Thursday, June 30, 2016

Next Stop on Our Italian Trip, Pisa

Portofino Harbor Photo: Wikipedia
We said a regretful good-bye to Rapallo, the heaven God built for a few lucky Italians who passed their homes and apartments to subsequent generations, and for those with serious money who could buy the very expensive apartments, condos and villas, upwards of millions of euros. As the last narrow street with beautiful hanging gardens disappeared from view and the blue azure of the Ligurian Sea was no longer visible, we found our well-paved and expensive traveling friend, the Autostrada.

No sooner than we could say, “we are on our way to Pisa in Tuscany,” the state of Liguria had more surprises for us in the form of endless tunnels, the longest one being almost 6 miles long. I thought that we would re-emerge on the other side in another country. By my count, and I could be wrong, given that I was slightly concerned that the GPS did not recognize this new section of the Autostrada and there were no other cars with us in the longest, quite tall and well-lit tunnel, we crossed at least 36 tunnels between Rapallo, Liguria and Pisa, Tuscany.  The constant thump-thump of lights inside the tunnel made me feel slightly dizzy as well and I had to close my eyes a few times. I was glad that my wonderful husband is such a good driver!

This tunnel reminded me of another tunnel we crossed by train into Austria or Switzerland years ago. It was so long that, by the time we emerged on the other side of the mountain, the weather changed from 72 degrees F and sunshine, to blinding snow.
Pisa from the Leaning Tower Photo: Ileana
We finally arrived in Pisa, a seemingly non-descript town of almost 90,000 residents called Pisani. Pisa, a former maritime republic, is well known for its famous Leaning Tower, the bell tower of the city’s cathedral, but Pisa has at least 20 more historic churches, medieval palaces, and bridges across the River Arno.   

Nobody knows how Pisa got its name but it was founded by Pelops, the king of the Pisaeans, thirteen centuries before the common era. As the only other port on the western coast besides Genoa and Ostia, Pisa became a jumping point for Roman naval expeditions against Ligurians, Gauls, and Carthaginians. Ancient Pisani are said to have invented the naval ram. Portus Pisanus became a Roman colony in 180 B.C. and a municipium in 89 B.C., fortified by Emperor Augustus.

In its long history, Pisa received supremacy over the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from Pope Urban II in 1092. Pisa took part in the First Crusade and Pisani were instrumental in taking Jerusalem in 1099. As they advanced towards the Holy Land, Pisani ships sacked some Byzantine islands. The Pisani crusaders were led by archbishop Daibert, the future patriarch of Jerusalem.
Pisani founded colonies in Antiochia, Acre, Jaffa, Tripoli, Tyre, Latakia, and Accone and trading posts in Levant. When compared to Venice, Pisa was a more prominent maritime republic in the 12th century. After centuries of dominance, Pisa eventually lost its role of major port in Tuscany to Livorno.

University of Pisa, which was founded in 1343, is one of the oldest universities in Italy, founded through an edict by Pope Clement VI. Lectures on law had been held in Pisa since the 11th century. The oldest European academic botanical garden, Orto Botanico di Pisa, was founded here in 1544. In 1810, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa was established by Napoleonic decree. Pisa is now a light industrial and railway hub. The U.S. Army has a base between Pisa and Livorno, Camp Darby.
I'm really anxious to climb this elusive Leaning Tower
Pisa is the birthplace of Galileo Galilei, the physicist who uttered the famous words, “Eppur si muove” (And yet it moves) when asked by the Catholic Church to recant his stance that the Earth moves around the Sun. He recanted, but, by stating his famous phrase, he was in essence saying, it does not matter what the church believed, these were the facts.

Among many famous Pisani several stand out:  tenor Andrea Bocelli, sculptor Andrea Pisano, physicists and Nobel Prize winners Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia, poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, physicist and inventor of the dynamo Antonio Pacinotti, and mathematician Alessio Corti.

Sixteen churches are dedicated to various saints, including the famous Baptistery with its pitch perfect resonance construction.  The oldest appears to be San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno, having been founded in 952. An 11thc century crypt is located in San Pietro in Vinculis (St. Peter in Chains). The San Frediano church, built in 1061, exhibits a crucifix from the 12th century.
St. Ranieri tomb Photo: Ileana
Palazzo Reale (The Royal Palace) was the Caetani family home where Galileo Galilei is said to have shown to Grand Duke of Tuscany the planets he had discovered with his telescope.

Located in the Knights’ Square, Palazzo della Carovana has a façade designed by Giorgio Vasari. The Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri church in the same square is also designed by Vasari, with a bust by Donatello and paintings by Vasari.

St. Sixtus church, consecrated in 1133, contained the most important notary deeds of the town of Pisa and hosted the Council of Elders. It is the best preserved early Romanesque constructions in town.

Carved pulpit of the Cathedral in Pisa Photo: Wikipedia
Other famous churches are San Nicola (1097) and San Michele in Borgo (990). The Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in town. On the southern end of Via Santa Maria there is another leaning tower and then another mid-way through the Piagge promenade. The Borgo Stretto is a medieval neighborhood with strolling arcades and the Lungarno, avenues along the River Arno. The Medici Palace bought by the Medici in 1400 and the Palazzo Agostini are fascinating places to visit.

Pisa Campo Santo Photo: Wikipedia
If one is interested in original sculptures by Nicola Pisano, Giovanni Pisano, and treasures of the cathedral, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is a must stop. The San Mateo National Museum displays sculptures and paintings of 12th-15th centuries with masterpieces by Giovanni and Andrea Pisano, Nino Pisano, and Masaccio.
Dave is really brave
Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo exhibits collections of scientific instruments such as the pneumatic machine and the compass that allegedly belonged to Galileo Galilei. The largest cetacean skeleton collection in Europe is housed on the campus of the University of Pisa. And the Cantiere delle Navi di Pisa contains Roman ships, 3,500 archeological excavations, 1,700 labs, and one restoration center.
The Cathedral and Baptistery from the Leaning Tower Photo: Ileana
Pisa City Hall is located in Palazzo Gambacorti, a 14th century Gothic building with frescoes depicting Pisa’s victories at sea.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa Photo: Wikipedia
Nothing matches the majestic but leaning bell tower of the Duomo (the Cathedral) in the Piazza del Duomo, north of the old town center, better known since the 20th century as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles).  In the same piazza there is a Baptistery where the resonance of the building rivals any opera house in the world, and Campo Santo (the Sacred Cemetery).  The entire complex is maintained since 1063 by the Opera (fabbrica ecclesiae). The medieval walls that surround the four edifices are maintained by the city.

Pisa's Cathedral façade Photo: Wikipedia
The Duomo is a Romanesque medieval masterpiece dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of Assumption) whose construction started in 1064 by architect Buscheto. Byzantine style mosaics decorate the interior. It is safe to say that even the cathedral is leaning but not as much as the bell tower and it is not obvious to the naked eye, given its lesser height and larger surface.

Baptistery Photo: Wikipedia
Rainaldo built the façade of grey marble and white stone with discs of colored marble. Some of the stone blocks have been taken from other sites as indicated by Roman numerals and partial Latin inscriptions which were upside down. The façade on the left also contains the tomb of architect Buscheto.

The massive bronze doors were made by Giambologna to replace those burned in a 1595 fire. Worshippers never used this façade door to enter; instead they used the Porta di San Ranieri (St. Ranieri’s Door) located in front of the Leaning Tower. A beautifully carved pulpit (1302-1310) by Giovanni Pisano, a highly intricate medieval sculpture, survived the devastating fire.
Galileo's incense lamp Photo: Wikipedia
There is an incense lamp hanging from the ceiling of the nave with an interesting significance. It is believed that Galileo formulated his pendulum movement theory by watching this incense lamp swing. The original lamp is preserved in Campo Santo, in the Aulla chapel.
Relics which were brought back from the Crusades can be found in the Cathedral such as the alleged remains of St. Abibo, St. Gamaliel, and St. Nicodemus, and a vase said to be one of the jars of Cana from the wedding when Jesus turned water into wine.

Pisa’s patron saint and the saint of travelers, St. Ranieri, is buried in this church and his preserved body is on display in a golden coffin on the altar, guarded by three men in security uniforms.

Politics intervened and the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, carved in 1315 by Tino da Camaino, was moved many times over the centuries from its original location behind the main altar. The Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not an empire, and certainly not Roman. The sarcophagus is still in the Cathedral but the statues were placed in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

Pisa Griffin Wikipedia
One element rarely seen and out of place on a church stood out, “high on a column rising from the gable,” a modern replica of Pisa Griffin, the largest Islamic metal sculpture known. The original is located in the Cathedral Museum. Pisa Griffin is an 11th century bronze zoomorphic sculpture of a mythical beast, more than three feet tall, “probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andaluz (Islamic Spain).”

As we entered one of the wall gates, after having walked through a maze of narrow streets from the parking lot, suddenly the gleaming white Tower of Pisa (Torre Pendente di Pisa) came into view.  After one’s senses are overwhelmed by its size, the first reaction is amazement that it is still standing and how. 

The construction of the white marble 8-story campanile (bell tower) began on August 9, 1173 and it actually stood upright for over five years, however, just after the completion of the third floor in 1178, it began to lean. The foundation was “inadequate and the ground too soft on one side to properly support the structure’s weight.”  Apparently the foundation was only three meters deep and was set in weak, unstable subsoil.

Lead counterweights 1998 Photo: Wikipedia
It is estimated that the tower weighs 14,500 metric tons. The tilt increased over time until partially corrected in 1990-2001. This correction was done with tons of lead which were buried in the ground. During several visits, I witnessed the steel cables holding the tower and the very large lead counterweights.  Before restoration, the tower leaned 5.5 degrees but now leans 3.97 degrees, meaning that the top of the tower is “displaced horizontally 3.9 m (12 ft. 10 in) from the center” with a total height of 183 feet and 3 inches.

Assunta Bell Photo: Wikipedia
Nobody is really sure who designed this beautiful bell tower. Evidence pointed in the direction of Guglielmo and Bonanno Pisano because a piece of bronze cast with his name was found at the foot of the tower in 1820. Recent studies seem to point to Diotisalvi as the original architect based on the time period of construction and his other works, however, he usually signed his masterpieces and there is no signature in the bell tower.

Leaning Tower staircase Photo: Wikipedia
When the Allies discovered during WWII that the German troops were using the bell tower as an observation post, it is said that a U.S. Army sergeant, sent to confirm the location of German soldiers, was so impressed by the beauty of the tower that an artillery strike was not ordered to destroy such magnificence.

There is a plaque commemorating Galileo Galilei’s dropping “two cannon balls of different masses from the tower to demonstrate that their speed of descent was independent of their mass.”  According to various sources, Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo’s secretary, wrote about this experiment in Racconto istorico della vita di Galileo, book published in 1717, long after Viviani’s death.

Leaning Tower Entrance Photo: Wikipedia
After the metal detector wand check, as soon as we entered the tower, the leaning floor made it impossible to stand upright without great difficulty. We climbed with extreme care the narrow and slippery marble steps, uneven and worn out by the passage of time. I was out of breath and had to stop several times. As we got closer to the top, my sense of balance began to be affected by the pressure in my inner ear. I counted 296 steps to the top but experts say that the seventh floor has two fewer steps on the north-facing staircase, with a total of 294.

External Loggia of the Leaning Tower
“Because the Civic Tower of Pavia suddenly collapsed in 1989, the Leaning Tower was closed to the public and a serious salvage effort was underway. Bells were removed to make it lighter and cables were cinched around the third level and anchored hundreds of meters away. Apartments were vacated for safety.  Seventy metric tons of dirt were removed and replaced with lead counterweights.” Once the salvage operation ended, engineers declared the tower stable for at least 200 years.

Aerial View of Pisa from the Leaning Tower
Photo: Wikipedia
We walked around the wire balcony and took pictures of the area while buffeted by strong winds. And there were more steps to the higher level where the bells were. Once we got there, I became dizzier and was unsteady on my feet as if I was drunk. I held on to my husband for dear life and hugged the wall; even when I closed my eyes I felt that I was going to pass out and topple over the flimsy barrier. I took more pictures and we decided to climb down in the nick of time.  As we reached solid and level ground, a heavy downpour followed the light raindrops we felt while descending. As the rain came down harder and harder, it got suddenly very cold.

We were more than happy to find our car parked somewhere through the maze of Pisa streets. We drove to the nearest gas station and filled the rental BMW with middle grade Diesel for $6 a gallon. We had a quarter of a tank and it still cost 55 euros to fill it; that was $67 dollars for three-fourths of a tank of Diesel. There were higher grades of bio-Diesel but we did not bother.
I really was scared in the Leaning Tower and leaning against the wall for safety
We took the road to Florence, our next stop, through many turns, and many roundabouts, some useful, some nonsensical, in rush hour traffic.


  1. What a wonderful trip Ileana. There is more to Pisa than the leaning tower. - Suzanne

    1. So true, Suzanne. It is a lovely place.