by Renzo Castelli
Seven centuries later, the defeat
inflicted by Genoa still rankles. Maybe it’s time to come to terms
true spirit of a city, in this case Pisa, is not represented by
the local sports team, nor by the slightly fake traditions imposed
Rarely has history, and therefore the remote past,
left such a strong imprint and exercised such influence as in
Pisa. The city’s memory goes back too far - its Etruscan origins,
the glory of its navy - for it to forget. Which explains why,
even today, Meloria is not just the name of a battle that ended
in defeat, one of the many fought by man on land and sea - it
stands for the death of a city-state and the humiliation of its
the battle of Meloria (1284) Pisa lost its pride, its dreams,
its grandeur - it will never forget its lost power. The city-state
bowed its head, maybe forever, and will always remember. Pisa,
the “empire of sails”, as Rudolf Borchart called it, will remain
forever a defeated, humiliated, disillusioned town.
Pisa, the story of wounded
pride. The deep scar that casts its shadow to the present day
was not only caused by the battle of Meloria. Besides the 12,000
dead who effaced the soul of the great city-state, 6,000 prisoners
were brought to the Genoese jail of Modulo, causing a seemingly
irreparable population crisis.
Though in point of fact, as the
historian Emilio Tolaini points out: “The situation brought about
a strong increase in immigration from the surrounding countryside
that made it possible to rebuild, to a certain extent, the trade
system,” the return to semi-normality was not real glory, and
in fact only a century passed before the Florentines bought Pisa
and its port.
it is true that each city has its own, distinctive spirit, formed
by the spirits of its inhabitants through the ages, it is common
opinion that Pisa still retains a surliness caused by its ruinous
defeat. Surly and arrogant: Borchart’s judgement in the last century
still holds good today. In the context of sparkling, inventive,
blasphemous Tuscany, Pisa is different from any other town. Today
the “Pisan spirit” still stands for distrust, because distrust
is born of wounded pride. It is no accident that Cuzio Malaparte,
in describing his “Cursed Tuscans”, skirts the issue of Pisa.
He confesses: “I don’t understand the people of Pisa. They are
evasive, insincere, almost as if seeking forgiveness for something.
answer was the same then as today - they want to be forgiven for
having lost. Yet Malaparte adored Pisa, its nocturnal silence
and the clamour of students, the extraordinary beauty of its marble
buildings and the Arno flowing to the sea. Even though he preferred
the Arno’s storms and winter ice because the cloudy water meant
the “cèe” would be coming into the Arno, and Malaparte would have
sold his soul for a dish of “cèe” at the inn run by Nilo Montanari,
in Piazza Garibaldi.
(Don’t you know what “cèe” are? Well, I can’t
tell you: come to Pisa and find out for yourselves). To his innkeeper
friend, Malaparte said: “You’re a strange race, but you know how
his time Dante saw to it
that the people of Pisa’s terrible offence was denounced - and
very effectively too. After the battle of Meloria, count Ugolino
della Gherardesca who, accused of incompetence or betrayal, was
held responsible for Pisa’s defeat, was imprisoned and left to
die of hunger with his sons and grandchildren in the historic
tower in Piazza delle Sette Vie (now called Cavalieri di Santo
Stefano). Dante’s tirade is violent, but if the great poet had
known what was to come it would have been even more so. Count
Ugolino’s bones were buried opposite the river, on the Lungarno
di Tramontana, on a piece of land that was eternally cursed. Strolling
along the banks of the Arno, visitors to present-day Pisa will
discover that the long procession of palaces just before the church
of San Sepolcro is broken by a garden, the only one overlooking
the river. It is not a garden or a cemetery, but cursed land.
The people of Pisa have not forgotten. Even now that the count’s
bones rest in peace - or so one hopes - in the convent of San
Francesco, no-one will ever be allowed to build on that plot of
Pisa cannot be considered a “normal” city, as Malaparte realised.
Silvano Burgalassi, sociologist and a great expert of the Pisan
spirit, says: “Pisa lives in the past and is unable to express
the values of art, spirituality and intelligence that it represents.
The past acts as a check, like a curse from which we do not know
how to free ourselves. Today we would no longer be able to build
Piazza del Duomo or the embankments along the Arno because we
lack the inspiration of Pisa’s inhabitants before the battle of
Meloria, when they ruled the seas and considered their mission
as something divine, to be celebrated as fit. Since then, the
Pisan spirit suffers from wounded pride and cannot express a profound
philosophy in harmony with its times.”
yet, the Pisa of today has much to be proud of.
It has all the requisites for happiness: a mild climate, the sea
ten kilometres away, the hills seven, mountains for skiing less
than an hour’s journey away. It
is centrally located and claims
an international airport, a port (the “port of Pisa”, as Leghorn
was sometimes called) twenty kilometres away, three prestigious
universities and one of the main national centres of the National
Research Council (CNR), as well as museums and monuments that
the entire world envies. Yet Pisa is not a happy city. How much
more time must pass before Pisa recovers its serenity and forgets
its defeat and lost empire, before the Pisan spirit becomes a
positive sentiment? Nobody knows.
Folklore will certainly play
no part in healing wounded pride. Present-day Pisans dislike the
fake folklore that imitates once a year the splendour of a seafaring
republic that no longer exists. Or rather, they consider the boat
race as slightly blasphemous, a competition between muscular athletes
who do not have the right to evoke the magnificence of the past.
Yet visitors often fail to grasp Pisa’s disease of the spirit,
its surly mood and malaise of the present. Though Malaparte distrusted
Pisa and its inhabitants, other travellers find a great sense
of peace in the city’s silence, in its pathos. Elizabeth Barrett
wrote: “Pisa is one of those small, delicious towns of silence.
Sleepy streets where the grass grows between one stone and the
other, where little groups of boys romp in the solitude.”
From other people’s point of view Pisa can actually seem like
this, tender and silent instead of haughty and morose.
Pisa can be an ideal place for tormented souls - if its wounded pride is
not visible, the fragrant aura of peace that envelops its streets
and piazzas remains intact, so much so that Shelley was inspired
to compose the elegy “On the Death of John Keats” here, and Leopardi
wrote his poem “A Silvia” (To Silvia) in Pisa on an April night,
fragrant with the scent of wisteria.
Renzo Castelli, journalist and writer