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Located about 10 km (6.2 miles) east of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and straddling the Arno River, the city of Pisa is known primarily for its "leaning tower." There is so much more to the city, and to the Cathedral complex, of which the tower is only a small part. You do know that the famous "Leaning Tower of Pisa" is really the Cathedral's bell tower and, as you know, is called a campanile in Italy. You probably did not know, for instance, that one of the oldest universities exists in the city, founded in the 12th century. Some say the city is older than Rome, and at one time (the 11th century) was one of the most powerful maritime Republics in Italy.

Starting known history as a Greek colony (yes, another one), it fell under Roman rule in 180 B.C.E. Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, and Carolingians all controlled the area at one time or another. The wealth created by shipping interests actually caused a lot of strife, with various wars against other city-states in Italy. Its glory and prestige ended in 1824, when it lost a sea battle against Genoa. And today some wonder why the Shiites and Sunnis are at each other's throats!


This complex is, I believe, unique among continental European Cathedral designs, in that it sits on a green site.

There is a flat grass field throughout the complex. Only British churches, usually set off to the edge of their cities, have green space around them. When you think about it, the only thought of Pisa that comes to mind is its tower. Let's find out about the complex in which that famous campanile sits.

The Cathedral of Pisa was begun in 1063 by the architect Buschetto. The plan is Romanesque.

The nave is covered with a timber roof (realize its early date). The supports are simple trusses.

Transepts cross the nave, each terminating in an apse.

The exterior was created with bands of striped marble, and that character is repeated internally.

Here we see the triforium gallery, with each main arch divided into two smaller arches – two, not three, yet the name “triforium” persists as a generic label for the area beyond.

Pisa depends on proportion and delicate ornamental features, rather than on any new structural development. Another architect came to complete the work in the 12th century.

The façade, shown here again, is composed of five levels of arcades, and dates to the 13th century. The upper four levels of arches are free of the wall of the building, creating a sense of space and also of depth, relieving the rather large façade of any sense of heaviness. The arches form a screen wall, and their chiaroscuro effects are enhanced by shade and shadow. Colored panels, some of glass, are inlaid into the front and side elevations. This integration of art and architecture is exceptional.

Pisa lies in the Italian region known as Tuscany, but just south of the region known as Lombardy. There are characteristic differences in the architecture of the regions, and within Tuscany itself, notably Florentine and Pisan designs. The Florentine School followed strict Roman classical detail, with crisp angular volumes. The Pisan School went for the arcade, in addition to polychromatic wall coverings, both interior as well as exterior.

You should notice, however, that while the superimposed arcades psychologically appear to lighten the façade, the walls are almost solid all the way around the Cathedral. That was the Romanesque nature - very solid walls, with minimal openings. The superimposed arches might be an influence out of Normandy (see the Abbaye aux Dames as one example), but a question might arise as to how such influence manifested itself here.

The Baptistry was begun in 1153, and took a little over 100 years to complete. Its original architect was Diotisalvi. Nicola Pisano took over in 1260, and his son in 1285.

It's a circular plan with a 35.5 meter diameter (116'). Its height is 55 meters (180'). The building was apparently copied from a 9th century church in Dalmatia (formerly western Yugoslavia). As with the Cathedral, there are superimposed attached columns on the lowest level, with greater depth shown on the upper levels. The triangle-like pediments on the 2nd level contain busts, so the concept of integrating sculpture with the architecture continues throughout the complex. There are a multitude of cusps within the decorative stonework on both the 2nd and 3rd levels, all adding to the lace-like quality of this building. We will see, as we get into Gothic development, that there seemed to be a direction towards making the religious structures ethereal, blurring their edges, having pieces and parts merge with sky, and eliminating hard lines. This led towards a spirituality of form, as opposed to the reality of a building, obviously suiting its function.

A very unusual feature of the outside of the dome is that the western half is covered with clay tile (the left in photo), while the eastern half (the right side) is covered with sheets of lead. Texts seem to overlook this situation, and it could be assumed that the clay tiles offer protection from winds blowing in from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. Good chance for extra credit here - see if you can find any source getting into this.

Internally, the Baptismal Font is centrally placed, of course, raised on three steps, possibly representing the trinity. The Font was sculpted by Guido da Como in the 13th century.

The Campanile (leaning tower) was started by Bonanno Pisano in 1174.

Its diameter is almost 15.48 meters (51') wide, and includes 8 stories of encircling arcades. The height on the high side was 56.7 meters (186') – it has since been straightened to some degree. Its weight is 14,500 tons. There are seven bells, each corresponding to a note in the musical scale.

The tower began to lean during its construction, probably due to poor foundation work, or lack of, and an uneven soil condition. To counteract the lean visually, the top level was created vertically at the time, not matching the seven lower levels. The leaning continued, however, and even that top floor no longer appears vertical; it, too, leans, but not as much. Galileo Gallilei conducted experiments relating to gravity from the top overhang by simply dropping things.

Matching the other buildings in the complex, the base level has blind arcades, while the upper arcades are completely open. You can circumnavigate each level. A problem could arise, however, because the marble floors are so slippery from usage that you actually could slide right off the edge.

I sort of remember a little railing at the low side, but do not see them in photographs. Could have been wishful thinking on my part. Here is our computer expert to-be gallantly supporting the tower (he started his architectural explorations at a very young age).

The campanile was closed for the last half of the 1990's as engineers tried to literally pull it back out of a near-drop position. Apparently, they corrected some of the lean. There were cables holding it in place while they tried some maneuvering. Apparently, it had lurched every other time they tried corrections. This time the supporting cables, strung all over the site, held it in place. Now it is open to the public again. The view is worth the trip.

Look at the tower objectively for a moment - forget the lean.

It is graceful, elegant, light, even “refreshing” would be a good adjective. Graceful, certainly. And it is very unique in its design.

The Cemetery below was probably begun in the end of the 13th century.

It seems that the local archbishop Ubaldo de' Lanfranchi brought soil from the Golgotha Mountain (site of Mount Calvary) when he returned from a Crusade. The soil supposedly reduced a dead body into a skeleton in 24 hours. This was obviously desirable in a cemetery, and so was incorporated into the design of Giovanni di Simone. The architect intended to gather the grave sites that were scattered all around the Cathedral, into one orderly space.

Thus, the cemetery, enclosed by arcaded galleries, came to be known as the "Camposanto Monumentale", the Monumental Churchyard.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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