Back to Tuscany – Pisa

We hadn’t been to Pisa since 2012, and since Florence is barely an hour away by train, we decided it would be a good time to revisit the city.

The last time we were in Pisa we climbed the Tower – an interesting experience, and highly recommended if you’ve never done it. This trip, we wanted to spend more time with the other monuments.

Ted did his bit to keep the Tower up. It’s still leaning, though.

Pisa was an independent maritime republic that flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries, so most of its major monuments date from that era. Pisan soldiers and traders operated all over the Mediterranean, and many of its buildings have architectural features influenced by Byzantine and Islamic models.


The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was started in 1063 (about a century before Notre Dame in Paris), and was consecrated in 1118, just over 50 years later. The exterior, in multicolored marble, features mosaics and geometric designs, as well as some marvelous sculptures and impressive bronze doors.

The nave of the church is lined with granite columns stolen from the mosque of Palermo – spoils of war following a successful joint Norman-Pisan attack on that city.

Duomo interior

The great mosaic of Christ in the apse was executed in the early 14th C, and emulates several similar mosaics found in Cefalu and Monreale, in Sicily . The face of St. John, on the right, was painted by Cimabue in 1302 – his last known work.

The most notable work in the Cathedral is the pulpit by Giovanni PIsano, completed in 1310, which features amazingly detailed scenes of the life of Christ.


The Baptistery, begun in 1152, a few decades after the cathedral was completed, is the largest in Italy. The exterior, in multicolored marble, is more elaborate than the Duomo, perhaps showing the influence of the early Gothic cathedrals that were being built in France at about this time.

Pisa Battistero

The Baptistery exterior is notable for the extraordinary sculptures around the entrance.

Battistero door (detail)

The inside of the Baptistery is quite plain, except for the extraordinary pulpit by Nicola Pisano, completed around 1260. Nicola’s son, Giovanni, executed the pulpit in the Cathedral some decades later.

Campo Santo

The Campo Santo, or burial ground, is located alongside the Cathedral and the Baptistery. Unusually, it is in a partially covered cloister rather than outside.

Pisa was heavily bombed during the war. Although the Allies did a good job avoiding the Tower, the bombs generated a major fire that virtually destroyed the magnificent frescoes that once lined the walls of the Campo Santo. A major renovation of the frescoes was completed just a few years ago, using modern techniques of restoration.

The frescoes of Old Testament stories by Benozzo Gozzoli were particularly badly damaged.. The colors will never be seen in their original brilliance, and many of the faces are gone. But with the restoration at least you can get some sense of what these works might once have looked like.

Benozzo Gozzoli – Old testament stories – mid-15C, Camposanto

It’s truly a tragedy that these frescoes are for the most part lost because their scale, detail, and use of perspective are really unequalled in Gozzoli’s other work.

On the other side of the cloister, the 14th C frescoes by Buonamico Buffalmaco were less badly damaged, although to my mind they are less beautifully done than those by Gozzoli. The frescoes of the Last Judgment include a depiction of the battle for souls, in which angels and demons battle for the souls of the recently departed, represented as babies. The flying monsters grabbing a newly departed soul out of a dead woman’s mouth are particularly disturbing – I think I’ve seen them in a movie somewhere.


The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo (works of the Duomo) has many of the sculptures that used to be in the Duomo, moved here where they can be kept in a more secure, temperature and light-controlled environment.

I particularly liked this Madonna, executed by Giovanni da Pisano around 1280. It features a remarkably natural looking Mary looking at her baby – a couple of centuries before Renaissance humanism was in theory invented. Nothing in art comes out of nowhere.

Giovanni Pisano, Madonna col Bambino, 1280-85, Museo dell’Opere.

Heading off before some heavy weather moves in.

For more photos with captions, click here.