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Piazza dei Miracoli di Pisa

 

 

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Versione Italiana

The art of memory
by Clara Baracchini

Versione Inglese

A great heritage finally restored.
A place of fundamental importance for Italian art, a must for eighteenth and nineteenth-century travellers, a formative experience for poets and painters who considered it an emblematic image of medieval civilisation, the fame of Pisa’s monumental Camposanto dimmed in the course of the last century, replaced by a growing curiosity for the Tower’s increasingly perilous lean but also hit by a real depletion that is only being remedied now, after many years of restoration work.
The 20th century was not a good period for this singular building, half church-shrine and half cloister, dating from 1277. The nave was designed to hold the “holy soil” brought back from Palestine at the time of the second Crusade. The Roman sarcophagi used as tombs for illustrious citizens of Pisan, and until then scattered around the Cathedral, were transferred inside this precious, holy space (santo campo) - extensive and dignified, secluded and enclosed, to quote the archbishop of the period - while other, more humble burial places were situated beneath the floor of the aisles (or cloister corridors, as one prefers). Building work and most of the decoration was carried out in the 14th century, Pisa’s last period of glory before it was conquered by Florence.
Cycles of frescoes on the walls illustrate Life and Death, both Earthly and Eternal, painted sermons by the greatest artists of the time (including Buffalmacco, whose friend Boccaccio included him in many hilarious stories), scenes intended for mind and body alike, in harmony and in connection with the sermons preached by Domenico Cavalca. Subsequently, the best painters of the time added the Lives of Pisa’s Saints and Scenes from the Old Testament, completed in the following century by Benozzo Gozzoli.
In the 16th century the building was the chosen burial place for the most illustrious teachers from the University of Pisa (and of members of the Medici family). It became the Pantheon of Pisa’s memory - of persons and great families and also of the city’s glorious classical and medieval past. Thus the Camposanto’s vocation as a museum began. Its walls were covered with Roman epigraphs; the sarcophagi, no longer considered simply as tombs but as valuable historical and artistic documents, were moved from the “campo” to the corridors and, in the early 19th century, the building was chosen to house one of the first European public museums, set up by its director Carlo Lasinio.
The ancient, medieval and modern sculptures placed in the corridors (now termed “galleries”) continued to coexist throughout the 19th century with the tombs, now reserved for “great spirits”, to create a special place dedicated to patriotic celebration and also a meditation on death as not just a private but also a social and political loss - the vanishing of ancient triumphs and civilisations.
Because of this unique blend of styles and eras and the melancholy charm derived from its role as cemetery, the Camposanto’s fame grew. Coleridge saw “the majestic birth of painting” in its frescoes, while for Leo Klenz, architect of Ludwig of Bavaria, the Camposanto was the symbol of Italian civilisation, just as the Parthenon embodies that of ancient Greece.
A European myth that was shattered in the early twentieth century - first, by a veritable tumult in museum terms (the opening of a Municipal Museum involved the curtailment of the collection arranged by Lasinio, while the sublime gallery of nineteenth-century statues was taken away to restore the monument’s medieval purity); then by the events of the war in 1944 when the roof caught fire, by the removal of the frescoes and their laborious and experimental restoration and finally, in the 1980s, the overall deterioration resulting in new restoration work. Today the Camposanto is reborn.
Now we can admire its celebrated frescoes in a special museum dedicated to them, the archaeological collections put together by Lasinio in the Cathedral Museum and the medieval sculptures in the National Museum of San Matteo, while behind the bare marble wall of the entrance, visitors will find the newly-restored 19th century sculptures, reassembled sarcophagi and monuments and the early frescoes again on the walls - the new face of the Camposanto representing the monument’s luminous destiny and its profound meaning in the history of European art and culture.

Clara Baracchini

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Versione Italiana Versione Inglese

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