Pisa, a town on the coast in the west of Tuscany, is of course best known for its famous 'leaning tower of Pisa' - but there are several other monuments of interest to visitors, several of them dating from the medieval epoch.
The Middle Ages was a fortunate era for Pisa in all senses - economic, political and artistic - as can still be seen by the historical center of Pisa with its religious and civil buildings, open squares and narrow streets running along the Arno river. We strongly suggest you find time to explore this historical centre as well as the leaning tower!
The main 'famous' monuments are grouped together slightly outside the historical center:
The cathedral, baptistry and leaning tower
These three buildings together make up one of the most beautiful and famous ensembles of 12th-13th century workmanship to be found in the world.
The construction of Pisa cathedral began in 1063 under the direction of Buscheto (a native of Pisa) with an open site outside the ancient city walls chosen as the place for the construction of the building.
Construction of the baptistry was started in 1153 by Diotisalvi, architect of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The monument was rebuilt in 1278, as mentioned on an inscription between two pillars inside the Baptistry.
The arches surrounding the Baptistry are decorated with heads and sculptures attributed to Nicola and Giovanni Pisano (1248-1315). At the center of the monument is the baptismal font and, near the altar, stands the pulpit by Nicola Pisano .
The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa dates back to 1173, although subsidence started as early as 1185 in the basement and work on building the tower stopped for almost a century.
The continuation was entrusted to Giovanni di Simone (died 1298), who at that time worked at St. Francis. This artist managed with extraordinary ability and skill to limit the consequences of the tower's leaning and so the work continued until 1284, date of the naval defeat at Meloria.
The last ring of the bell tower, the seventh, used as a belfry, was conceived and created by Tommaso Pisano in the mid-14th century.
Other notable monuments in Pisa
The Monumental Cemetery of Pisa was founded in 1277, designed by Giovanni di Simone and completed in 1464.
The Church of Santa Maria della Spina is a remarkable example of Pisan Gothic style. Its construction dates back to 1230, and it owes its name to the fact that since 1333 it has held the crown of thorns from the head of Christ.
The Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri was built and designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1565-68 as a Church of the Knights of Santo Stefano. The bell tower, also designed by Vasari, dates back to 1570-1572 while the marble facade was designed by Giovanni de Medici (1567-1621) in 1602. The interior has a rich gilded wooden ceiling with paintings depicting the military Order.
Culture and art
As well as the famous monuments Pisa also boasts numerous cultural institutions that hold works of exceptional artistic value:
The Museo Nazionale di San Matteo holds works from some major ecclesiastical buildings of Pisa and its territory. The sculpture collection includes works from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century, among which we mention considerable works by Nicola Pisano (1220-1284) and Donatello (1386-1466).
The Art Gallery is one of the most remarkable in the world. Among the most important are works by Berlinghiero Volterrano (died 1326), Giunta Pisano (died 1200), Simone Martini (1280-1344), and Francesco Traini (14th century).
From the 15th century we should mention in partuclar works by Masaccio (1401-1428), Fra’ Angelico (1395-1455), Benozzo di Lese (1420-1497) and Ghirlandaio (1449-1494).
The museum also contains important examples of illuminated manuscripts from the 12th-14th centuries, a wooden sculpture (14th c.) and medieval pottery (15th c.) with Islamic ceramics and archaic tiles.
Also very interesting to visit is the Museum of the Opera del Duomo which holds the "Treasure" of the Basilica with sculptures by A. Pisano (1290-1349) and Tino di Caimano (1285-.1336), wood inlays, choral miniatures, silver and vestments, paintings, graphic works and some smaller objects.
Among other cultural institutions in Pisa we should also mention the Museum of the Sinopia where you can see some frescoes that decorated the Monumental Cemetery before its destruction during the last war. The Domus Galileana collects manuscripts, documents, autographs, books of Galileo Galilein (1564-1642) and his pupils, and the Domus Mazzini keeps letters, documents of G. Mazzini (1805-1872).
Other Pisa attractions
The Old Ship Yard, located just outside the medieval city walls, is very interesting to visit and contains ancient ship wrecks, both whole and partly preserved.
In via S. Giacomo there is an Etruscan tomb (called the "Tomb of the Prince") which is of a significant size and the main element of a vast necropolis, probably of the 7th-6th century BC and located in the suburb of Gagno next to St. James Street.
This site, along with other evidence of Etruscan times, confirms the antiquity of the earliest settlements in the territory of Pisa.
Finally, we mention the Romanesque Basilica of San Piero a Grado. The church rises outside the city center in the place where, according to tradition, St. Peter landed.
The Romanesque Basilica is surrounded by pilasters and arches adorned with wall units and ceramic bowls. The interior is decorated with columns and classical capitals and 14th-century frescoes.
The Guelph Tower in the Old Citadel was where Pisa moved all its activities related to the arsenal in 1220. Inside the tower are some blasons that belonged to the families of the Florentine Captains.
See also history of Pisa.