Tuscan Treasures – V: Pisa

‘Better a death in the family (in the house) than a Pisan at the door’ – A Genoese adage

The grudges provoked by a legacy of military, economic and cultural conflicts/competitions between Pisa, Genoa, Milan, Venice and Florence are still present –if somewhat faintly- in the popular memory. Nevertheless, not even the plague would keep the hordes of tourists from knocking on Pisa’s doors nowadays! They are attracted to the city not because of Galileo or Fibonacci (both were born here); they are attracted by a glorious, ehm, failure!

Question: How on earth could a failed architectural project become a top-rated attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site? The answer: if it is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I went to Pisa knowing what to expect: zillions of tourists posing ridiculously next to the tower, overpriced eateries and little more. I was wrong. First, the Tower is visually imposing, and second, it forms part of a magnificent complex that comprises the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Tower and the Camposanto (Cemetery). Together, they form one of Europe’s largest Romanesque complexes (if not the largest), all set against a vast ‘carpet’ of grass, which makes the white marble of the monuments in the Piazza dei Miracoli gleam even more.

Standing 58 meters high (and weighing 14.5 tons), the tower offers incredible views of the Cathedral domes and the city in general. Its story is a true saga of architectural pain and passion. Construction started in 1173, and 5 years later (upon building only 3 stories), it started leaning already due to the treacherous ground on which it was erected. Every trick imaginable was tried to straighten the tower: metal rings, underexcavation, building more stories in an asymmetrical elevation to counterbalance the angle of inclination (which resulted in a curious banana-shaped curve!)…and the result is one of Europe’s postcard-quality monuments.

In the XI century, Pisa had a powerful fleet that made it one of the 4 major maritime republics of Italy (together with Venice, Genoa and Amalfi). They participated in crusades, sacked Byzantine ports, won important battles, and conquered Palermo after defeating the Arabs. The booty and the riches that poured into Pisa from that particular endeavor made it possible to ‘think big’: they built the huge Cathedral which, in addition to showing an Islamic influence, also incorporates columns from the Mosque of Palermo and a huge metal griffin with Arabic inscription (now in the museum). The main attraction here is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit, but one can still sit down, contemplate any of the lanterns, and remember how Galileo supposedly got his inspiration for the pendulum from the swinging motion of one such lantern.

The round Baptistery is Italy’s largest, and this time it was Nicola Pisano who sculpted the pulpit. The Islamic imprint is again evident in the decoration of the marble floor and the Arabesque motifs of the Font of Bigarelli. The Camposanto Cemetery is a peaceful retreat from the crowds that fill the Piazza outside…peaceful until you come across ‘The Triumph of Death’, an eerie fresco by Buffalmacco.

I can go on and on about the city’s historic center, its riverside houses, its hidden charms and interesting cuisine, but it is time for the jewel of the Tuscan crown, it is time for Florence. Tomorrow then!

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