Italy – Neglected Pisa

TOURISTS are like sheep ; where one goes, another goes. Also, tourism has its unwritten laws rarely disregarded. Of these one lays down that the city of Pisa and its sights can be adequately seen between two trains. How did this stepmotherly fashion of treating one of the most ancient and not least interesting of Italian cities arise ? The laws of tourism have no logical foundations. But the fact remains, and even the more intelligent obey this behest. Howells, for some reason quite unexplained, goes so far as to label this attractively languorous city as ” Pitiless Pisa.” And the inhabitants, accepting this tourist decree, have laid themselves out to assist it ; the cabs and touts know to a second how to steer the traveller from main sight to main sight within the given interval, the hotels think it unnecessary to vary their menu, since if the traveller should stay one night he will not stay two. And yet it was not thus in the days of Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, who abode here for months. But then there were no trains or motors, and hurry and rush had not yet invaded the world.

Whatever the cause, when some while ago I went to Pisa and answered the astonished hôtelier that I proposed to stay a week or more in his house, he looked me over rather dubiously, as though doubtful of my sanity.

Well, my previsions were justified, and I found my week so all too short that I shall shortly return to continue my sight-seeing. In point of fact, the famous Leaning Tower, which everyone goes to Pisa to see, is one of the least of Pisa’s attractions, beyond its interest as a problem in geometrical engineering and the wonder that it excites that it should remain standing despite its perilous seeming list, which, as Dickens remarked, ” certainly leans as much as the most sanguine tourist could desire.” But architecturally, artistically, it is not the most beautiful of Italy’s many beautiful campanili ; its rows upon rows of columns, widening from floor to roof, grow somewhat monotonous to the eye that regards them long and often (which, however, the hurried tourist never does). It is characteristic of the Pisan style at its worst, with its over-ornateness and the monotony aroused to mind and eye from the multiplicity of identical details. I

Obviously, I would not belittle the so-called Four Fabrics, that great group of the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistery, and Campo Santo, which in their splendid isolation, ” fortunate in their solitude and their society,” stand in a wide space of greensward a little aside from the city, and are truly, as Rogers sings,

” Four such as nowhere on the earth are seen Assembled,”

and whether seen in sunlight or, better yet, by moon-light, diffuse a peculiar opalescent radiance. But what I wish to insist on is that, however much this great group is the concentrated and concrete expression of the Pisan mind, and illustrates to perfection the modification she imposed on the Tuscan-Romanesque style by her love of splendour and of detail, so that the Pisan style has come to have a distinct meaning of its own, there are other objects of great artistic interest to be seen in and round Pisa which neither the lover of beauty, the student of art, or the historian can afford to neglect.

I will not dwell upon the Arno, wider, more rapid here than at Florence, dividing the city in a noble sweep, whose beautiful curve a fifteenth-century Florentine compared to the arch of a cross-bow ; upon the bridges, four in number, that span it, bound up as they are with Pisan history and Pisan customs ; upon the wide, silent streets, flanked by dignified palaces or mediaeval houses, all more or less repeating the Pisan arcaded style. Nor will I dwell on Leghorn, twenty minutes distant, Pisa’s trade rival and supplanter ; on the fortress of La Verruca, that once guarded Pisan independence ; on the fine Charterhouse of Calci, whose white buildings, set against a green hillside, form a landmark for miles around ; nor even on Cascina, a tiny walled township, once subject to the Republic, and so small that its walls can be circumvented in less than ten minutes, while containing within these walls every feature of a real fortified township, with moat, towers, gates, and a citadel.

But I would like to speak of S. Piero a Grado, the first Christian church in Pisa, raised according to legend by S. Peter himself, close to the ancient port, then not yet silted up, when driven ashore by contrary winds, and styled a Gradus Arnensis on this account. Though this vast basilica, which rises, a noble landmark, above the plain a few miles from Pisa, has been in the course of time altered, white-washed, plastered, even so the original Lombard style is marked and very different, in its austere simplicity, from the elaborations of the Duomo. In every respect an interesting basilica, built almost entirely of ancient materials, for its antique columns, stolen no doubt from Pagan temples, of Greek and Oriental marble and granite, are of every style, the capitals rarely fitting the pillars where chance has placed them. At each end there is an apse. The impressive edifice, which lies at lower level than the road, is entered by a single door on the north, which side is also the more ornate, Moorish majolica plates of rich colour and fine design being inserted between the blind arches, while here and there fragments of classical sculpture and broken Roman inscriptions and milestones have served as building materials for its flanks and its tall, dignified campanile. Further, the whole nave is decorated with three tiers of fourteenth-century frescoes attributed to Giunta Pisano below, a series of Popes; in the centre, the histories of S. Peter and S. Paul ; above, a series of angels quaintly peeping from open or half-open windows too much and too badly restored to be valuable as works of art, but imparting a pleasant, warm, harmonious colouring to the interior.

Ancient temples have evidently, indeed, had to give their heavy quota to the building of Pisan Christian churches. A characteristic example is S. Michele in Borgo, transformed from a temple to Mars after designs by Niccolo Pisano, and still owning its ancient granite columns. Huddled among the houses of Pisa’s Borgo, her busy shopping street, only its façade is visible from outside, a gothicised copy of the Duomo’s. Built upon the ruins and with part of the material of a temple to Venus is S. Andrea Forisportae, interesting to Dante students as the church where was buried the poet-statesman and friend of the Swabian Emperor Frederick II, Pier della Vigna

” I am he who both the keys had in keeping Of Frederick’s heart ”

falsely accused of treachery to his imperial master, arrested in S. Miniato dei Tedeschi, and conducted ignominiously round on a mule through the streets of Pisa, in whose prison he dashed out his brains rather than live disgraced and humiliated.

Not far off in shrunken Pisa nothing is far off stands S. Francesco, one of those gaunt, bare churches consisting of a single nave, raised by the Preaching Friars and founded at the personal instigation of the poor little man of Assisi himself when visiting Pisa. Many faded frescoes decorate the chapels of the choir, the sacristy, the chapter-house, but its chief interest is the spot where Count Ugolino della Gheradesca and his sons were buried, the irons still on their limbs after the gruesome death in the Tower of Famine, so graphically told by Dante :

” I saw the three fall one by one. . . .

And three days called them after they were dead,

Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”

The tomb is close under the tall elegant campanile, which must be seen from the inside of the church to appreciate its uniqueness, for it is only partly planted on the earth, but chiefly supported on two brackets springing out of the side transept. It is attributed to one of the Pisanos ; and to them also is assigned another unique campanile, far more lovely than the more familiar Leaning Tower, and also out of the perpendicular, for those to whom its list is its chief attraction. I refer to the octagonal tower of S. Niccolo. Its exterior has solidly panelled arches surmounted by an open loggia and ends in a pyramid. Its interior, too, presents a remarkable architectural feat, copied by Bramante and San Gallo. The easily-graded staircase is so contrived ” that the spectator at the foot sees those who go up, those ascending see those below, while he who stands midway can see both those above and below,” as Vasari puts it. These Pisani were unquestionable all-round geniuses.

To another Pisano, probably Andrea, is due that tiny, exquisite, fantastically lovely gem, the fishermen’s shrine, S. Maria della Spina, where the mariners stayed their boats to invoke the Virgin’s blessing ere quitting Pisa, and which harbours, tradition says, a fragment of the Crown of Thorns, whence its name. But this little shrine, with its exuberance of ornament, its canopies, its statues, perched on the wall of the embankment, is known even to the between-trains tourist. He has some-times a moment, too, for S. Stefano, the conventual church of Cosimo I’s Order of S. Stefano, founded to harry the Turk, ever Italy’s secular foe, whose pirates infested the Mediterranean and plundered the coasts of Tuscany. The single nave is decorated with 250

Turkish trophies won by the knights, many coloured and often lovely silken banners, scimitars, lamps, and richly-carved galley poops. It is these trophies that inspired d’Annunzio’s Canzoni d’Oltremare, composed during the Turkish-Libyan war, inciting the Italians of today to emulate the deeds of their forbears and make an end in Europe of the Ottoman.

The stately, pile, standing in a lime-shaded square on the south bank of the Arno, is after the Duomo architecturally the most perfect church.

As it stands it dates from the twelfth century, but it claims to have been founded by Charlemagne. Its Pisan-Romanesque façade is perchance more lovely than the Duomo, because less ornate and more reticent. It consists of five closed arches, two circular and two pointed, the entrance being through the central one, and over these arches rise two tiers of pillars, twisted, plain, and fluted, of vari-coloured marbles, in the true Pisan style, supporting open galleries ending in a gable. The side walls are panelled with lovely marbles of every hue blue, white, black, and rose-coloured. The interior has suffered at the restorer’s hand, the restorer of that destructive epoch the eighteenth century, for the modern Italian restorers are, as a rule, artists, and preserve everything they can. Of the many art treasures it once possessed, the chief survivor is now at the Museum, a quaint, curious work by Bruno di Giovanni that represents S. Ursula in the act of saving the city of Pisa from one of the many floods that have done so much injury to the city in the past, and still often injure the low-lying lands about it.

Both Pisa, a sturdy matron, and the girlish Ursula, are arrayed in royal mantles blazoned all over with the Ghibelline eagle ; the turbulent Arno, crowned with many kinds of fish, is seen to retreat at the saint’s command. Hidden away in the erstwhile cloister of the church, and only to be seen from a window of the Canonica, if the surly old waiting-maid of the Prior is willing, is a curious little heptagonal chapel with a high-pointed roof not unlike the cloisters of S. Stephen at Westminster. It is said to contain the skull of the Sicilian martyr, S. Agatha. Why her head is here, seeing she had no connection with Pisa, directly or indirectly, does not appear.

Two other greater saints, however, are more closely bound up with the city. They are S. Catherine of Siena and S. Thomas Aquinas. It was when staying for some months at Pisa during one of her various visits, endeavouring to keep the city faithful to the papal sway, and preaching the crusade that was never carried out, that in the ancient church of S. Cristina, now modernised out of all knowledge, S. Catherine, praying before the crucifix painted by Giunta Pisano, and now preserved in her oratory at Siena, received the stigmata as S. Francis had received it at La Verna. It was during one of these visits to Pisa that the yearly festival of the Giuoco del Ponte occurred. This game, not so long discarded by the Pisans, was a rather rough affair, a sort of mock battle played on the Ponte del Mezzo between the north and south sides of the city, who cudgelled each other with wide flat bludgeons generally painted and inscribed with vainglorious mottoes. Each faction also carried gay banners bearing their devices, banners now preserved in the Museo Civico, together with a model of the game and an engraving showing Mr. George King and his illustrious lady, Isabella, Countess of Lanesborough, watching the game from a boat with an English flag flying from its prow. The noise of the drums and trumpets and the clashing of the combatants’ wooden weapons disturbed S. Catherine at her devotions. She was divinely enjoined not to be afraid, and told the source of the commotion. Whereupon she prayed that never for all time to come might any evil happen by reason of the game to him who played it. Which thing was granted to her by Divine mercy. So runs the legend. And a proof that her prayers were heard is found in the fact that the first and only accident that was fatal did not happen till 1765. The church of S. Catherine of Alexandria is also connected with the Sienese saint, for into this Dominican convent church she would often glide quietly to pray. Situated in a large tree-shaded piazza, S. Caterina is an attractive object with its fine façade, once again repeating an adaptation of that of the Duomo, tier rising above tier of trefoil arcades. The border of heads round the windows are curious, and the whole is carved in white marble. The inside, being intended for a preaching church, is plain and devoid of aisles, so that the sound can travel unimpeded. And here preached and taught from a cathedra, reverently preserved under glass, that greatest Dominican doctor, S. Thomas Aquinas. Here, too, is preserved the interesting picture by Traini, one of the few painters Pisa has produced, the Glorification of S. Thomas Aquinas, a picture artistically and historically of rare importance.

S. Thomas, a colossal figure, with features taken from life the broad and rather heavy face, the fine ample brow, the mild, thoughtful expression is enthroned with a golden globe in the centre of the panel. Above his head is the Christ in a mandorla, and from Him proceed rays of light that fall on the head of S. Thomas, and from him again emanate through the Universe. On the saint’s right hand stands Plato, holding open his Timeus ; on the left Aristotle, pointing to his Ethics ; Moses, S. Paul, the four Evangelists are seen above, each with his book. Under S. Thomas lie prostrate the three arch-heretics Arius, Sabellius, and Averrhoes with their books torn, while in the lower part of the picture a crowd of ecclesiastics look up to the saint.

So much, very roughly and rapidly, for the so-called minor sights of Pisa. On the major I have not space to dwell, and they are too familiar, ” the labour of an age in piled stone.” Less familiar again and deserving of several visits is the Museo Civico, which the between-trains visitor has not time to see a vast collection of rooms containing many pictures and sculptured treasures removed from decrepit churches and dismantled convents. Here, too, in a damp, dark room of an outer cloister of S. Francesco, is housed a rare treasure, which it is much to be hoped the Italian Government may see its way to restoring to its ancient home. I refer to the remains of Giovanni Pisano’s splendid pulpit, made for the Duomo in 1392, and broken by the great fire of 1595. So much of it is intact that it should not be difficult for some skilful Italian architect-sculptor to recompose it, as Boito did Donatello’s altar at Padua or Castellucci the della Robbia singing gallery at Florence. The nine panels that surrounded the upper part of the pulpit are magnificent testimony to Giovanni’s dramatic power, and are intact, as is the central support, a lovely pillar encircled by the Three Graces, as well as the two side columns, allegorical figures of Pisa and Good Government. One of the single figures, a S. Michael, is an exquisite thing, as exquisite as one may ever hope to behold, and worthy to take place beside that other Christian knight, the chivalrous S. George of Donatello.

Indeed, we latter-day travellers can still truth-fully echo Rutilius’ description of Pisa as

” Wondrous the aspect of the place.”