Pisa, an important port from Roman times, ranked as one of the great Mediterranean Sea republics throughout the Middle Ages. In the 11th century it wrested control of Sardinia, the start of a political and artistic influence not to be relinquished for centuries. Some of the great wealth the city accumulated between the 11th and 13th centuries was lavished on gigantic building projects such as the Campo dei Miracoli religious complex, including various sculptural decorations commissioned from masters such as Nicola Pisano in the 12th century and Giovanni Pisano in the 13th century. In 1284, however, Pisa suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Genoese in the sea battle of Meloria. The results were political and economic decline and inevitably complete dependence on Florence starting with 1406 onwards. Under the Medici grand dukes, however, recovery was swift at least economically due to enlargement of the port, and culturally after the University of Pisa was opened. The city, heavily bombed in World War II, was painstakingly restored so that virtually all of its artistic historical heritage has come down to us.
The first itinerary of Pisa starts right at Campo dei Miracoli. Pisa’s great monumental center, it hosts several monuments: baptistery, Cathedral, Cathedral Museum, leaning tower, cemetery, and the Museum of Sinopie housed in what was once a hospital, the Spedale della Misericordia. Next take Via Santa Maria, along which are the natural history Museum and the house of Galileo. At the intersection with the Lungarni turn right and cross the river at Solferino Bridge. On your left is Santa Maria della Spina, while if you proceeded down Lungano Sonnino you soon come out at San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno.
Campo dei Miracoli
The buildings on this grassy square constitute one of the foremost complexes of medieval religious architecture. Despite the fact that the buildings date from different periods from the 11th to the 14th century, the impression they convey is of utter stylistic harmony.
The original project drawn out by Diotisalvi around the middle of the 12th century was altered in the course of the next 100 years by such master architects as Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. The circular building faced in striped marble is divided into three horizontal registers decorated by arch and gable motifs. A partitioned tile roof surmounts the building. Inside is a masterpiece of medieval sculpture, Nicola Pisano’s carved pulpit. The reliefs adorning the six sides executed in a monumental, very classical style, represent scenes from the life of Christ. The baptismal font is a 13th century masterpiece by Guido da Como.
Although ground was broken in 1064, construction continued well into the 13th century. The tomb of its first architect, Buscheto, is visible at the first arch on the left side of the façade. One of the foremost examples of Pisan Romanesque, the building has all the typical features of this style: blind arch motifs, inlay patterns, and ornamental sculptures. The side doors date from the 16th century when they were put in to replace Bonanno’s originals of 1186 that had been destroyed in a fire. All that is left of Bonanno’s work is the Porta di San Ranieri, the door to the right transept. Dated 1180, it is composed of 20 bronze panels sculpted in a simple, vigorous style. Inside are several noteworthy sights, among them Giovanni Pisano’s remarkable carved pulpit with New Testament scenes in the nave, dating around 1310.
At the crossing hangs a lighting fixture, known as Galileo’s lamp, which supposedly sparked the great Pisan scientists insight into the movement of the pendulum. Other highlights are: Tino di Camaino tomb of Henry VII in the right transit, the great apse mosaic depicting Christ between the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, and the sensitive St. Agnes by Andrea del Sarto.
The Cathedral Museum in the palace of the cathedral canons, on the south east corner of the Piazza dei Miracoli, contained 12th to 17th century sculpture, including masterpieces by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano and by Tino di Camaino. The Cathedral treasury, which contains liturgical instruments and precious object of the medieval cathedral, including the famous ivory Madonna by Giovanni Pisano from the late 12th century, is in one of the rooms.
Construction of the bell tower, the symbol of Pisa throughout the world, was begun in 1173, possibly under the supervision of Bonanno, and completed two centuries later. It consists of the superposition, on a cylindrical base with blind arcading, of a series of six highly elegant and light loggettas. Interesting sculpture decorates the capitals, the lunette over the door and some of the inter-columnar spaces. The tower stands 60 m tall and is inclined 5 m off perpendicular. Its characteristic inclination is not a recent phenomenon, having begun almost as soon as work on the project got underway, probably due to land slippage, a common phenomenon in Pisan territory. Recent efforts to stabilize the situation seemed to have shown promising results.
The wall along the north side of the Campo dei Miracoli belongs to the cemetery. The great tabernacle adorning the main portal is by a follower of Giovanni Pisano. The building was begun in 1277 around a famous relic, such as Earth from the Calvary brought from the Holy Land by the Pisan navy in the 1200s. Destroyed by bombs in 1944, it was restored and its sinopias put on display in a special museum. The interior, which looks like any quiet Gothic cloister, is nevertheless a treasure house of art masterpieces. Under the portico are Roman and early Christian works including the renowned Phaedra Sarcophagus dating from the second century A.D., inscriptions, plus medieval sculpture and frescoes, many of which in poor conditions, painted by masters such as Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo Gaddi, and Piero di Puccio. In the next room are the celebrated frescoes depicting the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgment, Hell, and scenes of Life in an Anchorite Monastery. The altar of St. Ranieri in the nearby Ammannati chapel is adorned with reliefs by Tino di Camaino.
Santa Maria Della Spina
This tiny jewel of Gothic architecture dated from 1323 was named after a relic donated by a Pisan merchant. The relic, a thorn from Christ’s crown, is preserved in a 16th century tabernacle, which along with sculpture by Tommaso Pisano adorns the interior. In the 19th century the building with its spires, gables, pinnacles, tabernacles, rose windows and sculptures by the followers of Giovanni Pisano, was moved here from its original location right on the water to protect it from flods. Inside are sculptures by Tommaso Pisano.
San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno
Founded in the Ninth century, the church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style and subsequently remodeled over the centuries. Its typical Pisan Romanesque façade features blind arches and arcading. The interior has a nave and two side aisles. The capitals atop the granite columns lining the nave are original. The most interesting features are: a tomb made from a Roman sarcophagus, a 14th century Virgin and Child by Turino Vanni, and a 14th century stained glass window with a scene of Christ and the Apostoles. Detached from the main building is the cappella di Sant’Agata, a 12th century brick structure with an unusual pyramid shaped cusp roof and Gothic three light windows.