Pisa’s Four Glories – Italy Travel

There are two Pisas—one in which people have lapsed into ennui, and live from hand to mouth since the decadence, which is in fact the entire city, except a remote corner; the other is this corner, a marble sepulcher where the Duomo, Baptistery, Leaning Tower and Campo-Santo silently repose like beautiful dead beings. This is the genuine Pisa, and in these relics of a departed life, one beholds a world.

In 1083 in order to honor the Virgin, who had given them a victory over the Saracens of Sardignia, they [the Pisans] laid the foundations of their Duomo. This edifice is almost a Roman basilica, that is to say a temple surmounted by another temple, or, if you prefer it, a house having a gable for its facade which gable is cut off at the peak to support another house of smaller dimensions. Five stories of columns entirely cover the facade with their superposed porticos. Two by two they stand coupled together to support small arcades; all these pretty shapes of white marble under their dark arcades form an aerial population of the utmost grace and novelty. Nowhere here are we conscious of the dolorous reverie of the medieval north; it is the fete of a young nation which is awakening, and, in the gladness of its recent prosperity, honoring its gods. It has collected capitals, ornaments, entire columns obtained on the distant shores to which its wars and its commerce have led it, and these ancient fragments enter into its work without incongruity; for it is instinctively cast in the ancient mold, and only developed with a tinge of fancy on the side of finesse and the pleasing. Every antique form reappears, but reshaped in the same sense by a fresh and original impulse.

The outer columns of the Greek temple are reduced, multiplied and uplifted in the air, and from a support have become an ornament. The Roman or Byzantine dome is elongated and its natural heaviness diminished under a crown of slender columns with a miter ornament, which girds it midway with its delicate promenade. On the two sides of the great door two Corinthian columns are enveloped with luxurious foliage, calyxes and twining or blooming acanthus; and from the thresh-old we see the church with its files of intersecting columns, its alternate courses of black and white marble and its multitude of slender and brilliant forms, rising upward like an altar of candelabra. A new spirit appears here, a more delicate sensibility; it is not excessive and disordered as in the north, and yet it is not satisfied with the grave simplicity, the robust nudity of antique architecture. It is the daughter of the pagan mother, healthy and gay, but more womanly than its mother.

She is not yet an adult, sure in all her steps —she is somewhat awkward. The lateral facades on the exterior are monotonous; the cupola within is a reversed funnel of a peculiar and disagreeable form. The junction of the two arms of the cross is unsatisfactory and so many modernized chapels dispel the charm due to purity, as at Sienna. At the second glance however all this is forgotten, and we again regard it as a complete whole. Four rows of Corinthian columns, surmounted with arcades, divide the church into five naves, and form a forest. A second passage, as richly crowded, traverses the former crosswise, and, above the beautiful grove, files of still smaller columns prolong and intersect each other in order to uphold in the air the prolongation and inter-section of the quadruple gallery. The ceiling is flat; the windows are small, and for the most part, without sashes; they allow the walls to retain the grandeur of their mass and the solidity of their position; and among these long, straight and simple lines, in this natural light, the innumerable shafts glow with the serenity of an antique temple.

Nothing more can be added in relation to the Baptistery or the Leaning Tower; the same ideas prevail in these, the same taste, the same style. The former is a simple, isolated dome, the latter a cylinder, and each has an outward dress of small columns. And yet each has its own distinct and expressive physiognomy; but description and writing consume too much time, and too many technical terms are requisite to define their differences. I note, simply, the inclination of the Tower. Some suppose that, when half constructed, the tower sank in the earth on one side, and that the architects continued on; seeing that they did continue this, deflection was only a partial obstacle to them. In any event, there are other leaning towers in Italy, at Bologna, for example; voluntarily or involuntarily this feeling for oddness, this love of paradox, this yielding to fancy is one of the characteristics of the Middle Ages.

In the center of the Baptistery stands a superb font with eight panels; each panel is incrusted with a rich complicated flower in full bloom, and each flower is different. Around it a circle of large Corinthian columns supports round-arch arcades; most of them are antique and are ornamented with antique bas-reliefs; Meleager with his barking dogs, and the nude torsos of his companions in attendance on Christian mysteries. On the left stands a pulpit similar to that of Sienna, the first work of Nicholas of Pisa (1260), a simple marble coffer supported by marble columns and covered with sculptures. The sentiment of force and of antique nudity comes out here in striking features. The sculptor comprehended the postures and torsions of bodies. His figures, somewhat massive, are grand and simple; he frequently reproduces the tunics and folds of the Roman costume; one of his nude person-ages, a sort of Hercules bearing a young lion on his shoulders, has the broad breast and muscular tension which the sculptors of the sixteenth century admired.

The last of these edifices, the Campo-Santo, is a cemetery, the soil of which, brought from Palestine, is holy ground. Four high walls of polished marble surround it with their white and crowded panels. Inside, a square gallery forms a promenade opening into the court through arcades trellised with ogive windows. It is filled with funereal monuments, busts, inscriptions and statues of every form and of every age. Nothing could be simpler and nobler. A framework of dark wood supports the arch overhead, and the crest of the roof cuts sharp against the crystal sky. At the angles are four rustling cypress trees, tranquilly swayed by the breeze. Grass is growing in the court with a wild freshness and luxuriance. Here and there a climbing flower twined around a column, a small rosebush, or a shrub glows beneath a gleam of sunshine. There is no noise; this quarter is deserted; only now and then is heard the voice of some promenader which reverberates as under the vault of a church. It is the veritable cemetery of a free and Christian city; here, before the tombs of the great, people might well reflect over death and public affairs.