Visit: 13th/14th December 2014
Pisa – specifically its leaning tower – is one of the most well known World Heritage Sites, up there in terms of name recognition with the likes of the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza. This kind of site has a tendency to be overly touristified, so we decided to visit in the off-season and found it to be duly quiet. It was just a quick one-night trip, which was made easier by the proximity of Pisa airport to the city – so close in fact that we walked from the airport to our hotel in the centre and back (3 km)!
The inscription in this case refers to the Piazza del Duomo, which is a large, walled green square on which there are four notable buildings. In the picture below you can see the cathedral in the centre and the baptistry on the left. To the right is the leaning tower and hidden behind the cathedral is the cemetery.
Checking into our hotel, a couple of minutes walk from the piazza, it seemed we were the only guests there that weekend. We were given a fairly grand room with a domed ceiling, decorated with a putto fresco. Since there was still some light left in the afternoon we headed to the piazza to visit the cathedral and the baptistry. I was surprised to find out just how old the buildings are – I had assumed they were built during the Renaissance in either the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, but in fact they date back to the eleventh and twelfth, making them Romanesque in terms of cultural epoch.
If you only go inside one of the buildings on a visit to Pisa you will be pleased to hear that my advice is to go with the free one: the cathedral. It was begun in 1064 and constructed from marble.
The ornate pulpit pictured below is a work of Giovanni Pisano, and is thought of as one of the most significant works of all medieval sculpture. It is when looking at works such as this that Michelangelo’s claim comes to mind that sculpture is the highest form of art.
Another highlight of the cathedral is the Ascension of the Virgin painted in the dome. As with the Sistine Chapel, this work exploits the geometric properties of a church’s dome to heighten the portrayal of Mary ascending to heaven.
The large Christ Pantocrator mural in the cathedral is a reminder of the building’s age. This depiction of Jesus as a learned and omniscient deity is particularly prevalent in Byzantine-era church buildings.
We next went into the Baptistry, which houses a cavernous space, with pride of place given to its baptismal font.
Inside the Baptistry is another Pisano pulpit – this one by Giovanni’s father, Nicola Pisano. Its legs rest upon lions, which was a touch I liked.
We walked up the stairs to see the interior from above and were surprised to see one of the building’s security guards stride into the middle of the floor and begin to sing. This was done for the purpose of demonstrating the Baptistry’s acoustics, which were certainly very impressive.
By now the evening was drawing in, so we put the sightseeing on hold and went for some food. We found a cafe pretty near the piazza and ordered a selection of cured meats and cheeses as well as a bottle of Italian wine I have recently become a fan of: Sangiovese Caparzo.
The next day we went back to the piazza to check out the leaning tower and the cemetery. I wouldn’t really recommend paying the €15 or so that it costs to go up the tower, as it is best appreciated from the outside. One cool experience you do get for your money, though, is the very noticeable feeling of lopsidedness upon entering the tower’s entrance.
The tower’s purpose is as a bell tower, and it began to lean pretty much straight away during construction. Somehow it has stayed standing over the centuries, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Italian government started to think seriously about structural engineering to prevent a topple. They convened a group of engineers and mathematicians from around the world who cogitated at length before they were finally spurred into action by the collapse of the Civic Tower of Pavia in 1990. The tower of Pisa was closed to the public and an extensive renovation took place that reduced the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 4 degrees.
The last of the four buildings on the piazza was the cemetery, known as the Camposanto Monumentale. It is said to have been built upon soil from Calvary – the site of the Crucifixion – brought back from the Holy Land in the Fourth Crusade.
The cemetery contains Roman sarcophogae and large frescoes, though they have not all survived the travails of time and war (the building was hit by an Allied bomb in WWII, which caused a huge fire). The restoration is still a work in progress.
Although it was only a short trip we were soon finished with the WHS and had time to spare. Pisa is not a town with a huge amount to keep tourists occupied, but there are a couple of other sites of interest. One of these is the often-overlooked National Museum of San Matteo, which houses a valuable and extensive collection of twelfth to fifteenth century artworks. Highlights include numerous ancient crosses and polyptychs and a Donatello bust. We were almost the only visitors in the museum, which is kept shrouded in darkness for the sake of the artworks, giving it quite a reverential ambiance.
We still had a little time left after this, so decided to fast forward in time several hundred years and check out the Modigliani exhibition at the Palazzo Blu. I had never really looked at this artist before, but, with the help of an audioguide, we were soon familiar with him. Modigliani is known for painting figures with elongated necks and faces, which we learned were inspired by figures depicted in Gabonese folk art.
And with that it was time to leave Pisa, our first visit to Tuscany. Although it is often visited as a day trip by those using Florence as a base, we found Pisa does also work as a standalone destination so long as you don’t plan to spend more than a couple of days there.