Pisa – Italy Travel

Few cities have preserved their medieval walls with such loving care as Pisa. The circuit is complete save where the traveler enters the city; and there, alas, a wide breach has been made by the restless spirit of modernity. But once past the paltry barrier and the banal square, with its inevitable statue of Victor Emanuel, that take the place of the old Porta Romana, one quickly perceives that the city is a walled one. Glimpses of battlements close the vistas of the streets, and green fields peep through the open gates, marking that abrupt transition between town and country peculiar to a fortified city.

The walls are best seen from without. An admirable impression of them can be had on leaving the city by the Porta Lucchese. Turning to the left, after passing a crucifix over-shadowed by cypresses, we come to the edge of a stretch of level marshy meadows, gaily pied in spring with orchids and grape hyacinths. Above our heads the high air vibrates with the song of larks. Before us is the long line of the city walls. Strong, grim and gray they look, with nothing to break the outline of square battlements against the sky, but that majestic groups of domes and towers for whose defense they were built. At the angle of the wall to the right is a square watch-tower, backed by groups of cypresses that rise into the air like dark flames. Its little windows command the flat plain as far as the horizon. How easy to imagine the warning blast of the warder’s trumpet as he caught sight of a distant enemy, and the wall springing into life at the sound. Armed men buckling on their harness would swarm up ladders to the battlements, the catapult groan and squeak as its lever was forced backward, and at the sharp word of command the first flight of arrows would be loosed.

But the dream fades, and we pass on to the angle of the wall where the cypresses stand. From the picturesque Jews’ cemetery, to which access is easy, the structure of the walls can be studied in detail because the hand of the restorer has been perforce withheld within its gates. The wall is some forty feet high, built of stone from the Pisan hills, weathered for the most part to a grayish hue. The masonry of the lower half is good. The blocks of stone are large and well laid. Those of the upper half are smaller and the masonry is in places careless and irregular. The red brick battlements are square. At short intervals there are walled-up gateways, round-headed or ogival in form, and the whole surface is rent and patched. Centuries of war and earthquakes, rain and fire, have given it a pleasant irregularity, the record of violent and troublous times.

The city can be reentered by the Porta Nuova, only a few yards to thc left of the cemetery. So venerable do these battered walls look that we need the full evidence of history to realize that they had more than one predecessor. The memory even of the first walls of Pisa, an ancient city when Rome was young, has been lost. The earliest record of which we know anything appears on a map of the ninth century drawn by one Bonanno; a map, we should rather say professing to be of the ninth century, for churches of the thirteenth century are marked upon it, so it must either have been made, or the churches inserted, then.

The ancient walls were practically swept away by the prosperity of Pisa. Beside the Balearic Islands she had conquered Carthage, the Lipari Islands, Elba, Corsica, and Palermo, and her galleys poured their spoils into the Pisan port. She traded with the East, and was successful in commerce as in war. Her in-habitants increased rapidly. They could no longer be penned within the narrow limits of the old wall, but overflowed in all directions beyond it. Not only was the Borgo thickly populated, but a whole new region, called Forisportae, sprang up.

So masked was the wall by houses, built into it and huddling against it both on the outside and the inside, that it seems to have been actually invisible. So much so that contemporary chroniclers spoke of Pisa as without walls, and attributed her safety to the valor of her citizens and the multitude of her towers. The ancient wall was evidently so hidden and decayed that Pisa must be regarded as a defenseless city in the twelfth century. It is curious that her citizens should have neglected their own safety at a time when they were masters of fortification and defense; when their fame in these arts had reached as far as Egypt and Syria, and when the Milanese came to them to beg for engineers.

The external appearance of an Italian city in the twelfth century was so unlike anything we are accustomed to in modern times that a strong effort of the imagination is needed to conceive it. Seen from a distance the walls enclosed, not houses, but a forest of tall square shafts, rising into the sky like the crowded chimney stacks in a manufacturing town but far more thickly set together. The city appeared, to use a graphic contemporary metaphor, like a sheaf of corn bound together by its walls.

San Gimignano, tho most of its towers have perished long ago, helps us to imagine faintly what Italian towns were like in the days of Frederick Barbarossa or his grandson Frederick II. For most of the houses were actually towers, long rectangular columns, vying with each other in height and crowded close together on either side of the narrow, airless, darkened streets. Sometimes they were connected with one another by wooden bridges, and all were furnished with wooden balconies used in defensive and offensive warfare with their neighbors.

Cities full of towers were common all over southern France and central Italy, but Tuscany had more than any other state, and those of Pisa were the most famous of all. The habit of building and dwelling in towers rather than in houses may have arisen from the difficulty of expanding laterally within an enclosed city; but a stronger reason may be found in the dangers and uncertainty of life in a period when a man might be attacked at any moment by his fellow-citizen, as well as by the enemy of the state. It was a distinct military advantage to overlook one’s neighbor, who might be an enemy; and towers rose higher and higher. The spirit of emulation entered, and rich nobles gloried in adding tower to tower and in looking down on all rivals.

But whatever the cause of their existence, they were picturesque, and must have presented a gallant sight on the eve of a high festival. The tall shafts were tinged with gold by the western, sun, their battlements crowned with three fluttering banners—the eagle of the Emperor, the white cross of the Commune, and the device of the People—looking as tho a cloud of many-colored butterflies were hovering over the city.

Again, how dramatic the scene when the city was rent by one of the perpetually recurring faction-fights. Light bridges with grappling-irons were thrown from tower to tower, doors and windows were barricaded, balconies and battlements lined with men in shining mail, bearing the fantastic device of their leader on helm and shield. Mangonels, or catapults, huge engines stationed on the roofs of the towers, sent masses of stone hurtling through the air, whistling arbelast bolts and clothyard shafts flew in thick showers, boiling oil or lead rained down on the heads of those who ventured down to attack the doors, and arrows, with Greek fire attached, were shot with nice aim into the wooden balconies and bridges. Vile insults were hurled where missiles failed to strike. The shouts and shrieks of the combatants were mingled with the crash of a falling tower or with the hissing of a fire-arrow. Where those struck, a red glow arose and a thick cloud of smoke enveloped the defenders.

Altho it is evident that towers were very numerous in Pisa, it is difficult to arrive at their precise number. The chroniclers differ greatly in their estimates. Benjamin da TudeIa, for instance, says that there were 10,000 in the twelfth century, while Marangone puts the number at 15,000 and Tronci at 16,000. These are round numbers such as the medieval mind loved, but we have abundant evidence that they are not much exaggerated. An intarsia panel in the Duomo, shows how closely the towers were packed together, while the mass of legislation relating to them was directed against abuses that could only have arisen if their number was very large.