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Sommario Ulisse Pisa Articles
Beyond the Tower
by Aldo Canale
Great tourist attractions
by Gino Nunes
What to do with a great past?
by Marco Tangheroni
Cursed Meloria
by Renzo Castelli
One miracle leads to another
by Lucia Capitani
Balancing inclines
by Lucia Capitani
The art of memory
by Clara Baracchini
Heirs and rivals of the Eternal City
by Clara Baracchini
Sculpted pulpits
by Lea Mattarella
Did he really “raise his mouth from his savage meal”?
by Gaetano Savatteri
“Normal”, in a manner of speaking
by Guglielmo Vezzosi
In the park of kings, a life fit for a king
by Fabrizio Carbone
The horse village
Volterra, splendour and mystery
by Eleonora Tiliacos
Campagna Amica indice
A cuisine that follows the rules of the sea
by Davide Paolini
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Chickpea
The sacred legume shaped like a ram’s head
by Giorgio e Caterina Calabrese
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Wine
New wines growing fast
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Norcinerie alla pisana
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Tartufo
Un “bianco” da primato
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Olio
Verde nettare di frantoio
PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Formaggio
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Versione Italiana

One miracle leads to another
by Lucia Capitani

Versione Inglese

The 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.
It 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. And 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 block”. Yet 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. The 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. The 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. The 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. Once 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. The 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. The 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. Yet 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.
The 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 Palace.
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.
However, 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 monuments. Above all, it demolished the buildings added over the centuries, isolating the monuments and erasing every trace of functional and daily use. The 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. These 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. In 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 masterpieces. However, 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 today. Popes are received here when they visit the town and Pisa’s traditional festivities are held in this setting. What 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 Tower.

Lucia Capitani, art historian



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