Pisa, beyond the tower
When preparing my trip to Pisa, I read many reviews stating that it was a sad and dirty city, not worth more than a day trip to Piazza dei Miracoli. I found a lovely lively little city full of wonders. I do not know why so many people do not seem to like it. It is a student city. There are many shops, beautiful sights. Yes, some of them look bad maintained but you will find the same in Venice (where strangely enough it is part of its charm for the same people although it is worse and symptomatic of the depopulation of the city). So my advice is to just go see for yourselves :)
As one of the great maritime republics in the Middle Ages, Pisa still has some fantastic pieces of architecture from those times.
From the 10th to the 13th centuries, these cities-states governed by merchants built fleets of ships. They were used for their own protection agaibst piracy but also as a way to extend trade networks across the Mediterranean sea. They also played an essential role in the Crusades.
Pisa was a wealthy and powerful city-state and numerous beautiful buildings were built to showcase that wealth and power.
Piazza dei Miracoli
In 1063, after the sack of Palermo, Pisa needed a place where to put all the treasures brought back from Sicily.
The “Square of Miracles” was then built, and it was decided it would be home to a Cathedral, Baptistery, cemetery, and the tallest tower of its age.
Tip: the piazza at sunset is really beautiful. Also they are less people as all the day trippers have left.
“Pisa” comes from the Greek word for “marshy land” but the cathedral’s architects did not take that into account while building the bell tower. The shallow and heavy foundation was not a great choice. They did not understand it before the second storey was being built. Then, the tower began to sink on one side. Actually, everything is sinking on Piazza dei Miracoli. The Cathedral and the baptistery are not straight either.
Because multiple engineers tried to correct the lean of the tower, its centre of gravity changed several times, making the monument leaning in different directions over the centuries.
The leaning tower of Pisa was supposed to be 60 m tall but, because of the lean, the highest side of the tower reaches 56.67 m, whilst the lowest side is 55.86m. Because of that difference, the north side staircase has some 2 more steps to the top than the south side.
The climb to the top is safe, as the integrity of the structure is monitored constantly. Not sure the high number of visitors helps though.
Did you know that Mussolini hated the campanile so much, thinking of it as a shame for Italy, he decided to straighten it? Alas, it was worse after his intervention.
During WWII, Allies wanted to destroy it as it could be used as a viewpoint for the enemies.
Also the bells have not tolled since the 20th century because there are worries that their movements would endangered the current stability of the tower.
San Giovanni Baptistery
Built between 1152 and the 14th century, the Battistero or Baptistery is a round white-marble building with a big cupola, a beautiful pulpit by Nicola Pisano, father of Giovanni, a decorated baptismal font and statues that were originally outside the structure.
The pulpit is considered one of Nicola Pisano's masterworks because he mixed French Gothic style with the Classical style of ancient Rome. He was inspired by the triumphal arches seen in Roma and invented something totally new for his time.
The work of art is supported by lions resting on columns and decorated with scenes from the life of the Christ.
This is the largest baptistery in Italy and a great example of the transition from Romanesque to the Gothic style architecture. It is also leaning, as is the cathedral.
Giovanni Pisano also worked on the coupole decoration.
The Duomo, or cathedral, is an imposing romanesque church dating from 1063. The facade was added in the twelfth century. It has beautiful doors in bronze with bas-reliefs from the sixteenth century.
Recently restored, the inside is beautiful.
The masterpiece of the Duomo is the Gothic pulpit sculpted by Giovanni Pisano himself between 1301 and 1310. It is one of the most iconographically dense works of art in the history of art in Italy.
It is decorated with the whole theme of salvation, from the Annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Judgment Day. Pisano even included a self-portrait in his artwork.
The Camposanto was where noble citizens of Pisa were buried. It is Pisa Pantheon. The floor is covered with tombstones and there are many funerary monuments.
The walls are covered with spectacular murals that have been restored and are well worth a visit.
The Baptistery is the most visited destination by Italian high school students every year. Exactly 100 days before the beginning of exams, some come to execute a good luck ritual consisting of going around the Baptistery as many times as the mark you would like to get on your graduation exam.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
The museum houses a huge collection of important artworks from the different buildings present on the piazza.
Around the piazza
Piazza dei Miracoli is surrounded by beautiful buildings as well as the old city walls.
The piazza was built outside the main city center but within the still-preserved city walls built in 1155.
Day trippers usually arrive through the gate shown below. There is a little market full of made in China goods there. You are almost obliged to walk through it to reach the gate. It can be very crowdy. It is best to arrive from the other side of the piazza.
The Arno banks
Walking on the banks of the Arno is a great way to discover Pisa. The reflections of the colourful buildings in the water are beautiful.
The central Ponte di Mezzo makes the perfect place to watch the Arno banks, by night and by day.
Every last saturday of June, the traditional Battle of the Bridge is held.
The city's neighborhoods are divided into two teams, the Mezzogiorno (south of Arno) or Tramontana (north of Arno). The goal is to conquer the side of the bridge occupied by the enemy through the position of an iron cart arranged on the bridge.
The Palazzo Blu is a center for temporary exhibitions and cultural activities located in the heart of the historic center of Pisa. Even if you are not interested in museums, its striking blue facade is worth a look.
Santa Maria della Spina.
This church is one of the most outstanding Gothic edifices in Europe. Extraordinary example of Pisan Gothic and originally an oratory built around 1230, it had to be relocated because of problems due to its proximity to the river. Its name comes from a thorn supposedly from Christ’s crown, which the small church acquired in 1333 and housed for a while. Now, it is found in the nearby Church of Santa Chiara.
The church is open to public but check the schedules ahead.
Citadel and Guelph Tower
The importance of the dockyards increased in the 13th and 14th centuries under the Republique. But in 1394, games of power encouraged the new ruler to convert the dockyards into a towered citadel defended by a standing garrison. During the first period of Florentine rule (1406), the new masters of Pisa definitively transformed the republican dockyard.
The Torre Guelfa (Guelph Tower) was added to the complex later named Cittadella Vecchia.
The Guelph Tower was completely destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in its original appearance in 1956.
It is now open to public.
Piazza dei Cavalieri
Piazza dei Cavalieri was the center of Pisa when it was a republic. In the 16th century, it became the symbol of Medici power in Pisa. The square has some magnificent sixteenth-century buildings, the church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, and the Palazzo dell'Orologio (clock building) with two ancient towers joined by an arcade decorated with frescoes. One of the towers is nicknamed the Hunger Tower and was mentioned by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. During the Middle Ages, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, his sons and his grandchildren were imprisoned there and left to starve to death.
Because the piazza is home to the prestigious university Scuola Normale di Pisa, there are many students there.
Pisa's Botanical Garden is one of the oldest in Europe.
Around the train station
Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is the administrative core of the city: It is an amphitheatre-shaped square surrounded by a circular portico.
There are many beautiful buildings in the area. Also the accommodation is cheaper on this side of the Arno. It is a short flat 20 min walk to Piazza dei Miracoli.
On the other side of the square, there is the last work of Keith Haring in which each figure represents a different aspect of peace in the world.
It is one of the very few outdoor public works created by Haring for permanent display.
Wander in the city
There are many beautiful buildings, churches, squares... to visit in Pisa. The best way to enjoy the city is to get lost in it. It is small but you can easily spend a day walking around.
This church is a copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with an octagonal floor plan and the alter placed in the centre. There are beautiful animal motifs on the southern entrances century.
Logge dei Bianchi & Palazzo Gambacorti
This is where the wool and silk market was held, as well as money changers’ stalls and cereals markets.
Connected by a footbridge to the Logge di Banchi, the Palazzo Gambacorti is the town hall of Pisa. Its north facade has remained the same since it was constructed in the 14th century. The inside courtyard is decorated with inscriptions and contains ancient columns
There are many more churches from the Romanesque period in Pisa than there are in both Florence and Siena.
Great place near the train station. Clean rooms and bathrooms, shared kitchen fully equiped. Recently refurbished.