancient stone houses. It reminds me of a conversation with my father in law. Italians are baffled at the way we knock our houses over every 30 or 40 years in Australia, and how the sale value of a property is based on the land, rather than the house itself. Here, there are laws in town that prevent the use of certain colours of paint. A certain architectural aesthetic must be retained, and the number of new houses built is nearly nil: instead builders are usually constructing delicate renovations of old properties. An Australian friend who purchased an apartment in Lucca a few years ago told me this year that when she got workers in to renovate and repaint, they messaged her one day with a picture of an old fresco they’d uncovered on the wall. Apparently this is a not-uncommon scenario.
As we wind our way down the road into little Vorno, all the houses are old. The roof tiles ancient. But the sun is shining and spring feels near: the fruit trees are budding and green shoots appearing on the trees. We hit Vorno at exactly midday and the belltower in the centre of town sings a song, alongside chiming to twelve.
Having been told this was a pretty traditional Tuscan village (read: full of pensioners, set in their longstanding daily routines), I was quietly surprised at the warm welcomes we received: eating frittelle di riso, drinking espresso, and from passers-by. There is the opportunity to stay in one of two lovely BNBs here (which I would highly recommend – it’s one very long day of walking otherwise), but we continued on, through the outer parts of Vorno, through a densely forested uphill section of forest until we reached the pass on Monte Pisano.
Soon after, the plain that Pisa itself sits on becomes visible: farming lands, the outskirts of the city – and – signs and sounds of the Medici Aqueduct of Asciano, which will transport us all the way into the historic centre of Pisa. It’s clear even as we begin that the Pisan aqueduct is older – much older! We can hear the water flowing into collection points and through little streams as we wind down the trail: mostly wide paths with a few scrambly forest bits in the mix too: nothing too tricky though.
While Nottolini’s project started in 1823 and was completed 28 years later, it was Cosimo de Medici who started the Pisan scheme to bring water into the city, down from the aptly named Monte Pisano (a penny that only dropped for me as I was watching a plane fly overhead towards the Galileo Galilei International Airport during a snack break on our way down the mountain). Its construction began in 1592. And it’s as you hit the flat on the road into Pisa that the different between the two aqueducts is most noticeable. While the 18th century arches on the Lucchese side are strong and smooth (with that notable interruption created by the autostrada), the Pisan arches are smaller, shorter, more knobbly, crumbly and in places, held up by reinforcements. The final section after passing through Asciano itself, along via dei Condotti, is both a relief, as it’s flat, easy terrain, and also an insight into life on the outskirts of the city famous to most just for its ill-constructed tower. Locals run and walk alongside the arches, while small farms with hand-painted signs selling vegetables dot the side of the road, and retirees sit in their gardens playing card games.
To bookend this walk not just with two famous – and diverse – Tuscan cities but also with the stunning arches that acted as the final conduits for some grand and impressive architecture that provided such an essential and public good, helped me remember that the things we take for granted today were once grand visions and that required innovation and imagination. To walk from Lucca to Pisa is to get a sense of culture, history and proper Italian life all at once.