June 20 – 22
Finished, we entered the plaza and had our first glimpse of what the afternoon was to bring, dispelling my uninformed idea of the place, thinking it was just going to be the tower, standing alone, with little else to see around it. Boy was I wrong. The 22-acre complex is known formally as Piazza dei Miracoli or Piazza del Duomo and is recognized as one of the finest architectural complexes in the world.
Considered sacred by its owner, the Catholic Church, the square is dominated by four great religious edifices: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Campanile (the Leaning Tower), and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). Partly paved and partly grassed, it is also the site of the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito (New Hospital of the Holy Spirit), which houses the Sinopias Museum and the Cathedral Museum. The name Piazza dei Miracoli was coined by the Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio who, in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910), described the square as the “prato dei Miracoli”, or “meadow of miracles”. In 1987, the whole square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To start, we entered the building that housed the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito and purchased a pass that gave us access to all the historic sites on the property for 10-Euros apiece. Originally, this building’s function as a hospital was to help pilgrims, poor, sick people, and abandoned children by providing a shelter. Today, it is no longer entirely a hospital; since 1976, the middle part has contained the Sinopias Museum, where original drawings of the Campo Santo frescoes are kept, which we spent some time examining.
Next, we entered the Cathedral Museum of Pisa (Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo), which displays original artwork from the cathedral, baptistery and leaning tower. One of the first sights here is the 12th-century bronze St Rainerius Door by Bonanno Pisano that originally provided access to the transept of the cathedral (the present door facing the Leaning Tower is a copy). The three bronze doors by Bonanno in the western facade of the cathedral were destroyed by fire in 1595.
Further on there are several rooms full of Gothic sculptures by Pisan artists including Nicola de Apulia, Giovanni Pisano, Tino di Camaino and Lupo di Francesco, as well as Andrea and Nino Pisano who originated from the south but were considered Pisan.
Other sections are devoted to the foreign influences on the early cathedral as a reminder that Pisa of the Middle Ages was a very international city. Prominent among these is a 12th-century painted wood Christ on the Cross of Burgundian origins.
Towards the end of our stay, we stopped briefly at the loggia of a small café to enjoy the view of the Duomo and the Leaning Tower. Although we didn’t stop to eat, as we were still full of lunch, the café appeared to be a pleasant place for a drink and small snack as it is generally uncrowded despite being open for all.
We exited the museum and struck out for the heart of the Piazza del Duomo, that is the Duomo, the medieval cathedral of the Archdiocese of Pisa, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption). The church is known also as the Primatial, the archbishop of Pisa being a Primate since 1092. Its construction began in 1064 by the architect Buscheto and it set the model for the distinctive Pisan Romanesque style of architecture.
The massive bronze main doors were made in the workshops of Giambologna, replacing the original doors destroyed in a fire in 1595. Worshippers have never used the façade doors to enter, instead entering by way of the Porta di San Ranieri (St. Ranieri’s Door), in front of the Leaning Tower, built around 1180 by Bonanno Pisano. Inside, the Duomo, like all medieval cathedrals, impresses one with its grandeur and it is a nice place to sit for a time to relax, reflect, and gather one’s thoughts.
The striking mosaic of Christ in Majesty, in the apse, flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, survived the 1595 fire. Although it is said that the mosaic was done by Cimabue, only the head of St. John was done by the artist in 1302, his last work, since he died in Pisa the same year. The cupola, at the intersection of the nave and transept, was decorated by Riminaldi showing the assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
We left the Duomo and with some time to kill before our entry window into the Baptistry, joined dozens of others relaxing on the steps around that building and lounging on the lush grass that makes up much of the property. The Baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was begun in the mid 12th century. It was built in Romanesque style by an architect known only as Diotisalvi (“God Save You”), who worked also in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in the city. His name is mentioned on a pillar inside, as Diotosalvi magister. The construction, however, was not finished until the 14th century, when the loggia, the top story and the dome were added in Gothic style by Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano.
It is the largest baptistery in Italy, with a circumference measuring 350 feet and including the statue of St. John the Baptist (attributed to Turino di Sano) atop the dome, it is even a few inches taller than the Leaning Tower. The immensity of the interior is overwhelming, but it is surprisingly plain and lacking in decoration, except for the pulpit which was sculpted between 1255-1260 by Nicola Pisano, father of Giovanni Pisano, the artist who produced the pulpit in the Duomo.
The scenes on the pulpit, and especially the classical form of the naked Hercules, show at best Nicola Pisano’s abilities as the most important precursor of Italian renaissance sculpture by reinstating antique representations. Therefore, surveys of the Italian Renaissance usually begin with the year 1260, the year that Nicola Pisano dated this pulpit.
We left the Baptistry and walked across the property to the two long buildings known as the Camposanto Monumentale or Monumental Cemetery. We’ll pause here in our visit to Pisa and return for the conclusion in our next post. We’ll see you then.
Piazza dei Miracoli: https://www.italia.it/en/tuscany/pisa/things-to-do/pisa-and-piazza-dei-miracoli
Baptistry attribution: By Dudva – Own work,