Pisa City of Medieval Art


For art lovers, from the medieval period in particular, a visit to Pisa on a trip to Tuscany is almost obligatory. Pisa underwent tremendous economic development during the Medieval times, and there are still many buildings, in the city and the neighbouring areas, that bear witness to the beauty and success Pisa has seen in her history. The most noted among all is the majestic Piazza di Miracoli, with the cathedral, baptistery and the Leaning Tower of Pisa – an absolute masterpiece of Romanesque Tuscany.

Pisa was among the most powerful of the maritime republics and dominated the Tyrrhenian sea until the end of 1284 when Pisa suffered a defeat at the hands of the fleet from Genoa. Today Pisa is a quiet university city. The river Arno divides it in two, Mezzogiorno and Mezzanotte. Each June the two areas challenge each other in a fancy dress competition on the Ponte di Mezzo, the main bridge in the city.

The most famous area in Pisa is without a doubt the Piazza dei Miracoli – the Square of Miracles. They call it this because it doesn’t seem possible for all these beautiful buildings to be gathered together in one place. The most notable is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which leans in a surreal way towards the outside of the Piazza. The tower is actually the bell tower for the cathedral started in 1064 by the architect Buscheto and was finished almost two centuries later with the façade of Rainaldo. The works were interrupted constantly because of unstable ground. The Baptistery is positioned in front of the cathedral. The original part of the building was begun in the 13th century and finished two centuries later. The interior is decorated lavishly with sculptures by some of the most famous Tuscan artists of the time.

For the men that constructed it, the Piazza di Miracoli brings together the fundamental steps on the journey of life: the baptistery symbolises birth, the cathedral, happy events, and on the north side of the Piazza, the cemetery, is the final resting place of the body after death. The cemetery was embellished over time with beautiful frescos the most noted being The Triumph of Death by Buffalmacco, a Florentine artist from the 15th century. Unfortunately many of these were destroyed during bombing in the Second World War.

The Piazza of Miracoli is the perfect departure point for an interesting itinerary of Medieval art. Pisa has numerous churches from the Romanesque period that you are still able to visit today, for example.San Paolo all’Orto, on Via di Santa Cecilia in Piazza Santa Caterina. The church of Santa Maria della Spina, with its rose and grey marble cladding is a fine example of Gothic architecture in Tuscany. The best Medieval art can been seen the museums; the Museo dell’opera del Duomo and the Museo Nazionale dei San Matteo on the Lungarno Mediceo. The later has a marvellous room of crucifixes and the richest collection of wooden Medieval statues in Europe.

During the summer when the many university students leave for the holidays Pisa reassumes a tranquillity that is more suited to its dimensions. During the rest of the year however the town is made lively by the students of the renowned universities and schools. The Università degli Studi, founded in 1343, the centre of studies, Scuola Normale Superiore, which was founded by Napoleon (he studied there too), and the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. The centuries of students who have lived in Pisa have changed the face of the city. The circular piazza, Piazza dei Cavalieri, is encircled by the historical buildings of these emminent schools, such as the Palazzo della Carovana, restored in the 17th century by Vasari; Saint Stephen of the Knights Church also restored by Vasari, and the Palazzo dell’Orologio, which was made of of two medieval towers, one of which was the prison where Count Ugolono delle Gherardesca and his sons were left to starve to death. Lastly the Palazzo della Carovana hosts the Scuola Normale and is linked by a tunnel to the Palazzo dell’Orologio which today is the library of the school.

Besides the academic areas there are many evocative corners of Pisa, such as the Piazza delle Vettovaglie with its colourful fruit market. A dozen local restaurants can be found a short walk from the Piazza dei Cavalieri and Piazza dei Miracoli. The restaurants offer a fare of hearty Tuscan cuisine based on local legumes and fish – we are in a former maritime republic.

A trip to one of the surrounding villages is a rewarding way to spend an afternoon. San Piero a Grado, an ancient seaside settlement which is important to Christians as it is reputedly where Saint Peter first arrived in Italy, is the site of a Romanesque church, which dates back to the 12th or 13th Century and its foundations are from Roman times.

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