Pisa, more than a leaning tower.

ArtSmart Travel/  Pisa  by Barbara Rizza Mellin

Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy (1064)

 The Leaning Tower of Pisa is ubiquitous; we see it on pizza boxes, in commercial ads and in cartoons. But we rarely stop to think about what it really is. Beyond the fact that it leans about 13 feet out of plumb, it is a most remarkable building—elegant, beautiful, and representative of grand medieval splendor.

Actually a campanile (bell tower), it is one of four main components of the Campo dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), which also includes the Cathedral, Baptistery and Camposanto. Despite the fact that construction continued for centuries, all of the structures in the square present unified architectural elements: blind and open arches, precious marble facades, decorative mosaics, Greek-inspired columns and Eastern influences.  The buildings were intended to reflect the socio-economic status of a wealthy citizenry, who had prospered in trade with “the Orient” and were ready to display their good future and commemorate their naval prowess to the world with these glorious edifices.

Begun in 1064 under the direction of Buscheto, the Cathedral, a perfect example of Italian Romanesque architecture, was built to celebrate a victory of the Republic of Pisa over the Muslim navy at Sicily. Faced with rows of marble, the cathedral features seven blind arches— three with doorways— supported on columns with carved acanthus-leaf capitals, and topped with intricately pieced mosaics. Bronze doors created by followers of Giambologna replaced the original 12th century doors in the late 16th century.  Unlike many Medieval Cathedrals, there is no Last Judgment tympanum. Rather, there are four upper stories with front galleries created by arch-topped freestanding columns. The repetition of arches and columns is the identifying characteristic of all elements on the Campo.

The interior of the Cathedral continues that repetition as two tiers of column-supported arches line the nave.  The capitals, here, present both Corinthian and Byzantine designs.  At the end of the nave before the large mosaic of Christ Enthroned above the apse, hangs Galileo’s Lamp, the 16th century chandelier, whose swinging is said to have inspired the Pisan scientist’s thoughts about the pendulum. The interior also holds Giovanni Pisano’s famed carved pulpit, considered the sculptor’s finest work.  Created between 1302 and 1310, the nearly round pulpit is covered with dynamic sculpted images from the New Testament. Paintings and frescoes by such renowned artists as Cimabue, Ghirlandaio, and Andrea del Sarto also decorate the interior.

In 1153, after defeating the Christian Republic of Amalfi, the Baptistery was started to commemorate that event.  While this structure harmonizes with the cathedral in style and building materials, it also shows evidence of Gothic and Byzantine influences, such as the addition of pointed arches and the ribbed dome. A huge bronze statue of St. John the Baptist, dating to the early 15th century tops the dome. Nicola and Giovanni Pisano supervised the project and contributed sculptures to both the exterior and interior.

The campanile (bell tower) begun in 1173 likewise continues the design of the Cathedral with its first floor of blind arches topped by six stories of column-supported open arched loggias. The repetition is surprisingly elegant, giving all the buildings a delicate, lacey appearance. Slightly smaller in diameter than the circular tower, the bell chamber, is particularly decorative with its striped marble, alternating blind and open arches, and ornamental trim circling the top like icing on a wedding cake. The tower showed early signs of instability, and construction was halted periodically to try to correct the problem created by shifting terrain.

The fourth component of the Campo is the Camposanto, or cemetery.  Begun by Giovanni di Simone in 1277, the long rectangular building borders sacred soil brought back from the Holy Lands by the Pisan fleet.  The Camposanto was badly damaged during World War II, when it was bombed in 1944 and its lead roof collapsed. What could be saved has been restored, and today the Camposanto contains sculptures, sarcophagi and frescoes of artistic importance.

Also found on the Campo dei Miracoli is the Museo Dell’Opera del Duomo, housed in the former residence of Cathedral canons, who lived there in the 12th century. Opened in 1989, the museum displays treasures collected in Pisan trade with the East and works of art from Medieval Pisa.



Galileo's Lamp (Photos by BAMellin)

The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin