Pisa, Italy

The general imagination is nothing more than a city of a few superb sights. Men drive from the station with closed eyes to that remote corner of the town where stands one of the seven wonders of the world, and three of its greatest marvels. Few are the travellers that stay more than one night in Pisa, and very many are they who find a break of a few hours sufficient to “do” its “sights.” Nor does Pisa any longer attract or bewitch the foreign resident; I scarce can tell why, though there certainly does seem to be an indefinable something the matter with the place. It is dull, but so is charming Lucca; it is not comforting, but neither is Arezzo the alluring; its people are less lovable than many Tuscans, yet they are immeasurably to be preferred to the showy Ghibellines of Siena the bewitching. Pisa may be suffering from a complication of ills not readily definable, but one of its disorders at least is sufficiently easy of diagnosis. It is suffering from a very virulent access of modernity in its ideas, and these, cast into the majestic mould of its mediaeval glories, mix ill and produce a certain uncomfortable sense of the incongruous.

And yet, in spite of all that the anxious but carping well-wisher may say, how charming it is and how beautiful! If the Lung’ Arno of Florence is more picturesque, the Lung’ Arno of Pisa, curved like a delicate section of Giotto’s 0, is ten times more stately and more beautiful. Multi-coloured and many-formed palaces, still in all their mediaeval pride and splendour, rise up on each side against the blue sky with all the serene assurance of perennial existence and unchangeableness, while on the southern bank, plumb with the wall of the quay, is the choicest of all Gothic gems, the little Church of Santa Maria della Spina, central and chief jewel of this perfect circlet. Attached to this church there exists what the passing traveller wots not of, the foundation for a very ancient Mass, the Messa dei Cacciatori, which used to be said as early as two or three in the morning to enable the Pisan huntsmen of mediaeval days to be be times on the road and yet spiritually fortified. The Mass is still in existence, is still called ” dei Cacciatori,” but is no longer said preternaturally early, and is unattended by any sports-man that ever I saw.

The Cathedral of Pisa is one of the finest in the world; its Baptistery the most gem-like; its Campanile the most remarkable; its Campo Santo quite the most unique and memorable. The reader is rightly already a little wearied of hearing of these marvels: historians and art critics have exhausted the subject, and cheap scribblers have bored us with their irksome iterations. It is a weariness of the flesh to commend the matchless. I leave the intelligent reader to a good catalogue and his own thoughts. Of the Baptistery I would only say: do not omit to hear the famous echo that will strike sweet chords aloft at your bidding. And of the Leaning Tower: go up to the top of it and see what you may see—Livorno and the ships that go down into the sea, the Tuscan Archipelago when the atmosphere is kind, the mountains of the Carrarese and the Garfagnana, the hills that shut out the sight of Lucca, and the great plain of Pisa stretching at your feet all adorned with the work of busy husbandmen. And of the Duomo I would merely say: try and be present when there is a function on, when in the choir there is a full Chapter of the Canons in their red cassocks, looking like so many stately Princes of the Church, when the Epistle and Gospel are chanted from the lofty pulpits on the right and left hand of the High Altar, when sweet music and fragrant incense rise heavenwards, when the venerable Archbishop, Count Capponi, raises his hand in the final Benedicat vos. It is then that you more properly realise that this noble building is no mere mediaeval “sight,” preserved in perfect order for the instruction of travellers, but that it has its living and very practical uses. Wait, too, a moment at the south transept door, and see the venerable Archbishop depart, Outside there is a heavy, old-fashioned landau and a bag-wigged coachman in sober livery of last century; inside a crowd of what looks like the scum of Pisa. They are waiting for his Excellency, Monsignor Capponi, and he cannot get through them until he has blessed them all, and taken all their dirty little babies in his arms, and emptied his pockets of the few coppers which his charities have left him. This is indeed one of the ” sights ” of Pisa, and it is a sight very good for sore eyes.

But I have another motive in speaking thus briefly of the important Duomo: it is, in truth, that I may have space to speak more fully of its central feature, which, being an object of devotion intimately associated with the history and people of Pisa, and not merely an object of art, has been dismissed by some guide-books in two or three lines. This is Santa Maria sotto gli Organi, chief miracle-picture of the Commune and City of Pisa.

The picture is unquestionably Byzantine. Morrona opines that it was the work of one of the colony of Greek artists resident in Pisa, and was painted at the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century.’ He is no doubt right as to its great antiquity, but it is more likely to have been brought to Italy, like so many other objects, by some crusading knight returning from the East. There are many stories, vague and unproved all of them, as to how the picture came to Pisa. The favourite tradition is that it came from the Castle of Lombrici in the Lucchese territory. The Count of Lombrici was at war with the Republic of Lucca, and the Pisan Re-public lent him 200 fighting men. They were unable to hold the Castle against the Lucchesi, but managed to make good their escape, bringing with them the Madonna, which had been venerated in the Castle Oratory. There is nothing miraculous in the story, but it is not as well authenticated as some miracles.

The Madonna sotto gli Organi—so called, by the way, because the picture was once attached to a pillar below the organ—has certainly been in Pisa since the thirteenth century. When Charles VIII. of France entered Pisa on the 9th November 1494 in his character of Deliverer, the cult was flourishing, and from that day the records of it are full and unbroken. There is one fact of great interest about the Pisan Madonna: that until the 13th December 1789 there is no record of any mortal eye ever having beheld it after it had once been veiled in the Cathedral. The picture was covered by seven veils: it would be moved to a different position, placed over a special altar, carried about the Church and city in procession, but it was never unveiled. It is quite certain that at least for three centuries after Charles’s coming no one ever saw it. In a MS. History of the Churches of Pisa by a certain Canon Ottavio d’Abramo, which is preserved in the Archives of the Chapter, the story is told how the Archbishop of Pisa, del Pozzo, a Piedmontese, so recently as the year 1607, resolved to break with tradition and see the Madonna. He took unto himself two of the Canons, Domenico Sabini and Camillo Ciurini, and a workman, and in their presence began to remove the veils. When he got to the seventh veil he was seized with a shivering fit, and cried out in his dialect (so circumstantial is the narrative): ” Covrila, covrila, peesto! ” He died soon afterwards; Canon Sabini cut his throat with a razor; Canon Ciurini lived but a short while and died in poverty; the workman became blind. So runs the story.

In 1596 occurred the great and disastrous fire in the Duomo. A hero in Pisan annals, Curtius (fit name for the leap he took), the son of Vincent Ferrini, plunged into the Cathedral when it was raining molten lead and saved the picture. Even then no attempt was made to see it. It was placed in the Baptistery and not restored to its altar in the Cathedral until the 16th November 1604. It was “uncovered ” and carried in pro-cession only seven times in the seventeenth century, the last occasion on the 7th November 1684, for a great occasion, the delivery of Vienna from the Turk by John Sobieski. But let the reader take careful note that ” uncovered ” (scofterta, scoprimento) did not in those days mean “unveiling.” It meant that the picture was taken out of the shrine in which it was locked, but not that the veils were removed from in front of it. At length, on the 13th December 1789, by order of the Grand Duke Peter Leopold—like his brother the Emperor Joseph a bit of a ” Sacristan,” and, though devout, a bit of a Febronian—the historic Madonna di sotto gli Organi was completely unveiled for the first known time in history. It was immediately recognised to be a Byzantine picture of great antiquity. On the book held by the Bambino is written in Greek characters the 12th verse of the eighth chapter of St. John’s Gospel: Ego sum lux munch’. Qui sequitur me non ambulat in lenebris, sed habebit lumen vitae; and over the halo of the Bambino is a monogram signifying Mater Dei. Morrona made a careful examination of it, and has minutely described what he saw.’ The picture was removed from its shrine on the 15th January 1790, and, with due precautions, was entrusted to the Pisan artist Giovanni Tempesti for restoration. Tempesti also made a copy of it from which my reproduction is taken. The picture has been unveiled—of course now literally —eleven times in the present century, the last three occasions being in 1852, 1870, and 1897. In 1846 a terrible earthquake shook Pisa; the Church of St. Michael fell in; there was much damage to property, but no loss of life or injury to limb. In thanksgiving for this deliverance the Madonna was solemnly crowned on the Feast of the Assumption in 1847 in the presence of the Archbishop, the Gonfaloniere, the Knights of St. Stephen in their white Capp Magnae, the Professors of the University, and a host of the regular and secular clergy, and of the civil and military authorities. When the cult is sufficiently ancient a miracle-picture is usually crowned. Will the function seem childish to some readers? ‘Tis but a species of symbolical and ceremonial tribute to the Heavenly Powers. Do we not in England crown our pictures and chandeliers with holly and evergreens in honour of Him who made the season joyful for us? The Madonna of Montenero was crowned so long ago as 1690; it had been impossible to crown the Madonna of Pisa in the past as she had never been unveiled. The crowning consists in affixing to the picture, on the heads of the Madonna and the Bambino, crowns of gold or silver and precious stones. Sanla Maria sotto gli Organi was unveiled in 1897 in honour of the Jubilee of the Coronation. A terrible and heartrending disaster occurred. On the 29th May, in the packed Basilica, a cry of “Fire!” a panic-stricken stampede, seven or eight poor wretches trampled to death, and scores of others gravely injured. One poor mother was knocked down, and her little child, not two years old, was whirled away from her among the tramp-ling crowd, she saw not whither. When the ambulance came over from the neighbouring hospital to recover the dead and wounded, the child was found under a bench, smiling and happy, a little dazed, but without so much as a bruise. The grateful mother has put the little pink ” festa frock it wore at the time in a glass case, and had this affixed to the pillar in front of the Altar of the Madonna of Pisa, thereby tendering public thanks to Heaven for so marvellous an escape. The little frock of baby Bertelli is now one of the most conspicuous objects of the shrine, and surely the mother’s faith and gratitude must be writ in golden characters in the registers of the Recording Angel. Search out, I once more say, search out the miracle-picture of a place, if ever you would come to know the intimate pulsations of the Tuscan heart, the finest qualities of the Tuscan soul.

The Altar of the Madonna sotto gli Organi is on the Gospel side of the Choir, just by the door of the Canons’ Sacristy. Many lamps burn before it. It has a fine silver frontal. Votive offerings hang on all sides, and there are many in the Sacristy behind the Altar, one, an offering from the jockeys of the Italian Newmarket, Barbericina, hard by Pisa, being an effective conjunction of two silver-gilt horses’ heads, a saddle, and other insignia of sport. Over the Altar is a silver door blazing with jewels, and behind this door is the venerable image of Santa Maria sotto gli Organi. The door is locked by two keys, both necessary for reaching the picture; one is kept by the Archbishop, the other by the Sindaco of Pisa. It therefore needs both ecclesiastical and municipal consent to expose the picture. There are no stated times for unveiling the Madonna. The ceremony would only take place at a time of intercession for the averting of some great calamity, or to render thanks for deliverance from some great evil. If all goes well with the Pisans in these coming years, as I pray God with all my heart it may, Santa Maria sotto gli Organi will not be unveiled until 1947, the first centenary of her glorious coronation.

Among churches next in order of interest to the Duomo comes the Church of the Order of the Knights of Saint Stephen, situated in the Piazza de’ Cavalieri, as beautiful if not as imposing a piazza as any in all Italy. The Church is hung with Moorish flags and trophies of war, taken by the Knights from the Barbary pirates and the devastating Turk, and with quaint figure-heads and other portions of Moorish and Turkish galleys that were once towed in captive to the harbour of Leghorn. There is no other sight like it in the world. The Church is the design of Vasari, and was begun in 1565. The richly decorated ceiling is covered with paintings illustrative of the history of the Order by Cigoli, Ligozzi and Allori. And note the splendid rococo High Altar of chocolate-coloured porphyry picked out with gold and surmounted by the white marble figure in glory of Pope St. Stephen, the Patron of the Order. Adjoining the church is the imposing Conventual Palace of the Knights, once a famous school of practical chivalry, now a habitation of certain students of the University.

The Religious and Military Order of St. Stephen was founded by Cosimo, first Grand Duke of Tuscany [whose statue stands before the Palace stairs], so lately as 1561. It was placed under the patronage of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr, because Duke Cosimo had already gained a decisive victory on the Saint’s feast-day, the 2nd of August, and he took it as of good augury. The Military Knights might marry and hold property; the Religious Knights took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They lived a monastic life under the rule of St. Benedict, and had care of the Church and its fine functions. The objects of the Order were to rid the Mediterranean of pirates, redeem the poor Christian captives, and propagate the Christian religion. They did good service at the battle of Lepanto—a sufficiently critical moment for Christendom. The Cross of the Order is of the same shape as that of the Knights of Malta, but red instead of white. It figures largely in Pisan heraldry, for the knights had the privilege of adding it to their arms on a Chief of Augmen–tation.

There have been some few Englishmen among the Knights, as is shown by the briefs now preserved in the Pisan Record Office (Archivio di Stato). As for instance:

1. Thomas and Henry Joseph, sons of my Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, vested the former at Florence on the 14th May 1712, and Henry Joseph at Pistoia on the 24th July 1720.

2. Captain Francis Acton, admitted at San Savino, near Pisa, on the 18th December 1768.

3. Robert Nangle, 15th March 1712.

4. Thomas, described as the son of Count Gherardo Tyrell, invested on the 21st October 1738.

5. Captain Michael Jerome O’Kelly and Canon John Emmanuel O’Kelly, the Captain invested on the 28th April 1742, the Canon on the 27th September 1788.

6. Caesar Walter Kennedy Laurie, to take a very recent instance, invested on the 14th October 1851.

7. And to take the last instance of a British name, though it belonged to an Austrian subject, Count Maximilian O’Donnel, who was invested on the 27th December 1851.1

The Order was swept away by the French Revolution, but was revived again in a modified form in 1817. The Italian Revolution once more swept it away beyond hope of revival in 1859, and its Church and property became the property of the State. Alas! that modern Italy should not be a little more tender of the memories of her past glories.

Delightful are the excursions round about Pisa. There is a steam-tram along the banks of the Arno to the mouth, where, at the conjunction of the river and the sea, stands a trim little watering-place, Bocca d’Arno. It is worth while to descend half way at the tram station of San Pier in Grado, and see the old Basilica of this name. It marks the spot where, says tradition, the Prince of the Apostles, coming from Antioch to make of Rome the Mother and Mistress of Churches, first set foot upon Italian soil, and here he erected his first Altar in the Peninsula. Clement, the fourth Pope in succession to Peter, is said to have built a church here, and the present Basilica is supposed to have been begun at the end of the tenth century. Portraits of the Popes from Peter to John XIV. (obit. 985) run round the walls of the nave above the arches, and below the portraits curious frescoes illustrating the lives of S S. Peter and Paul.

The steam-tram likewise runs in the opposite direction, right into the heart of the smiling Pisan contrade to Calci, where there is a much admired Charterhouse. Hence you may go to Nicosia hard by, and see the Convent of the Friars Minor, which shelters in lowly obscurity so famous a man as Fra Agostino da Montefeltro, the modern Chrysostom. And from Calci you may ascend the conical Verruca, on the summit of which are the remains of the most formidable fort of the fighting Republic of Pisa. The fort is well known to students of the Tuscan tongue as having contained what is reputed to be the oldest existing inscription in the vernacular (A.D. 1103). The authenticity of the inscription (which is brief enough—”A — DI — DODICI — GUGNO — MCIII.”) has been disputed by the learned, and is now under consideration of perhaps the most competent authority in all Italy to decide such a subject. He has not yet pronounced judgment.

The handsome Royal Park of San Rossore is but three miles’ drive from the centre of Pisa. It is well worth going there if only to see a flourishing herd of camels that have become indigenous to Tuscan soil. The first camels were introduced into Tuscany by the Grand Duke Ferdinand II. in 1622. Others taken by General Arighetti from the Turks in a battle near Vienna were likewise sent home in 1663. Camels were fit-fully introduced between 1700 and 1738, but apparently only as curiosities. Francis II. of Lorraine (reigned 1737-1745), the founder of the new dynasty, first took the matter up seriously. He established the camels at San Rossore, and having procured twenty more, thirteen males and seven females, he attempted breeding with complete success. By 1785 the herd numbered one hundred and thirty-four, and had increased in 1789 to one hundred and ninety-six. Other Italian sovereigns, envious of the Grand Duke’s success, tried camel-breeding at home, but failure was the result, nor could the camel be acclimatised in any other part of Tuscany except San Rossore. Even here a succession of cold winters affects them unfavourably.

The severe winters of 1811 and 1812 reduced them by one half; in 1814 there were but one hundred and eighteen. In 1878 there were one hundred and twenty, and in 1900 the number is about one hundred and fifty.

The males are used in the carrying of wood which has been hewn upon the estate. Each camel can carry about 1000 lbs. at a time. As a rule, only one male is used each year for breeding purposes. The camels of Pisa breed from the middle of February to the end of April. The young are weak and weedy for the first two days, and have to be held up by the attendants when they want to suck. The late Professor Luigi Lombardini, who had studied their habits closely, considers this may be a sign of degeneration, but the animals that come to maturity are all fine specimens, and can do the work of an African camel. The camels of San Rossore, like all others, strip all the leaves they can off the trees up to a height of eight feet or so. When leaves fail they will eat prickly bushes, but grass only as a last resort. There are two large sheds for the camels, one for the males and one for the females. But the females live in the open, except during the last four months of pregnancy and when suckling. The camel detests rain. If in the open, they will huddle together under the trees; if in their sheds, they will stay within, even if their supply of fodder is exhausted.

The young are weaned after twelve to fifteen months. If it is required to wean them sooner, the mother is clipped so as to become unrecognisable, and after a futile search and an unpleasant reception from six or seven other mothers, the youngster resigns himself to more solid food. Altogether an interesting study and an interesting sight, these camels, which have been successfully reared so far from home.