Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A journey to Lucca’s Roman roots

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The original Roman wall still stands as part of the church wall.
I get to make two trips in the time machine today. First I am transported back 16 years, to when I taught fifth grade to Italian children in Padova, because I am traveling with 34 Italian school children on a field trip. Fortunately, though, I do not have the responsibility of keeping them in line, silencing them during the lessons and making sure we stay on schedule. I only have to take photos and notes, so I guess in a sense I have also been transported back 40 years, to when I was a reporter and photographer for The Gateway. I do face an additional challenge: I am not allowed to show the faces of students in any photos to be considered for publication.

Again I have tour guide Elena Benvenuti to thank for this free ride, which will soon take us back more than 2,000 years, to the time when Lucca was a Roman colony. Elena has arranged the trip as a gift to a local elementary school. She is friends with Eleonora Romano, an archeologist who organizes tours and activities for school groups interested in exploring the Roman roots of Lucca, and together they take our group on our time trip.

More signs of Roman construction can
be seen in the door to the Anfiteatro.
Also along are three teachers and my daughter Lindsey, here for a week-long visit. Amid pouring rain, we board the train at the Altopascio stazione and arrive 10 minutes later at Lucca, where we enter under the massive city walls for which the city is famous. These walls, however, are only about 500 years old. During the Roman occupation, which began around 180 BC, the city was much smaller, and the Roman walls were very different. Your average visitor to Lucca may not know that some of the Roman walls are still visible, but we are guided by Elena, who knows all the places to see the original walls. She takes us first to the Church of Santa Maria della Rosa, where we see that largest remaining section of the wall, which makes up the west wall of the church. The large blocks of limestone were quarried from nearby Pisani mountains and show the telltale signs of age and erosion.

From there we move to the heart of the Roman settlement, the Foro Romano, which is now located about three meters below the pavement of Piazza San Michele. The forum was the hub of commercial and government activity for the colony, and it still is home to numerous banks and upscale businesses, although in Roman times it was four times larger than it is today. A Roman colony would not be complete without a teatro, and just a few blocks away from the forum was the Roman theater, built not long after the colony was established to draw in more settlers. Unfortunately, only a few scraps of the
Elena points to the artist's drawing of the theater. The
open space in the center of the city walls shows the
location of the Roman Forum, much larger than
the Piazza San Michele is today.
theater have survived.

In 2010, though, an archeological dig between the forum and the theater revealed the remains of a Roman house, most likely one of a wealthy family, judging by its location. This is our prime destination today, and it is where the services of Dottoressa Romano come into play. She gives us a short multimedia presentation on the history of Lucca from Roman times forward and then explains the artifacts that have been uncovered at what is called the Domus Romana. The fortunate discovery of a coin in surprisingly good condition dated to 14 AD signifies that the house was likely built in the first or second century BC.

Besides the coin, the excavation has also uncovered, among other things, a brooch used to fasten a toga, many pottery shards and several parts of the sewer drainage system. One of the more significant finds—fragments of a terracotta frieze showing two cupids riding dolphins—gives the house its formal name, “Casa del Fanciullo sul Delfinio,” or house of the child on the dolphin. Not all the pieces were found, but enough to allow artists to make a reasonable reconstruction, based on both the fragments and archeological examination of similar Roman art of the same epoch found in Pompeii.

Elena points out an artist's reconstruction of the
terracotta frieze from which the house derives
its name.
The children are then divided into two groups and allowed to perform some hands-on Romanesque experiences. After a brief lesson on Roman inscriptions, each child is given a wax slate and stylus and allowed to make his own inscription, using all capital letters as the Romans did. Another group receives tiles and glue, and each student assembles a mosaic design typical of the Roman style. Other activities for school groups are also possible, but some are for older children, and in any event, we are short of time. We still must move on to see the museum in the Torre Guinigi, the remaining traces of the Roman Anfiteatro and the house where Giacomo Puccini was born, along with a few other quick points of interest along the way. There will also be a delicious lunch at the San Frediani Hostel and a quick stop for gelato.

The making of the mosaics.
Elena is passionate about the importance of such high quality field trips for the Italian students. Of course, it certainly helps to have Roman ruins only a few minutes ride from the school.

“We have such a rich history, and we have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to our children,” she says. “We are proud of our history and our schools, which give children a chance to take trips like this at least once a year. At this age, they learn quickly, and I believe to have a better society we must have a good education.”

When she gives tours to people from other countries, she must explain the historical events at a much more elementary level, because the visitors have so little background on Roman society. “I get myself in trouble, because they don’t understand,” she says, “and I have to go back and give more background.”

Artist's conception based on archaeological evidence, with
the house in front of the theater.
The Italian children are well behaved and respectful. They chatter loudly when they can, as most children do—and as Italian children usually do more enthusiastically than those from other countries. However, when it comes time to be quiet and listen to Elena and Eleonora, the children quickly become silent, answering questions asked by the guides and asking questions of their own.

Though I have no responsibilities for supervising the children, it is possible that my presence contributes a little to their model behavior. Elena has introduced me as a writer who is there to observe and document the typical educational activities of Italian schools. The children seem duly impressed, since they are blissfully unaware that my blog only records about 70 pages views a day.

Eleaonora and Elena
At lunch, the teachers’ complaints sound similar to those of American teachers: Budget cuts are forcing cutbacks everywhere. However, with the Italian economy doing poorly and the government involved in a leadership stalemate, I’m inclined to believe that their school budget problems are more severe than in the United States. I do note one small but interesting cultural difference—we are served wine at the adults’ table, something that would not happen on an American school field trip.

The rain has finally stopped as we make our way back to the train station. The rain and chill have forced Elena to make some adjustments to the schedule, but they are done so seamlessly that the children probably haven’t even noticed. “Did you enjoy yourselves?” Elena asks. “Si,” they all respond at once. “Yes, definitely,” Lindsey and I say.

Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena. 
Simona Velardi, architect and director of the Domus Romana, looks at the work of the children.

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