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Piazza dei Miracoli di Pisa



Versione Italiana What to do with a great past? by Marco Tangheroni Versione Inglese

Pisa questions it self on its future, rediscovering its origins and re-reading its history.

In the past ten years it would seem that clever and fortunate archaeologists have finally revealed the mystery of the origins of Pisa that so fascinated ancient geographers, modern scholars and historians of the 20th century - the city’s origins were not Ligurian or Greek, but Etruscan, and were connected with the sea from the beginning. The great medieval expansion consequently ceases to be considered a historical interlude, however long-lasting and glorious, and appears to have been the peak of a destiny written in the genes of Pisa and its inhabitants. The marshes surrounding the city could have been a deadly factor with their lagoons and swamps populated by anopheles mosquitoes - instead, they were turned into a form of defence ensuring the safety of men and ships, while the rivers were exploited to boost Pisa’s function of crossroads between Tuscany and the Tyrrhenian Sea and then the entire Mediterranean, in an increasingly broad perspective.
The memory of this role still lives on. Even at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when the civil and military institutions of the Roman Empire collapsed and Mediterranean trade was diminishing, a letter written by Pope Gregory the Great in 603 AD informs us that the inhabitants of Pisa (no longer governed by the Byzantines and not yet ruled by the Longobards) were ready to launch their slender warships in raids against new coasts - and not even the Pope’s envoy managed to dissuade them.
From the scarce historical data available, it would seem probable that in later centuries Pisa retained the know-how to build ships and sail the seas, (even though navigation was actually limited to coastal voyages along the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea) which was the origin of its prodigious expansion starting from the second half of the 10th century.
Sometimes alone, sometimes supported by Genoa (its future rival), Pisa sailed its ships and its victorious troops to Sardinia, to Palermo (still Moslem), against the principal towns of the North African coast, to the first Crusade (though the great fleet of 120 ships led by Archbishop Daiberto arrived a few days too late to take part in the capture of Jerusalem), and finally the great Balearic venture (1115) that led to the conquest of Majorca. In all this, Pisa played a crucial role in guaranteeing marine control of the coasts and link points. After 1115, the war-mongering impulse seems to have calmed down and the people of Pisa, although never quite forgetting a certain leaning towards privateering, preferred to put to good use the favourable trading conditions in all the most important ports of the Mediterranean obtained from Moslem and Christian rulers.
It is no accident that the greatest mathematician in the West in medieval times was Leonardo Pisano (or Fibonacci). His father took him as a child to the city of Bugia (today Bedijaha in Algeria) to be educated by Arab wise men. There, young Leonardo developed a passion for the new mathematics of “Indian numbers” which introduced the concept of nought or zero for the first time. Later he perfected his knowledge during business and political trips to Egypt, the Holy Land, Constantinople, Sicily and Provence. One might say that Leonardo could only have come from Pisa, while somebody like Galileo could have been born elsewhere without his life being very different. In those days, Pisa’s citizens were not lacking in pride. A Venetian chronicler wrote in 1100 that “they behaved as if they were the masters of the world”. Aiming to surpass the example of the Romans, they likened their own wars against the Saracens to the Roman wars against the Carthaginians and exalted their own imposing new cathedral as “a temple of white marble even more magnificent than those in ancient times”. In the mid-twelfth century, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, writing for the Norman King Roger, described Pisa as follows: “It is a metropolis of the Rûm; its name is famous and it covers an extended area; it has flourishing markets and well-kept houses, spacious walks and vast areas of countryside full of vegetable plots and gardens and cultivated land. Its state is powerful, the memories of its deeds terrible, its fortresses are impressive, its land fertile, its waters copious, its monuments magnificent. The people have ships and horses and are ready to undertake marine forays against other countries. The city is situated on a river that flows down from a mountain in the Langobardia region. The river is large and has mills and gardens along its banks.”
Around the great domed church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, patron saint of Pisa in the Middle Ages, there is an architectural complex consisting of the Baptistery, the Tower (which has defied the laws of gravity for centuries) and the Cemetery, which has been likened to the Acropolis in Athens for its ability to express the essence of a civilisation at the highest level. Rudolf Borchardt, a brilliant German man of letters, wrote that “The four monuments are the four incarnations of the spirit of Pisa - they turn their mighty, enigmatic faces to each other and their backs to Tuscany.”
And in fact the Pisa citizens ended up in splendid isolation. They remained tenaciously faithful to the Imperial and Ghibelline side to which they had always been closely linked, since the time of Frederick Redbeard. In vain they put their hopes first in Frederick II, then in Manfred, Corradino and Henry VII. They found themselves alone against Genoa on the seas, alone against the Guelph towns of Tuscany, alone against the mighty Crown of Aragon in Sardinia. And yet, a few days before the Meloria defeat in 1284 which marked the final supremacy of Genoa in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Pisa fleet humiliated the Ligurian city with a hail of silver-tipped arrows. Over nine thousand Pisan prisoners languished in Genoese gaols for years and years. One of these was a brilliant man of letters, Rustichello da Pisa, to whom another illustrious prisoner, the Venetian Marco Polo, dictated in French the book later known as Il Milione.
After the Florentine conquest in 1406, most of the ruling class of Pisa emigrated, mainly to Sicily, a kingdom where families like the Alliata, the Raù, the Da Settimo and the Galletti were granted princely honours and political posts. Under the Grand Dukes, Pisa was transformed from a subject city in a permanent state of rebellion to the cultural centre of the new state, and at this point the ruling class that re-emerged was connected either with land or with the university. Even so, new glories (to be shared with Leghorn, now in full expansion) were in store for the old seafaring city: the headquarters and arsenals of the Order of the Cavaliers of Saint Stephen, whose galleys were destined to fight the Turks at sea, were located in Pisa - as testified by the square designed by the brilliant architect Giorgio Vasari for the new Order, Piazza dei Cavalieri, among the most beautiful and harmonious in Italy (if only the unsuitable asphalt could be replaced).
This can be taken as an example of the difficulties that Pisa encounters in enhancing its heritage of monuments, buildings and landscapes: an incredible series of Romanesque churches and monasteries, the tower houses that have survived changes and bombings, the gentle curves of the Arno embankments, the fifteenth-century market square, the colours of sunsets over the sea.
Is it the fault of mass tourism that doesn’t go beyond the Square and the Tower? Or perhaps also of Pisa’s citizens who seem afflicted by a strange malaise that has been called pisaggine (the Pisa syndrome): like people who have seen too much and have lost faith in their ability to find new ways to be worthy of their great past. Isn’t everything that has to be done “a major task”? Doesn’t it always happen at “the wrong time”?

Marco Tangheroni, lecturer in Medieval History at Pisa University

Ulisse Alitalia Pisa Online


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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?
by Marco Tangheroni
Cursed Meloria
by Renzo Castelli
One miracle leads to another
by Lucia Capitani
Balancing inclines
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The art of memory
by Clara Baracchini
Heirs and rivals of the Eternal City
by Clara Baracchini
Sculpted pulpits
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Did he really “raise his mouth from his savage meal”?
by Gaetano Savatteri
“Normal”, in a manner of speaking
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