Pisa, the leaning tower and much more
Pisa certainly needs no introduction; thanks above all to its iconic leaning tower, the former Maritime Republic is in fact one of the most famous Italian cities in the world. Rich in monuments and artistic treasures, the city certainly has its main point of interest in the Piazza dei Miracoli, in fact the most famous monuments are collected here such as the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Campo Santo and the Tower. But Pisa is not only its Piazza del Duomo, walking along its beautiful riversides or in the streets of the historic center, you can admire many monuments, historic buildings and churches like that of Santa Maria della Spina.
10 things to see in Pisa
It is clear that a list of 10 things to see in Pisa can only be partial, but let’s try to identify which may be the main points of interest of the city:
- Leaning Tower of Pisa
- Pisa Cathedral
- Camposanto Monumentale of Pisa
- Piazza dei Cavalieri
- Lungarni of Pisa
- Palazzo Reale
- Museo Nazionale di San Matteo
- Palazzo Blu
- Tuttomondo by Keith Haring
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Symbol of the city, the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The tower was built starting in 1173 but, once the first three floors were built, the tower began to lean due to the subsidence of the land. The work was resumed in 1275 when three further floors were added; to try to balance the structure the top floors were built with a curvature opposite to the slope. The current slope of the Tower of Pisa is about 3.9° with respect to the vertical axis but in the past it was even greater, in 1993 for example the tower was inclined by 4.5° then, fortunately, some restoration and consolidation interventions allowed the tower to settle on the current inclination.
This tower is a magnificent Romanesque bell tower with a circular base, 57 meters high, characterized by a series of arches that are repeated along all the floors of the building. The project of the Tower of Pisa has long been attributed to the Pisan architect Diotisalvi but, as reported by Vasari, the work could be traced back to the project by Bonanno Pisano.
Curiosity: this is not the only leaning tower in Pisa; the bell towers of the churches of San Nicola and San Michele degli Scalzi are in fact inclined by 2.5 and 5 degrees too.
Located right in the center of the Campo dei Miracoli, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was built starting in 1063 and is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the Pisan Romanesque. Born with a Greek cross plan, the Duomo was subsequently expanded with the addition of 3 bays, maintaining the style of the original project. Today the church has a Latin cross with a large dome that dominates the intersection between the arms.
The exterior is covered with multicolored marble and is richly decorated with architectural elements, mosaics and sculptures. Interior, with 5 naves, is covered with marble (black and white) and has a gilded and painted wooden coffered ceiling from the seventeenth century. The aisles are divided by gray marble columns with Corinthian capitals.
There are many works of art that can be admired inside the Cathedral of Pisa. Among these I limit myself to mention the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano (1302-1310), a true architectural and sculptural masterpiece, and the mosaic of the apse Christ enthroned between the Virgin and Saint John of Cimabue (1301-1320 ).
With the extraordinary circumference of 107.24 meters, the Baptistery of St John in Pisa is the largest in Italy. The building, built from 1152 on a design by Diotisalvi, is composed of a cylinder decorated with arches on columns and covered with white marble interspersed with gray rows, and a large dome partly covered by red tiles and partly from lead plates. Other great artists also contributed to the creation of the Baptistery; among these there were Nicola and Giovanni Pisano who created many sculptures for the façade. Nicola Pisano is also the one who constructed the beautiful pulpit (1257-1260) located inside the baptistery. The baptismal font is instead the work of Guido Bigarelli while Italo Griselli created the bronze statue of San Giovanni Battista located in the center of it.
Camposanto Monumentale of Pisa
The fourth monument, the fourth marvel of Piazza dei Miracoli is the Camposanto Monumentale, the place where the most important characters of the history of Pisa rest. According to tradition, the cemetery would rise on the holy land that the crusaders would have taken from Golgotha in Jerusalem. Rich in works including frescos, funerary monuments and sarcophagi (even from the Roman period), the Camposanto suffered serious damage during the World War II when it was struck during a bombing: still today many of its works are subject to restoration. The complex has a rectangular plan and inside is similar to a cloister with a green lawn in the center and a series of beautiful Gothic arches with a very complex design.
Piazza dei Cavalieri
After the unreachable Piazza del Duomo, I recommend going to see also the beautiful Piazza dei Cavalieri. Designed by the great Giorgio Vasari, for centuries this square has been the heart of the political and civil power of the city. Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights’ square) is so called because during the sixteenth century it was used as the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of Santo Stefano by the will of Cosimo I de ‘Medici. Today the square houses the headquarters of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.
Completely transformed into Renaissance forms in the second half of the sixteenth century, Piazza dei Cavalieri is characterized by the presence of some extremely valuable buildings such as the Palazzo della Carovana (where is the Normale), the Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, the Palazzo della Canonica, the Palace of the Council of the Twelve, the Church of San Rocco and the Palazzo dell’Orologio which incorporates the ancient tower of the Muda or “della Fame” where, in 1289, the Count Ugolino, protagonist of the thirty-third song of the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, died.
Lungarni of Pisa
Visiting Pisa, you can’t miss a relaxing walk along the river Arno. Embellished with numerous historic buildings dating back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the lungarni of Pisa are striking for their elegance and are able to offer a remarkable show especially at sunset.
Particularly worthy of interest is the church of Santa Maria della Spina on Lungarno Gambacorti, an authentic Gothic jewel characterized by cusps, tympanums, tabernacles and statues of Pisan masters of the fourteenth century (some are copies, the originals are in the National Museum of San Matteo). Inside you can admire some very important sculptures such as the wonderful Madonna della Rosa by Andrea and Nino Pisano.
A special moment to enjoy the Lungarni of Pisa is the evening of June 16th, on the eve of the day dedicated to San Ranieri patron of the city. On this occasion the Lungarni dress up for the Luminaria di San Ranieri: the buildings are decorated with candles and lamps (called “lampanini“) and the night is illuminated by a great fireworks show.
Among the various buildings that overlook the Arno, we find the Palazzo Reale which, since 1989, has become the seat of the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale. The museum collects various collections where there are some works attributed to artists of primary importance such as Rosso Fiorentino (Rebecca at the well) and Raphael (the Miracle of the two hanged, part of the predella of the triptych of San Nicola da Tolentino).
Museo Nazionale di San Matteo
We continue our walk along the Pisan riversides to reach another very interesting museum: the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (National Museum of San Matteo). The museum is located on the Lungarno Mediceo in the complex of the medieval convent of San Matteo. An essential step for any art lover, the museum houses a vast collection of medieval art, among the most important in Europe. Here we can admire various works by Pisan and Tuscan masters, from the 12th to the 17th century, as well as archaeological and ceramic finds.
We conclude the tour of the Pisa’s lungarni to reach the Palazzo Giuli Rosselmini Gualandi, better known as Palazzo Blu. Blue in name and in fact, the building is just a few steps from the church of Santa Maria della Spina and is now the site of an institute called BLU – Centro d’Arte e Cultura. This museum has a vast collection of works including artists of the caliber of Taddeo di Bartolo, Benozzo Gozzoli and Artemisia Gentileschi and is often the site of temporary exhibitions dedicated to modern art.
Tuttomondo by Keith Haring
For the last point of the 10 things to see in Pisa I want to mention a work that is very different from the other things we have seen so far. Tuttomondo is a huge mural (18 meters by 10!) Created by the American artist Keith Haring in 1989. The work occupies an entire wall of the convent of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate and depicts 30 figures stuck together as if they were fragments of a puzzle; each of these figures has a symbolic meaning linked to the theme of the Peace in the World.