The Manscape: The Tallest Tree in Lucca
My four-year-old daughter Olive’s voice could be heard coming down the rickety old stairwell: “Come on Dad… Check this out!” I was nervously making my way up the rotten wooden steps, feeling as if it was only a matter of time before one of them would give way and send us tumbling to the bottom.
At the same time, I was trying to put on a big, macho brave face for Olive, who was also slightly wary about climbing to the top of the 14th century clock tower, named the “Torre dell’Ora”. The unease my daughter felt was not so focused on the height, but the legend of a resident ghost, a young woman who sold her soul to the devil, and was later caught trying to stop the hands of the clock.
“Come on Dad! … What’s taking you so long?” Olive again.
Finally, we made our way through the small opening at the top of the tower and glanced up to see a large bell hanging over our heads. I have no idea how heavy it was, but immediately felt in awe of the effort it must had taken to move that bell there in a time before modern machinery.
Walking around the topmost platform you can appreciate why someone afraid of heights might climb some 207 rickety stairs.
Out on the horizon you can see the Apuan Alps, a mountain range known for its precious marble and where the natural materials for many of the world’s most famous sculptures were sourced. Those marble rocks continue to be mined for our kitchen benches and lavish bathrooms today. From up here, you can also see the tree-lined outer rim of the medieval wall that surrounds the town of Lucca. Each of the seven stretches of the wall is planted with a different variety of tree. In 1805, Napoleon raided Tuscany and gave Lucca to his sister, Elisa. And it is Elisa who has been credited with the beautifully maintained outer wall and the trees that are planted along them, that you still see today.
But there, smack bang in front of you, is the view of Torre Guinigi, which dates from the 1300s. The 125-foot tower is famous for its plantation of holm oak (Quercus ilex) that grow, shoulder-to-shoulder, on its rooftop. The evergreen trees can grow up to 20 metres tall, given the right conditions, and are native to this area of the Mediterranean. However, this grove of holm oaks is housed in large planter boxes on top of the tower, which limits their size. And unlike many modern day equivalent rooftop gardens, the trees appear to be planted directly into good quality top soil, that would have been bucketed up using good, old-fashioned manual labour. The ancient trees were meant to symbolise rebirth and renewal, and there is probably a deep metaphor to be drawn from this.
“Dad, why are there trees on the tower?”
“Well Olive, similar to today, wealthy families used to build large towers for protection, but more so for status. The town of Lucca had over 150 towers at one stage. You see, back in the day, it was a very wealthy town. But they had a law that prevented anyone from building a tower larger than the clock tower we are now standing on. A man by the name Guinigi built the tower on which the holm oaks grow. He was a very rich silk merchant and wanted the tallest tower in Lucca. Since the local government would not allow him to build his tower any taller than Torre dell’Ora, he said: “If I can’t have the tallest tower, I’ll build it to maximum height and then plant a tree on top. Then I’ll have the tallest tower in town!” And he did.”
To this day Torre Guinigi is the most famous building in Lucca, and each year thousands of people scale it, in large part because of those holm oak trees.
Many years ago, prior to the trees being planted, the tower kitchen was located just below the garden. Not only did the garden serve as a place to harvest herbs and vegetables, but it was also used to entertain and impress guests. It was a place where people would want to hold parties and events.
“So Dad, having an edible roof top is not a new idea?”
“No, it’s not Olive … It’s an ancient one.”