The amphitheatre, built as the centre of entertainment outside the Roman town, is today the centre of town life and the very symbol of Lucca, Italy. It is a unique elliptical-shaped plaza, theatre of the life of the citizens of Lucca, closed in an embrace of medieval houses and, in spite of the passing of the millennia, is always alive and witness to innumerable changes.
When its was created, for spectacles and gladiator games, the amphitheatre of Lucca was an imposing structure, with fifty-four arches and a cavea able to hold as many as ten thousand spectators.
Its construction began in the 1st century AD under the Emperor Claudius and was concluded in the Flavian period, generously financed by a rich citizen, as seen from an honorary inscription discovered during excavations in the 1800s. In the Middle Ages, when this area became a plaza, it was called the “Parlascio” and this name was believed to come from “parlare“, meaning “to talk”, as it was the venue of popular assemblies.
In reality, however, it was a corruption of “paralisium“, the Latin for “amphitheatre”. In many towns, with the long sieges of the medieval period, the Roman structures were transformed into fortifications.
Lucca’s amphitheatre suffered the same fate; during the Gothic Wars, under siege by Narsete, it was fortified and made impenetrable by the closure of the outside arches. When this function too ended, terraced houses were built on the surviving ruined structures, which were also used for construction materials.
These then became a powder magazine, a salt store, a prison which was dubbed the “grotte” (caves) and finally shops and eating places, while the centre of the plaza was divided into portions and in a certain period was used for vegetable patches. It was in the 1800s that an architect of Luca, Lorenzo Nottolini, restored the value of the ancient space making the amphitheatre a fundamental structure for the urban arrangement of the town. The buildings which had crowded the inside of the arena over the centuries were demolished and the new via dell’Anfiteatro surrounded the ancient building.
The city thus gained a new oval space, which followed the same perimeter and the same volumes of the ancient building and was dedicated to the town market (not by chance it is called “Piazza del Mercato”) while the original amphitheatre retained its structures two metres below the road surface, with arches and vaults emerging at the shops that face onto the plaza.
Some of the Roman remains are still visible as you go along via dell’Anfiteatro, in the buildings bounding the plaza and in the lowest of the four arches leading into it, the only one left of the ancient structure (credits for this information must be given to “Italy Guides.it”).