miracle leads to another
brilliant open-air museum we see today is in fact the result of
a complex historical and artistic stratification.
“The Ardea wheeled in the sky of Christ, over the Field of Miracles.
flew over the nave and double aisles of the Duomo, the implicit
garland of the Bell Tower tilted under the thrill of its bronzes,
the tiara of the Baptistery, so light that it seemed about to
fly away swollen with echoes”.
Thus D’Annunzio in his
novel Maybe yes, maybe no describes the vision that presents itself
to two lovers flying over Pisa on board the aeroplane “Ardea”:
the Cathedral, the Bell Tower, the Baptistery, flanked by the
Cemetery, glowing like transparent alabaster in the sunset of
a “mystic light” inspire the poet to invent the evocative name
of “Field of Miracles”, which later became Piazza dei Miracoli.
The harmony of the piazza
is so perfect that one tends to believe that the white buildings
were all created together, resting on the green turf, and to share
Melville’s feeling, formulated at the end of the 19th century:
“The four monuments blend into a single one - grass. Born of the
ground, it comes over them like a garland of flowers crowning
the architecture.” Even the rationalist architect Le Corbusier
cannot escape the spell of this eternal unity: “The picture will
be beautiful tomorrow, all marble buildings marvellously yellow
with age, impeccably preserved and standing on a green field.
the leaning tower has not worried me at all this evening (…) On
the contrary, I find all this a display of genius and an eloquent
the square as we see it now is the result of a series of historical
stratifications and only took on its present aspect during the
modern era. When
the new cathedral was founded in 1064, seventeen centuries of
history had already left their mark here, brought to light by
excavations that began in 1949 to recover the scattered pieces
of a great mosaic, from the age of the Etruscans to that of the
Romans, when Pisa, then a seaside town, was already a busy port,
as testified by the exceptional archaeological discovery of Roman
ships not far from the piazza.
site chosen by the canons of the Duomo was the same as the one
where an early Christian cathedral and its baptistery once stood:
at the time it was an area outside the town on the banks of the
Auser, an ancient tributary of the Arno that no longer exists
now but provided a natural defence at the time and above all a
means of transporting the marble from Mount Pisano with which
the piazza’s main monuments were built.
new Cathedral became the symbol of Pisa’s might in a period in
which the town’s victory over the Saracens brought Pisa to the
height of its maritime and trading glory, making it the most important
centre of the western Mediterranean.
building itself bears traces of Pisa’s past: an inscription on
the facade celebrates the town’s military triumphs - of which
a bronze Arab griffin dominating the apsidal area provides eloquent
proof - while the founding epigraph refers to the fabulously rich
rewards of the sack of Palermo that made it possible to begin
work on the cathedral. Another two inscriptions mention the architects:
Buscheto, whose sarcophagus is set into the wall of the facade,
was the new Daedalus who designed the original plan between 1064
and 1110, while Rainaldo was the “shrewd Workman and Master Builder”
who extended the nave and aisles and the facade around the middle
of the 12th century. Other
marble from the Cathedral, ancient capitals and fragments from
Roman times embedded in the walls, provide tangible evidence of
Pisa’s status as “the new Rome”, while the lavish ornamentation
of the apse, brightened by coloured intarsia decorations and embellished
by Bonanno’s famous door, shows that this part of the building,
the first to be built, was the perspective reserved to those entering
from Via Santa Maria, that is from the town.
the walls defending the Cathedral were built in the mid-twelfth
century, the entrances to the piazza were not chosen by chance
- on the contrary, they were so carefully thought out that by
detecting them and locating the routes they proposed we can fully
grasp the meaning and history of this complex of monuments with
which the town has always identified.
first door, guarded by the proud gaze of the marble lion that
gave it its name, presented an immediate view of Rainaldo’s lavish
facade, a declaration of Pisa’s nobility, and of the Baptistery
founded in 1152 in line with the church, to which it was linked
by proportional ratios and the decorative system with the typical
loggias and dichromatic bands.
background was to have been dominated by the Tower, begun in 1173
in harmony with the style of the other buildings, though the seventh
storey was only finished in 1298 because of the inclination that
conditioned and slowed down its completion.
the new area, already defined by these three prestigious monuments
and the walls, still lacked something to become a proper piazza.
Towards the end of the 13th century two parallel buildings are
built along the north and south sides: the Hospital and the Camposanto,
a graveyard church invested with the crucial role of holy resting-place
for the tombs - Roman sarcophagi used as sepulchres of illustrious
Pisans - scattered around the Cathedral since ancient times and
now considered an element of disturbance.
Camposanto was adorned with fourteenth-century frescoes by the
greatest artists of the time. After a pause due to the war against
Florence, biblical stories were added between 1467 and 1484, painted
by Benozzo Gozzoli and commissioned by the new lords of Pisa,
the Medici, who took over after a fierce fight. Since the main
entrance facing the proud declaration of the Duomo’s facade did
not go with Pisa’s new status as a conquered town, another entrance
was opened. Porta Nuova, surmounted by the Medici coat of arms,
offers another view of the piazza centred on the newly-built Archbishop’s
Behind the Tower, surrounded by a marble balustrade that concealed
its sunken base, the church of San Ranierino, the House of Curates
and the House of Canons were all lined up like a stage set, in
perfect Florentine style, but the area was also crowded with buildings
destined to humbler uses: the Customs house, where the excisemen
controlled trade and taxes, the House of the Vegetable Gardener
and even, from 1746, the Gravedigger’s House in the area between
the Camposanto and the walls.
in the 19th century Pisa, in obeyance to the concept of a Middle
Ages idealised as “rebirth of the arts” and symbol of a civil
and political identity, restored the piazza’s original layout:
a special “Commission of embellishments” proceeded to the restoration,
integration and reconstruction in the same style of the four celebrated
all, it demolished the buildings added over the centuries, isolating
the monuments and erasing every trace of functional and daily
rediscovered courtly perception of the piazza, enhanced by the
newly-created smooth turf, required a new entrance: after Via
Santa Maria, Porta del Leone and Porta Nuova a street was opened
- Via Torelli, now Via Cardinal Maffi - leading to the Tower from
behind and offering a view of its maximum inclination.
nineteenth-century interventions created the image of the piazza
as we know it today and began the “museum” process that became
definitive in the 20th century.
1845 Charles Dickens already described the complex as “the architectural
essence of a rich old city, with all its common life and common
habitations pressed out, and filtered away”. In this open-air
museum, which in turn contains the Sinopia Museum - since 1979
in the old premises of the Spedale - and the Museo dell’Opera
del Duomo - since 1986 in the palazzo that used to be the seminary
- the four monuments are almost exclusively perceived as artistic
the piazza, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, still has
an institutional and celebratory role: here where in 1312 the
free city-republic of Pisa declared its loyalty to Henry VII and
the emperor’s body was carried in a funeral procession to the
tomb in the Cathedral, the Church still holds its solemn rites
are received here when they visit the town and Pisa’s traditional
festivities are held in this setting.
has changed is daily life in the piazza: the people selling wheat
or candles on the steps of the Cathedral since the 15th century,
the solitary traveller on an aristocratic Grand Tour contemplating
the “miracle” of the monuments have been replaced by an uninterrupted
flow of tourists, mostly attracted by the famously eccentric Leaning
Lucia Capitani, art historian