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Cursed Meloria 
by Renzo Castelli

Versione Inglese

Seven centuries later, the defeat inflicted by Genoa still rankles. Maybe it’s time to come to terms with it… The true spirit of a city, in this case Pisa, is not represented by the local sports team, nor by the slightly fake traditions imposed by tourism. 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 inhabitants. In 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. If 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. But what?” The 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 to cook.” In 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 land. No, 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.” And 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

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Versione Italiana Versione Inglese

Sommario Ulisse Pisa Articles
Beyond the Tower
by Aldo Canale
Great tourist attractions
by Gino Nunes
What to do with a great past?
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Cursed Meloria
by Renzo Castelli
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The art of memory
by Clara Baracchini
Heirs and rivals of the Eternal City
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