Although Lerici’s historical origins and precise year of foundation have long since been lost in the mists of time, we know that in antiquity it was called ‘Portus Iliycis’. This name is most likely derived from the Greek word ‘Iliakos’, meaning ‘of Ilium’ or ‘Trojan’, leading us to speculate that the town was founded by refugees from the Trojan War.
This captivating legend has a special appeal in view of the many similarities between the enchanting landscape of this region and its Greek coastal counterparts. One of the nearby bays is even dedicated to the goddess Venus. Lerici was a thriving commercial centre, serving as a port-of-call to Greek and Phoenician sea-traders, and also had close contact with the Etruscans, whose settlements were so near at hand in the neighbourhood of Luni. Indeed it was the Etruscans who dominated the Gulf in the 7th century BC, from Pisa as far as Cape Mesco, and it was they who founded the city of Luni, with which the history of Lerici was so closely bound up over many centuries.
The following quotation by the 17th century sea captain, Pantero Pantera, illustrates this point: ‘Surrounded by city walls, Lerici is, however, not a very large territory. In ancient times this land was known as the Gulf of Porto D’Erice, also called ‘Porto di Luni’, after a large city of the same name.’ This is how this coastal strip was described in his unpublished log-book of the year 1620. Its major status as a port made Lerici strategically attractive to the Romans, who seized control of it for military and commercial purposes. Later, under the dominion of the Bishop of Luni, Lerici remained an important seafaring centre throughout the Middle Ages, where merchants and pilgrims would land en route for Northern Italy and Central Europe, travelling on via the meeting of ways at Sarzana.
Even religious pilgrims heading for Rome or St. Jacopo di Compostela would set off from Lerici, as the Francigena pilgrim route was easily accessible from the bay. Two Roman roads also led out of the town, one of which still forms the present-day road to Sarzana; and the other of which links Lerici to Tellaro, as part of the ancient ‘Aemilia Scauri’ or later the ‘Aurelia’ route.
This latter proceeds through lovely Mediterranean vegetation and olive groves and passes a number of sites of outstanding historical and archeological significance. The Tuscan town of Lucca took control of Lerici in order to trade in cloth and leather and, subsequently, during the period of the Maritime Republic, Genoa and Pisa vied with each other for supremacy over it. Initially, after the Battle of Giglio in 1241, Lerici was conquered by the Pisans, who constructed its town walls and castle. Fifteen years later, it fell once again to the Genoans, who extended the castle. In 1528 Lerici bore witness to a major historical event that was to change the course of Europe’s destiny: it was within its walls that Andrea Doria, heroic commander of the mighty Genoese fleet, sought refuge and resolved to change political alliance from France to Spain, thereby ultimately conferring dominion over the Mediterranean on Spain, at the expense of France. Lerici’s most active period of urban growth and development took place between the 17th and 18th centuries, greatly furthered by a wealthy, aristocratic ship-owner, to whom numerous of the town’s properties belonged. Elegant villas flourished in the 1800’s and at this important time of Italian unification, the ‘Risorgimento’, the nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi gave special praise to Lerici’s population, calling them ‘Italy’s strongest and most energetic’.
In this context, in 1857, Carlo Pisacane rallied together eight of his most loyal companions in Lerici to undertake an expedition to Sapri; and Giuseppe Petriccioli, along with Felice Orsini and Carlo Pisacane, successfully raised the Italian tricolour flag on Milan Cathedral after the so-called ‘Five Days’ of battle at the barricades. They thus became heroes personifying the true spirit of the ‘Risorgimento’. Nowadays, Lerici is often referred to as ‘the Pearl on the Gulf of Poets’.
Located at the south-eastern end of the ‘Riviera di Levante’ (..of the rising sun), the town is a maze of little piazzas and narrow alleyways and boasts many exclusive villas with well-tended gardens and swimming pools, nestling into the cliffs along the beach. Its spectacular backdrop of hills, dotted with tiny villages and elegant individual properties, looks out over the warm turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, ideal for watersports. Lerici’s 12th century castle commands stunning views across the bay, while the neighbouring village of San Terenzo, dominated by its own Genoese castle, was once home to the English Romantic poet, Shelley, and his wife Mary, celebrated author of the novel ‘Frankenstein’.