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PISA ARTE
Versione Italiana

Beyond the Tower
by Aldo Canale

Versione Inglese



The discovery of an urban port is more than an extraordinary archaeological find - it is a liberating experience that reconciles Pisa with the sea and its history.

The discovery of Pisa’s ancient urban port, dating back to Etruscan and Roman times, is one of those archaeological events destined to deeply influence our historical knowledge of the Mediterranean civilisations. It has been talked of (and will continue to be so, in greater detail, in the years to come) as the “excavation of marvels” and, rather exaggeratedly, as “the Pompeii of the sea”. Without a doubt, we are faced with one of the sudden revelations that only archaeology still has the power to come up with - one of those forays into the distant past that, by obliging us to rewrite important parts of our history, end up by affecting our future as well.
The discovery of the ancient port, which was used for an entire millennium (from the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD), is destined to revive and in part modify the tourist image of Pisa, universally known for its Leaning Tower and yet almost oppressed by a tourist stereotype that has distorted its identity over the ages. A major role is played by the city’s subconscious that still has not overcome, incredible as it may seem, the resentment and melancholy caused by certain historical events and the brusque interruption that took place not in the recent past but in 1284, when Genoa’s fleet routed Pisa and put an end to a dream of glory that was very similar to an imperial plan. One is tempted to say - part exaggeration and part truth - that the people of Pisa have still not come to terms with their past today.
To some extent, the blame also lies with a refined intellectual by the name of Rudolf Borchardt, very well-known in the early 20th century, who wrote an intensely nostalgic book titled Pisa, solitudine di un impero (Pisa, solitude of an empire), published by Nistri-Lischi, a charming book imbued with a fervid historical imagination. Recommended reading for those armed with a strong critical spirit, it can be summed up as “an ideal concept of Pisa as the heart of a world empire modelled on the empires of antiquity”.
Borchardt contradicts the idea of Ghibelline twelve and thirteenth-century Pisa as the armed wing and maritime point of reference of the Swabian emperors in Italy and the Mediterranean. On the contrary, he maintains that Pisa was the driving force behind an imperial plan that undoubtedly needed the power of the Germans but could only be realised by consecrating Pisa as its capital and spiritual centre. The explanation lies in his interpretation of Pisa as an immensely original town whose history, “so foreign to the Italian character” - and this is the cornerstone of Borchardt’s theory - “does not belong to Italian history”, but to that of “an ideal expanse of sea”, in practice represented by the entire Mediterranean. As we know, the plan (real or virtual) never came to fruition, and in any case it is a fact that the date traditionally marking the start of Pisa’s decadence (the Meloria defeat in 1284) came shortly after the death in 1250 of the Swabian emperor, indisputable but impenetrable protagonist of the imperial plan.
However forced, Borchardt’s vision proved so persuasive and gratifying for the Pisan ego that it has become part of the town’s history. For people who submitted for centuries to Florentine rule, who fought bitterly with Lucca and accepted the birth and development of the port of Leghorn with very bad grace, the chance to turn their backs upon the Tuscan hinterland and feel themselves successfully separated from the quarrelsome context of the Italian medieval city-republics was a formidable and highly consoling solution to the depression that developed during Pisa’s long period of decline.
In point of fact this consolation was not, and could never be, decisive. In some respects it increased the feeling of regret and frustration for the unsuccessful outcome of such an ambitious historical plan. For a long time, Pisa allowed itself to be described as marked by “solitude”, “solitary and silent”, “almost deserted”, “the shadow of its former self”. All this in spite of its exceptional monuments and a climate so healthy that it even won over Giacomo Leopardi. However, he felt the need to apologise for this and wrote to a friend: “You fear I may fall too much in love with Pisa, but console yourself for I do not run this risk. I do not see any Pisans and do not go anywhere if not for a walk.”
Pisa’s “solitude” was in fact a form of detachment and estrangement. The expression recurs so frequently in the diaries of fans of the Grand Tour as to make one suspect that the Pisans had done everything they could to detach themselves from the incredibly valuable artistic and architectural heritage of the monuments bestowed on the town by the ancient maritime power.
It is no accident that Piazza dei Miracoli, whose gems (the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Tower and the Camposanto) are laid out on an extraordinary green field, lives in splendid marginal isolation, strangely isolated from the town’s modern centre. It is not clear whether this is to facilitate its preservation for the pleasure of tourists or to keep it at the right distance from a daily life that does not want to take it into consideration.
In any case, it all increases Pisa’s charm, and a visit that aims to dig below the surface, to penetrate the mystery of a town that has aroused great hatred and great love, becomes even more unforgettable and intriguing.
In terms of identity of a people and their culture, the impression is that the discovery of the port is destined to have a liberating effect on the tormented Pisan psyche. It could help, seven centuries later, to heal the wound caused by the battle of Meloria and finally free the town’s tourist image from the unbearable dictatorship of its Leaning Tower.
Stefano Bruni, author of an essay in the first volume of Pisa nei secoli (Pisa over the centuries), points out that the discovery “has brought to light something of the early history of Pisa, so that it has lost the character of an old but not ancient city conferred on it by the apparent lack of archaeological remains.” As if Pisa had suddenly discovered, thanks to its “Pompeii”, the deep roots of a history that so far have, unbelievably, remained hidden. These roots prove its noble origins in the heart of ancient civilisation and, yet again, lead back to the sea, the very sea from which it has inexplicably strayed.
Today it is a marvellous experience to look at Pisa with new eyes, trying to distinguish truth from probability, history and literature (ancient and modern), and separating the ancestral collective truth harboured by the subconscious from the calm rationality of everyday life. When you go to Pisa, you can continue to marvel at the Leaning Tower.
But if you really want to get to know this extraordinary town and gain the attention of its inhabitants, try to look beyond the Tower to the sea on the horizon.

Aldo Canale, journalist and publisher

PISA
PISA ULISSE ALITALIA
Ulisse Alitalia Pisa Online

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Versione Italiana Versione Inglese

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