Pisa: Man’s Search for Leaning

And so to Italy, for a ridiculous third time this year (I might as well get it the obsession out of my system now, anyone paid in sterling won’t be able to afford it for much longer). Travelling around so many Italian cities, where the churches are often the only sights to be seen, I have ended up acquiring a real taste for the art, and felt the need to revisit the undisputed capital of the renaissance, Florence, which I had only been to years ago when I was young and unschooled; hence a tour of Tuscany. I didn’t know a lot about Pisa, beyond knowing that it shares a river with Florence and a vague recollection that it was an early maritime republic, but it houses Tuscany’s major airport; we were flying in and out of here and it seemed sensible to take a quick look around the city before dashing off. What we found was one of the great architectural set pieces of Italy, quite self-contained and sat apart from the rest of a lively young city; both are worth your while.

If the fellow Brits queuing for our flight at Gatwick were anything to go by, Tuscany is as a destination Sussex or Dorset for those with even greater artistic pretensions, myself not excluded; there were a great number of twenty-somethings all bumping into one another and discussing the weddings they were flying out to. Across France and the Ligurian sea we go, before descending over a very industrial port (probably Livorno) and landing at Pisa, surrounded by dark green mountains that look as if they might be hiding marble quarries.

I decide that we should walk to town from the airport; it seems a lunatic decision, but one good thing about Pisa is that it is one of the few cities in Europe where this is actually possible. Five minutes of determined strides away from the airport (and past a boxing/martial arts club called ‘Territory Fight Shop’) take you to Pisa Centrale station, which is where the infrequent airport bus would have left you anyway. From here it’s another 10-15 minutes to the heart of the centro storico, which I work out by intuition. Pisa follows a recognisable Italian template where a large boulevard lined with cafés and modernist buildings with chunky square pillars connects the station to the centre of town. In this case, it ends with an oval piazza named after, and featuring a statue to, the amiable buffoon Vittorio Emanuele II, which leads to a wide and winding road thronged with people on their passeggiata; this is the Corso, and it takes you up to the tranquil banks of the Arno. Pisa is built on a curve in the river, and the uniform rows of riverside buildings disappear around a corner; as the sun slowly sinks behind them, the town is looking good.

Crossing the bridge, we find ourselves in the labyrinthine alleys and side-streets of old Pisa proper, and just past the first square is a classic example of what they call Pisan Romanesque, in the church of San Michele in Borgo. The loggias of blind arcades remind me slightly of Ferrara, but combined with all this marble the style is very much a signature of Pisa, and in one evening’s wandering we lose count of the churches we pass. Mass is taking place so I don’t explore the interior, but the faded writing on the facade particularly fascinated us. Did its author just really, really enjoy writing the letter W?

As we try to find our bearings and locate our flat, we delve further into the town and soon find the almost triangular Piazza dei Cavalieri; wide, windswept, and uncluttered, it’s clearly one of the city’s ceremonial squares. There is a slightly Venetian-looking church with prominent maltese cross, that is shut but said to contain much loot from the Crusades; a vast university palazzo decorated with Vasari graffiti that as you get close, turns out to be a bit of an eyesore; a big old clock face standing over one archway; a statue of Cosimo Medici and a few other old palazzi, all genuflecting before the top dog. Many of these are embossed with the Medici coat-of-arms balls, illustrating what a big deal it was for this important city-state to fall to Florence.

A jolly Sri Lankan checks us in to an eccentric flat within a sort of boarding house, whose most eccentric touch is that the bathroom is painted from floor to ceiling with the lyrics of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’, “ripped backsides” and all. Then, finally liberated of heavy suitcases and in that our-holiday-starts-now rush of adrenalin and abandon, it’s out into the Pisan night in search of food and drink (but mostly drink).

Pisa being a prominent university town, aperitivo is quite a big thing and between visitors, locals and congregating youngsters the nightlife has a bit of a buzz to it. Despite the first bar we try calling itself a stuzzichineria, the snacks are a slightly sad affair of watery tomato on stale bread, but the second has a huge apericena buffet full of baked things, fresh veg and pasta/rice salads, so we are happy to balance our Campari spritzes on a wonky outside table as our fellow cheap-eaters intently watch Juventus swat aside Dinamo Zagreb. For a nightcap, we end up on the epicentre of the drinking scene, a large cloister-shaped courtyard called Piazza Vettovaglie that is a market by day. This area is quite grubby and unkempt, giving Pisa the feel of a classic unsalubrious port city. The young folk are by-and-large rather punky as well, and make Pisa seem as if the students of Bologna had been transported en masse to Bari. We’re older than most people nursing a glass of wine on the scruffy metal tables, until a group of lanyard-wearing conference attendees turn up and make us seem less conspicuous. One of the pierced chaps in a St. Pauli hoodie has the Larry David problem of his dogs going quite beserk whenever the African bracelet-sellers come nearby.

As it’s sitting at the top of the street where we’re staying, before retiring to bed we can’t resist a peek at tomorrow morning’s quarry:

The Leaning Tower was begun in 1173, and it sure does lean. As a campanile it’s also a highly distinctive design -white, round and in tiers- and although it is quite hard to unsee the postcard cliché associations, there would be nothing else quite like this tower even without the lean, which is caused by the unstable soils beneath. It is just as well that we took a peek at midnight, as our sleep in Pisa is perpetually interrupted by mosquitoes and by the time we manage to get up and out the next morning, the selfie sticks have already descended en masse.

The cathedral square has been known as the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles, ever since the author, warmonger and putative fascist revolutionary Gabriele d’Annunzio coined the phrase in one of his novels. As given to hyperbole as d’Annunzio was, the name seems a natural fit for the one sight that irresistibly draws visitors to Pisa. The tower is better known than the city itself, but it is merely the John Lennon of a Fab Four that all hit similar heights of brilliance; the Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Camposanto. All four are marble and stone of pristine white and, like the world’s finest dinner set, all four complement each other so perfectly, that surely the only reason for the tower eclipsing the others is that most people have never been here and seen with their own eyes.

We begin in the Baptistery, Italy’s largest. This took around a century to build, and you can see it in the layers; the lower arches are round and Romanesque, whilst on the upper tier they are pointy and gothic. The cupola on top, which was added by the great sculptor Nicola Pisano (who, confusingly, moved here from his native Puglia), is as jaunty as a Venetian doge’s cap. Of the interior, Pisano’s pulpit is the feature that the guide books direct you towards, but it was the vast clear space itself that made the greatest impression on me; oddly like a post-war “theatre in the round” church.

The figures on the pulpit are considered important as a departure point from Gothic towards Renaissance. They depict the crucifixion and so on, and they look much like the honest, amiable carvings on any number of French churches, but look closer and perhaps there’s a bit more anguish in the Pietà; this is just a few decades before Giotto. Pictured is a figure of Daniel that is Hercules in all but name, and that owes more to the classical world than the biblical.

The Baptistery can fill up as tour groups are whisked in and out, but most people don’t bother climbing a spiral staircase to the upper gallery, where you can appreciate the dimensions of the building, the tall pinstriped arches, the almost Lisboan wave pattern of the jacuzzi-sized font, and the quite startling geometric patterns on the floor. Many of the buildings from Pisa’s golden age were built with Crusades money, but it wasn’t just money or treasure they were hauling back from the Islamic world. It was ideas. The upper gallery is also a good spot to appreciate the half-hourly demonstration from the lady in the picture, who coos a few ethereal notes into the echo-chamber ceiling and lets them bounce back in waves. It sounds like the intro of Sparks’ ‘Number One Song in Heaven’.

Although tickets are required for each building, the Duomo is the only one that is free of charge and the only one most of the coach trips enter; it is congested to say the least. The Duomo was begun in 1064, but a huge fire in 1595 destroyed most of its original interiors, the main exception being a gigantic Cimabue mosaic of Christ Pantocrator over the apse. Although the humbug stripes are a delight, it’s disappointing to find that most of the mosaic is currently obscured behind scaffolding, and that we must content ourselves with admiring the very Byzantine folds in JC’s dress, as well as the cushion he sits on.

There are some interesting marquetry panels along the aisles, the tomb of a Holy Roman Emperor believed to have been slipped a poisoned communion wafer, and the incense swingers are prominently positioned- perhaps because it is said that watching them helped Galileo to hit upon pendulum theory. He is also said to have tested gravity by dropping cannonballs from the tower, but many of these stories apparently come from a biography written long after the fact and I suspect that they might simply be nice stories to tell the tourists.

Again a Pisano pulpit attracts a lot of the attention, although the Duomo’s one is the masterpiece of Nicola’s son Giovanni, and the son is much more animated than the father. The scenes look as if they have an extra dimension, with figures practically free-standing and, in the crowd scenes, seeming to writhe like snakes; peace is out and restlessness is in. A woman on one of the supporting pillars breastfeeds two groping, eager children with a stern ‘Wot you looking at?’ glare. Each panel has a narrative flow, Pisano accommodates in each a full menagerie of realistic animals (sheep huddle for warmth in the Nativity), and his vivid Massacre of the Innocents is particularly troubling.

It’s now mid-morning and the Campo is absolutely heaving, but there’s one place that always seems to be near-empty; the Camposanto, or Holy Field. This was Pisa’s main cemetery and the name comes from its being built upon a shipload of earth from Golgotha.

The cemetery takes the form of a slender, rectangular cloister with a lawn at its centre. On the inside, it houses a miscellany of Roman sarcophagi and C19th imitations of the classical style, a great many of which confound expectations by being very beautiful in their own right.

The bric-a-brac from across the centuries continues as you walk around. There are touchingly crude inscriptions in Latin, medieval effigy floor tombs showing dignitaries at rest, as well as a variety of busts and obelisks and a separate chapel filled with the bones of numerous Serie B saints.

Ruskin said that the wall frescoes of the Camposanto were one of the three best things in Italy, but unfortunately they have since been ruined by Allied bombing, which melted the lead roof above (the Leaning Tower itself was used as a Nazi observation point, and the American tasked with bombing it refused to do so). The paintings are being restored piecemeal and the most famous, The Triumph of Death, is sadly under wraps during our visit. You can see enough to realise how good they were, and what a record of medieval life, full of colour and incidental detail.

One of the sections in better condition is a Last Judgement that is so alarmingly full-on, one senses that the painter relished depicting its torments. Headless people clutch their heads by the hair, dangling at their sides, as their bellies split open and intestines spill outwards. Little dragons wrap themselves around the bodies of the damned and devils use their forks to prod people into the appropriate pens; this carries unintended connotations of events in the C20th, and you get the sickening feeling that it is not Hell you are looking at, but our own Earth.

After a morning contemplating these marvels, it is time to check out of Pisa and drag the luggage back to the train station. As we cross the Arno we spot a tiny Gothic church on the southern bank, and decide to stop and investigate.

This is the C13th Santa Maria della Spina (St Mary of the Thorn: like every other church in Italy, it purchased a thorn from Christ’s crown). It used to sit right at the water’s edge, but was moved and rebuilt by the roadside when flooding became a danger. The outside is enticing, with statues crammed into Gothic niches and marble in pink and grey. On the inside it is fairly sparse, and given over to the abstract sculpture on display throughout the city, but the leaded windows are pretty and they have retained a quite jolly Madonna col Bambino.

One black note against Pisa is its train station café. As we travel around Italy we find that the station cafés are usually welcoming, reliable and a fantastic place to grab a coffee and a quick snack when you are on the move. The first warning that all is not well with Pisa is that the bar shares its space with a McDonalds and a pizza counter charging quite insane prices. The panini are a bit overpriced, but we ask for one and the man serving insists that we take some €8 meal deal. Told firmly that the only thing we want is the sandwich, he thrusts a bottle of water onto us saying it is “included”, and then bills us for the stupid meal deal. A fight ensues, and after a waitress takes our side we eventually get €4 back (slammed onto the counter, no less). I don’t know if it’s because every tourist coming to Tuscany will pass through Pisa Centrale, or because Trenitalia are trying to plug the huge hole in their finances by making the cafés into places of extortion, but if you ever find yourself hungry at Pisa station you will get better for half the price at any of the bars outside.

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