It was probably around a Tuesday one week when I was trying to figure out a day trip for us to do for the coming weekend. We have loads of lists of places we want to see and things we want to do, but for some reason I was having a hard time deciding. I was doing a little research online, checking the weather for different areas, and all of a sudden I ended up searching for random train trips. Gas prices had skyrocketed (equating to $8 USD/gallon!!) so I thought why not look at other public transportation options. I came across Pisa and found it was only about a 4.5 hour train ride away and we’d only have to switch trains once. So I turned to the guys and said, “Does anybody wanna go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa this weekend?” Everyone was all in!
Exploring the “Square of Miracles” on a gorgeous green square gave us classic photos with the leaning tower, and showed us a cemetery built in 1277 that contains a cloister of preserved Roman sarcophagi, an octagonal baptistry, and a cathedral. A relaxing walk along the Arno River led to more beautiful views, shops with local wine, cheeses, trinkets, and food. It was windy but a sunny and fun day trip up north!
River Arno Walk
After arriving in the city of Pisa, we took a little stroll around the River Arno before continuing on to the famous square and iconic leaning tower. This was one of my favorite parts, if not my favorite, of Pisa! We accidentally came across the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Spina. The church changed its name after the donation of a thorn from Christ’s Crown (1333)! It’s said that the 14th century architecture and carvings were probably the work of Lupo di Francesco and his workshop. In the front is a Madonna and Child, and above, statues from Andrea Pisano’s workshop. The interior is a single nave with statues attributed to Andrea and Nino Pisano (the interior was not open when we walked by). The tabernacle once held the thorn relic!! The building was built nearer the river but was moved to a safer place, where it now stands, in 1871-1875.
I still can see my son’s face as he saw Torrente Pendente for the first time. His mouth dropped open wide and his eyes shown with amazement as he exclaimed, “How did they do that?!” (make it lean). We did not climb the tower (as our son hadn’t yet reached the age limit to do so) but we had fun wandering around and viewing the icon from all different angles.
The Bell Tower
Apart from its extremely famous inclination that really seems to defy the laws of statics, the Tower of the Cathedral is a very unusual building and one of a kind, because of the high historical and artistic value of its forms and because of its peculiar location, within that vast and equally unique area that is the Piazza dei Miracoli. The building is located far from the Cathedral between the apsidal area and the south-eastern section of the transept of the Cathedral. This is an unusual location- usually, a tower would be erected near the façade or along one side of the church- although this is not the only case, as it can be found in other complexes in towns and in other Italian buildings. The current building, the result of a time-consuming construction work that was restored several times over the centuries, mostly to reduce the risk that it might collapse as a consequence of its remarkable inclination, is composed of a cylindrical stone body surrounded by open galleries with arcades and pillars resting on a bottom shaft, with the belfry on top. The central body is composed of a hollow cylinder with an outer facing of shaped ahlars in white and grey San Giuliano limestone, an interior facing, also make of textured verrucana stone, and a ring-shaped stone area in between. This stone area accommodates a winding staircase with 293 steps leading up to the six open galleries resting on the bottom shafts, with this one and the belfry, it divides the tower into eight segments that are called orders. On the sides of the door some friezes decorated with animals, monstrous figures, and the unusual figures of some ships, frame the commemorative epigraph of the foundation of the building.
“The cathedral stands, secluded everywhere, in the vast, silent expanse of greenery enclosed by the crenellated walls of the Medieval town, that in such seclusion erected admirable monuments of its past life […] In that isolation, the snow-white cathedral, visible from everywhere, looks as if it had been shaped and completed by a vast, consistent creative gesture.” – Pietro Toesca
The importance attached by the people of Pisa to the building of the Cathedral can be read in the epigraphs that are still embedded on the façade: the tombstone of bishop Guido, who began building it, funded by the fabulous loot that the people of Pisa took from the pillage of Palermo in 1063; the tombstone of Buschetto, the first ingenious architect, in which the building is called “a temple of snow-white marble”; and the one that tells of the anti-Saracen battles of Reggio, Sardinia and Bona, in Africa. Founded in 1064 and consecrated with great pomp on September 26, 1118, the Cathedral was built in two stages. One by architect Buscheto, who created the original layout with the basilican body with four aisles and one nave, a transept with one nave and two aisles, and the dome on the cross vault; and one by Rainaldo, who extended the building and the façade. The building was not totally complete until the last quarter of the XII century, when Bonanno’s bronze leaves were placed on the central door. This famous masterpiece was lost, along with other important works of art in the devastating fire of 1595. Inside, the nave is edged by two rows of monolithic columns made of granite from the Isle of Elba, flanked by four aisles separated by smaller colonnades with large women’s galleries on top, covered by cross vaults and looking out into the nave through some double-lancet and four-lancet windows. The nave is covered by a wooden coffered ceiling that in the XVII century replaced the original exposed trusses. Of the rich and sumptuous decoration prior to the fire, remain the mosaics on the apsidal conch- where Cimabue made the figure of Saint John the Evangelist (1302 ca.)- the pulpit (1302-1310) by Giovanni Pisano, the dismembered sepulchral monument to Emperor Henry VII (1315), which used to be at the centre of the apse, and important examples of painting and wooden inlay of the Renaissance period.
The Baptistry stands as one of the cardinal points of the idea of the square that was coming of age in Pisa in the XII century; what was taking shape was a space that gave priority to the front view of the façade of the Cathedral, the axial character of which was now set off by such a meaningful building as the Baptistry, built along the same lines. The reason for building such a fascinating as well as mysterious building was certainly the will to provide the Cathedral with a worthy addition: a Baptistry that, because of its size, location, materials and style, would be in tune with the impressive and typical building that existed before it. These might be the terms in which the holders of the local ecclesiastic and civil powers, who had expressly set up a board, had expressed their wishes to architect Deotisalvi, whose figure remains in the dark and can hardly be reconstructed as there are no written sources about him. The inscription, “Deotisalvi is the author of this work,” found on a pillar of the Baptistry, claims authorship of the building. According to the same source, in 1163 it was ordered that on the first day of the month every family of Pisa should pay one denaro to continue the building of the monument. This is evidence of the city’s contribution to the monument, as is also proven by the fact that the installation of columns was organized and contributed to by the city neighborhoods. It is the largest Baptistry in Italy: 107.24 meters in circumference, while the wall at the bottom is two meters/63 cm wide, its height 54 meters/86 centimeters. The dome is covered in red tiles on the west side and in lead slabs on the east side. The big cylinder is surrounded, like the Cathedral, by arcades on pillars, and, like the Cathedral, it is made of white marble edged with grey. Inside, eight monolithic columns compete for height with the Cathedral, alternating with four pillars and outlining a central area that accommodates the octagonal baptismal font by Guido da Como (1246), with Nicola Pisano’s pulpit next to it (1260). A women’s gallery covered by a ringed vault looks out into the central area with a series of large round arches. The covering is composed of a double dome, the inner one shaped like a dodecagonal truncated pyramid, the outer one in the shape of a hemispherical vault, with a smaller dome on top. It is precisely the unique architectural design of the covering that gives the Baptistry of Pisa exceptional acoustics. It can be heard every 30 minutes when the security guards perform a series of vocal intonations (which we did not get to experience).
The Cemetery is the last monument on Piazza del Duomo, its long marble wall flanking the northern boundary and completing its shape. It was founded in 1277 to accommodate the Roman sarcophagi that until then were scattered all around the Cathedral and were reused to bury local noblemen. This is how one of the oldest Christian Medieval architectures for the devotion of the dead came into being. During the 14th century, as the construction took shape, the inner walls were embellished by wonderful frescoes about Life and Death, created by two great artists of the time, Francesco Traini and Bonamico Buffalmacco, who seem to stage the sermons declaimed in town by the Dominican Cavalca or the frightening views of Dante’s Comedy. The cycle of frescoes goes on well into the 14th century with the Stories of Pisan Saints by Andrea Bonaiuti, Antonio Veneziano and Spinello Aretino, and the Stories of the Ancient Testament, started by Taddeo Gaddi and Piero di Puccio and finished in the mid-15th century by the Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli, along the northern wall. Since the 16th century, the Cemetery has sheltered the sepulchers of the most prestigious lecturers of the local university and the members of the Medici family, who ruled over the city at that time and are also hinted at by the characters of the biblical scenes frescoed on the shorter walls. The monument was to become the Pantheon of local memories; not only of the local people or families but also of the glorious classical and Medieval past of the city. The building began to be used as a museum, its walls engraved with Roman epigraphs and the sarcophagi relocated to the corridors, acting now as valuable documents of history and art. The use of the building as a museum established itself in the early 19th century when the cemetery became one of Europe’s first public museums. In the years in which Napoleon decreed that many works of art should be taken away from churches and taken to France, the appointed Curator of the Cemetery collected amidst its frescoed walls the sculptures and paintings that were in the suppressed churches and convents of the city. Other works came from the Cathedral and the Baptistry, along with remains from the local archeological sites and the antique markets.
We spent a little time wandering through the city as we made our way back to the train station. The food here was mediocre (I don’t think we chose the best area, still a bit on the touristy side of town), but all in all it was a cute little town. Like always, we managed to pick up a few local wines and food to bring home. I definitely couldn’t resist the leaning tower of limoncello!
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!