Piazza dei Miracoli
The Square of Miracles is a picturesque square, full of valuable architecture, which is located in Pisa, Tuscany. Here you can visit the impressive Cathedral, the famous Leaning Tower, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Camposanto graveyard and all the other treasures it preserves. Pisa is located in Tuscany, and is renowned for its Leaning Tower, but there’s so much more to the city than just this. I would suggest you stay a day or two in the city and discover much more, as there is the local food and so many other historic buildings to discover, but first here’s what you can find on the famous “Piazza dei Miracoli”, or translated “The Square of Miracles”.
The Leaning Tower
WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE?
It is called the Leaning Tower or the Tower of Pisa but actually it was never used for defending the city; it is part of the religious complex in the Duomo Square and acts as its bell tower. It played an active role in both human and divine timekeeping with its seven bells – one for each musical note – the largest of which, cast in 1655, weighs a full three and a half tonnes! It is known throughout the world for the beauty of its architecture, for its extraordinary tilt, which makes it an authentic miracle of statics, and for the fact that it stands in the universally renowned Piazza dei Miracoli, of which it is certainly the prize jewel. And this is why it is one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
- Height: 58,36 metres
- External diameter: 15 metres
- Weight: 14.453 tonnes
- Inclination: (current) about 5.5°
- Hewn stones: 29.424
- Stone surfaces: 7.735 square metres
- Capitals: 207
- Staircase: 273 steps
The Baptistery of San Giovanni
The Baptistery of San Giovanni was founded on 15 August 1152. It is here that the Sacrament of Baptism is administered and the Christian embarks upon the path of Faith. The reason that such a fascinating and enigmatic building was constructed was certainly the wish to endow the cathedral with a worthy adjunct: a Baptistery that, in terms of position, size, materials and style, would be in harmony with the majestic building that already stood opposite.
The basic shape of the Baptistery was originally established by Diotisalvi, who supervised its construction from 1152 until about 1180, at least to the top of the first order of arches. The inscription “Deotisalvi magister huius operis”, “Deotisalvi is the architect of this work”, which appears on a pillar in the Baptistery, shows that it was he who built it. Solemn ceremonies, such as the investiture of the Operaio del Duomo, were already being held here in 1185. Towards the mid-thirteenth century the Baptistery building site was again a hive of activity: while Guido Bigarelli da Como worked inside on the baptismal font, the large octagonal basin in which adults and children were immersed to receive the sacrament of baptism, on the outside work started up again, now under Nicola Pisano, together with his son Giovanni, who introduced sweeping changes to Diotisalvi’s structure. Nicola, an architect and sculptor, also made the pulpit (1260), which immediately became a model for others, and it was he too who made the busts set on the archlets on the external loggia, which was later adorned with sculpted figures by his son Giovanni. It was here, at the Baptistery building site, that the “Renaissance” of sculpture began, with the work of Nicola Pisano and later of Giovanni. This was a truly ground-breaking moment for the history of art and represented the moment when “mediaeval” became “modern”.
A PRODIGIOUS BUILDING
With a circumference of 107.24 metres, walls 2.63 metres thick at the base, and a height of 54.86 metres, it is the largest baptistery in Italy. The dome is clad with red tiles on the side facing the sea, and with lead sheets to the east. Like the Cathedral, the great cylinder is encircled by column arcading and built in zebra work of white marble and grey. Eight monolithic columns inside compete in height with those of the Cathedral, alternating with four pilasters. A women’s gallery, reached by a spiral staircase, gives onto the central area, offering a singular view of the intricate geometrical design, of Arabic inspiration, of the floor in the chancel enclosure.
The vault of the baptistery consists of a double dome – the inner one a truncated cone and the outer one a hemispherical dome. This singular architectural solution gives the Baptistery in Pisa the most exceptional acoustics, making it a monumental musical instrument. This is why, every thirty minutes, the attendant on duty gives visitors a brief demonstration, simply by singing a few notes and letting the fabulous reverberation of the majestic cylinder of the Baptistery do the rest.
The Cemetery is the last monument on Piazza del Duomo, its long marble wall flanking the northern boundary and completing its shape. It was founded in 1277 to accommodate the graves that until then were scattered all around the Cathedral. Archbishop Federico Visconti wanted the building to be a “large and dignified, secluded and enclosed place”. This is how one of the oldest Christian Medieval architectures for the devotion of the dead came into being.
During the fourteenth century, as the construction took shape, the inner walls were embellished by wonderful frescoes about Life and Death, created by the two great artists of the time, Francesco Traini and Bonamico Buffalmacco, who seem to stage the sermons declaimed in town by the Dominican Cavalca or the frightening views of Dante’s Comedy; reference to it is most evident in the “Triumph of Death” and in the “Last Judgement” painted by Buffalmacco, who is also known as the character of some of Boccaccio’s stories. The cycle of frescoes goes on well into the fourteenth century with the “Stories of Pisan Saints” by Andrea Bonaiuti, Antonio Veneziano and Spinello Aretino and the Stories of the Ancient Testament, started by Taddeo Gaddi and Piero di Puccio and finished in the mid-15th century by the Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli, along the northern wall.
THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH
The most important and best kept fresco is currently in restoration, by the time the work is finished it will be relocated in its original placement. We apologise for the incovenience and thank you for your patience.
Since the sixteenth century, the Cemetery has sheltered the sepulchers of the most prestigious lecturers of the local University and the members of the Medici family, who ruled over the city at that time and are also hinted at by the characters of the Biblical scenes frescoed on the shorter walls. The monument was to become the Pantheon of local memories: not only of the local people or families but also of the glorious classical and Medieval past of the city.
THE ARCHEOLOGICAL COLLECTION
The building began to be used as a museum, its walls engraved with Roman epigraphs and the sarcophagi relocated to the corridors, acting now as valuables documents of history and art. The use of the building as a museum established itself in the early nineteenth century when the Cemetery became one of Europe’s first public museums. In the years in which Napoleon decreed that many works of art should be taken away from the churches and taken to France, Carlo Lasinio, appointed Curator of the Cemetery by Maria Luisa, Queen of Etruria, collected amidst its frescoed walls the sculptures and paintings that were in the suppressed churches and convents of the city. Other works came from the Cathedral and the Baptistery, along with remains from the local archaeological sites and the antiques markets. In the meantime, commemorative and funerary monuments dedicated to the city notables continued to be built in the corridors that were renamed galleries.
The Cathedral or Duomo di Pisa
A BRIEF HISTORY
Founded in 1064 and consecrated with great pomp on September 26th 1118, the Cathedral was built in two stages, one by architect Buscheto, who created the original layout with the basilican body with four aisles and one nave, a transept with one nave and two aisles, and the dome on the cross vault, and one by Rainaldo, who extended the building and the façade. The building was not finally completed until the last quarter of the XII century, when Bonannoís bronze leaves were placed on the central door, which were later destroyed by the devastating fire of 1595, after which many of the destroyed works were replaced and a vast decorative plan was started.
The outer facing of the Cathedral is decorated in alternating black and white shades in stripes of Arab influence and a massive use of reused materials from Roman monuments that emphasised the greatness of the city of Pisa, “altera Roma”. Such decorative features as lozenges, a bronze griffon of Islamic manufacture on top of the roof, and other Oriental-looking features, such as the elliptic-plan dome, rooted in the Mediterranean culture of the city and the architect, add shape and colour to a monument that is as much extraordinarily new as it is ancient.
Inside, the nave is edged by two rows of monolithic columns made of granite from the Isle of Elba, flanked by four aisles separated by smaller colonnades with large womenís galleries on top, covered by cross vaults and looking out onto the nave through some double-lancet and four-lancet windows. The nave is covered by a wooden coffered ceiling that in the XVII century replaced the original exposed trusses. Rich and sumptuous are the decorations in the Cathedral of Pisa, the development of which is related to an often-troubled history marked by often-calamitous events that culminated in the fire of 1595. The only remains of the important commissions that completed the decoration of the Cathedral in the early 14th century are the mosaics on the apsidal conch – where Cimabue painted the figure of Saint John the Evangelist (1302 ca.), the new pulpit (1302-1310) by Giovanni Pisano and the disjoined sepulchral monument to Emperor Henry VII (1315).
RESTORATION OF THE INTERIOR DOME
The restoration project started in September 2015 and it will be completed in time for the 950th anniversary of the Consecration (September 18th, 2018). The restoration concerns the whole test of the state of maintenance and preservation of the plastering of the dome and the side walls of the presbytery and the space under the dome. In particular measures will be taken to consolidate the detached plastering, to restore the pictorial display on Riminaldi’s dome and on the side walls, to stop the degeneration of the plastering with faux marble painting technique decoration in the central nave, acting on one section at a time. By the time the work is finished the church will return to its maximum splendor.
Opera del Duomo Museum
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – literally the “Museum of Cathedral Works” – opened in 1986 in the former Episcopal seminary, or Seminario Vescovile. It was the outcome of a long museum project designed to display and illustrate the art of Pisa, and in particular its mediaeval sculpture, which had its roots in the centuries-old Piazza. The most important sculptures removed from the buildings during restoration operations carried out over the years, and especially during the radical nineteenth-century works, had until then been kept in city collections and in the storage facilities of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana.
It is currently closed for renovation…
THE REVERSE OF THE FRESCO
Destined to remain concealed beneath the finished work, the precious “sinopia” is the only graphic work that we still have of the early masters, for drawings on paper or parchment that have survived from way back in the Middle Ages are extremely rare. As the first step towards making a fresco, the sinopia is a drawing traced out on the first layer of plaster. It takes its name from “sinoper” or “sinopia”, the red pigment which is mixed with water and applied by brush. This was the compound that the early frescoists adopted to tell the stories of the Old and New Testament on the walls of the Camposanto in Pisa, putting down their ideas, tracing out the scenes, outlining the figures and giving them volume through the use of chiaroscuro. The sinopias housed in this museum are thus the preparatory drawings for the vast frescoes that adorned the walls of the Camposanto. Here we can admire and compare the styles of Bonamico Buffalmacco, the creator of the famous Triumph Over Death, of Taddeo Gaddi and Pietro di Puccio da Orvieto, who started the cycle portraying the Stories from the Old Testament, which was completed by Benozzo Gozzoli. This is the most extensive cycle of fourteenth-fifteenth-century graphics known to us
UNCOVERING THE SYNOPIAS
The Pisa collection is absolutely unique and it came to light as the result of a terrible event. A fire raged through the Camposanto during a bombing raid in the Second World War and this made it necessary to detach the frescoes from the plaster in order to save vast portions that had not been burnt, and to restore them. The outer film of paint was removed using the “strappo” technique, revealing the hidden sinopias beneath. Using the same method, these were themselves “torn off” the Camposanto walls and have been in today’s museum since 1979.
WHAT WAS THE BUILDING ORIGINALLY?
Probably built on the area of a former hospital, the building, which was later known as the Spedale della Misericordia and ultimately as the Spedale di Santa Chiara, was designed by Giovanni di Simone, who also started work on the original Camposanto Monumentale. Between 1257 and 1286, the architect built the church and the large rectangular hall of the Pellegrinaio degli Infermi, where the poor, pilgrims and the sick were cared for. This was given a majestic wooden truss roof and decorated inside with a simulated two-colour marble facing. After almost seven centuries, when it was no longer used as a hospital, the vast, linear Pellegrinaio building was subjected to an initial restoration in the 1970s by the architects Gaetano Nencini and Giovanna Piancastelli and then, in 2005, a second operation included it in the museum tour with an area for information and communication.