Pisa is one of those cities that most seasoned travellers have visited at least once, and its attractions are world-famous. But what if I told you that there is one sight within touching distance from the legendary leaning tower that you probably haven’t explored yet?
Let’s start with the know attractions, the ones that even armchair travellers have seen on their TVs. Of course, Pisa’s image right across the world is dominated by its leaning tower, designed by Bonanno Pisano (although new evidence suggests that it may have actually been designed by an architect named Diotisalvi) in Romanesque style in 1173, and completed in 1372. If the tower had not had its noticeable unintended 3.99-degree tilt (apparently caused by the soft ground on which it was built), it probably would have been just another tower in one of Italy’s great cities, but that isn’t how things turned out.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, whose marble and stone façade glows white in the bright midday sun, only survived bombardment during the Second World War because a US Army General, who was sent to investigate a possible munitions store in the tower, was so impressed with the structure that he forbade any artillery strike on the area. How lucky was that?
The eight-storey building can be climbed by those brave enough to risk the building falling over (this won’t actually happen thanks to supports in place at the base!), and it is this tower that attracts so many visitors to this Tuscan city. Everyday you can see thousands of travellers from all corners of the world flocking to take photos of themselves appearing to lean against the tower or holding it up with one hand – but little do they know that there is a haven of calm just a stones throw from the tower.
The Cathedral, which was founded in 1064 and consecrated in 1118, is another well-known and heavily-frequented Pisan attraction beside the leaning tower. The outer walls of the cathedral are decorated in alternating black and white stone stripes, akin to Moorish and Arabesque designs, using recovered Ancient Roman stones that quite possibly were used in the construction of Roman temples and bathhouses. There is also a dome on the roof, which looks quite out of place in Pisa, a city dominated by sharp edged roofs and square church spires.
Inside, the height of the ceiling and the layout, in the traditional four-signs of the cross shape, impresses upon walking through the heavy wooden doors. This is still used as an active Roman Catholic cathedral, so people quietly praying and lighting candles (now electric-operated) creates an air of tranquillity as you walk around the building.
The nave of the cathedral is dominated by two rows of towering columns built using granite shipped over from the Isle of Elba, holding up a wooden ceiling with gold leaves emblazoned across it. There are monuments to Emperor Henry VII, a tall pulpit designed by Giovanni Pisano, and a painted statue of Saint John the Evangelist in the cathedral, the only surviving relics after the devastating fire of 1595.
The Square of Miracles is also home to the circular Baptistry building, which stands opposite the cathedral entrance, the Sinopie Museum which is where the first Medieval drawings of the impressive frescoes are held, and the Opera del Duomo Museum, which displays Pisan artworks – all of which are quite well-known and visited by a majority of tourists who come to Pisa.
Within view of the leaning tower, cathedral, and baptistry there is an impressively large building that few visitors to Pisa actually enter – few know it actually exists. The Camposanto is a historic cemetery hidden behind a long white marble wall behind the tower and cathedral.
Why come to Pisa to visit a cemetery? Because this is a slice of Pisan history that few people have experienced. The Camposanto cemetery was designed in 1277 as a place to bury important people in Pisa, somewhere that was a “large and dignified, secluded and enclosed place”, according to Archbishop Federico Visconti. The Camposanto is now one of the world’s oldest Medieval Christian burial places still intact.
When you enter the courtyard, one of the first things to hit you is the eerie silence. Stepping through the monument’s wooden door is like walking into another world – coming from the noise and tourist groups in the Square of Miracles into complete silence save for the odd bird tweeting on the perfectly mowed grass. The fading frescoes on the walls depicting heavenly images of life and death, painted by the world’s greatest artists at the time, also catch the eye. One section of the wall of frescoes is currently closed off for restoration – so-called ‘Triumph of Death’ painting by Buffalmacco.
White marble and stone monuments, some large and others smaller, countless tombstones laid into the stone floor throughout the Camposanto, and others built into the back walls recount the lives of those buried here. Architects and scientists, doctors and priests, wealthy businessmen and former rulers of Pisa are all here – most of them former lecturers at Pisa University or members of the Medici family, their names and ages forever enshrined into memory on the sepulchres on the Camposanto.
When you stand in the middle of the stone walkway that connects the front and back sections of the Camposanto, you can appreciate the vast open space of this impressive monument to the dead. The four sides of the quadrangle, each with several columned windows, house hundreds of notable Pisans for as long as the Camposanto remains in place.
There is nowhere in Italy quite like the Camposanto, and nowhere in Pisa that boasts the peace, tranquillity, and intrigue as this monument to Pisans from the 16th century until as late as 2009 (when the last person was buried here). Inside the monument you can feel a sensation – maybe it is of spirits watching as you read their tombstones, or maybe just the silence – but either way, the Camposanto is a rare haven of peace in today’s increasingly hectic world.
Opera della Primaziale Pisana provided me with free entry to the Camposanto and Cathedral – Tickets can be bought through their website: www.opapisa.it/en.