art of memory
by Clara Baracchini
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.