History of Pisa

From the origins to the Maritime Republic

Etruscan necropolis
Etruscan necropolis

From archaeological findings we can attribute to Pisa certainly Etruscan origins. The name “Pise” could mean “estuary” or “irrigated place”, in fact in antiquity two rivers flowed from here, the Arno and the Auser. It seems that already at the time of the Etruscans there was a port and flourishing trade with the Greeks, the Gauls and the Phoenicians.
There are few traces of the Roman era, among which documents mentioning it as Pisae, in Pisas and attesting that in ’89 AD. it was a Roman colony. It is mistakenly thought that Pisa was a coastal city at the time: in reality it was 4 km from the sea and the ports it used were fluvial, those of San Piero a Grado, San Rossore and Livorno, where a branch of the Arno arrived. The first 2 disappeared later due to the burial of the lagoon.

 

Geographical reconstruction of the ancient Pisan port
Geographical reconstruction of the ancient Pisan port

In the 5th century the Western Roman Empire began to decline due to many factors, including barbarian invasions and epidemics. It seems, however, that at the arrival of the Lombards Pisa was somehow able to resist, perhaps thanks to the fact of having its own fleet and its maritime capabilities, and that it became part of the Lombard Kingdom not for a surrender, but for a agreement. The fact is that it became the main port of the Tyrrhenian Sea. With the collapse of the Lombard Kingdom Pisa underwent a period of crisis that overcame the ninth century with the arrival of Charlemagne, when it was annexed to the county-duchy of Lucca, and finally with the arrival of Otto I, when it was the capital of the Marca di Tuscia (Tuscany). At that time Pisa was instrumental in the fight against Saracen pirates.
Around the year one thousand Pisa was one of the four great Italian maritime republics, along with Amalfi, Genoa and Venice. New important families settled in the city, in the art spread the Romanesque-Pisan style and began to build the main monuments, including Piazza del Duomo with the famous Tower, the walls and the most beautiful buildings, also the important school of legal studies was born. The fame of Pisa was widespread in the East and West, it had trade with most of the Mediterranean maritime cities, Sardinia, Corsica, Spain, France, up to Tunis, and was among the first cities to conquer Jerusalem in 1099.

 

The Castle of Vicopisano
The Castle of Vicopisano

But in 1286 the rivalry with Genoa, which yearned for the commercial Pisan airports, resulted in the battle of the Meloria, from which Pisa came out defeat. A part of guilt was attributed at this juncture to the betrayal of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, then named by Dante Alighieri in Hell among the traitors of the homeland and left to die of hunger in the Tower of Muda, today Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza dei Cavalieri . Also in the hinterland Pisa was in eternal conflict with Lucca, Florence and Volterra (who were longing for an independent outlet on the sea) and had to maintain a system of strongholds and castles in defense of the Republic. After this burning defeat, Pisa had to give up much of Sardinia and Corsica to Genoa. His power slowly faded.

 

The conquest by Florence and the Medici government

 

The year 1406 marks the year of total decline: the Florentine mercenaries broke into the city and conquered it. The noble and bourgeois families considered most dangerous were confined to Florence to facilitate their control, others managed to flee abroad and in other regions, especially in Sicily. The Pisan population, in 1430, seems to have already halved compared to the year of conquest, also due to the malaria that had spread and the hydrogeological instability deliberately caused by the Florentines to subject them further. Years of heavy taxation and impoverishment followed.
The first years of the fifteenth century were terrible for the Pisans: from the dominating city to the subjugated city. The situation improved a little with the government of Lorenzo dei Medici, called “the Magnificent”, but at the end of the century warring armies crossed Italy: France and Spain fought for domination in Europe. This offered to Pisa the opportunity to rebel and started a war that lasted about 15 years in which men and women of all walks of life fought, which earned the fame to the Pisans of brave warriors but not a victory. Even the dominant city, Florence, lost its freedom with the advent of Alessandro dei Medici (called “il Moro”) who established an absolute power and a government no longer Republican, but “princely”. The early days of his government were hard, but the protraction of a period of peace favored the resumption of economic activities, which was consolidated with the successors of Alexander: Cosimo I, Francesco I and Ferdinando I.

The arsenal
The arsenal

Cosimo I established the Office of the Fossi to improve the hydrogeological situation, founded the Order of the Saint Stephen’s Knights and having these need for a naval fleet, the merchant activities of the arsenal resumed. Cosimo also reopened the Studio that attracted students from all over Europe and illustrious people to Pisa, so it became necessary to revisit the city. The intent of Cosimo was to make Pisa the city-emporium of Livorno (which in the years, when Pisa was in crisis, was developing as a port) and started with the project of the Navicelli canal to facilitate its connection. Pisa soon became the second most important city of the Graducato and businesses flourished along the river, but these activities mainly involved the Florentines and little the Pisans, who became apathetic for the years of subjection suffered. Life was above all on the Lungarni, and the other areas of the city were marginal, hardly inhabited and with few crumbling houses. Even the monuments of Piazza dei Miracoli, testimony of a vanished glory, in that marginal place appeared as jewels without an adequate setting.

The Navicelli canal
The Navicelli canal

In 1595 a terrible fire devastated the ancient Pisan cathedral. Ferdinando I, Cosimo’s successor, brought together the most important artists of the time to rebuild it, reporting, albeit on this nefarious occasion, a bit of life around the Piazza. Ferdinando also completed the project of the Navicelli Canal initiated by Cosimo and was very successful.

The Ponte di Mezzo
The Ponte di Mezzo

But in the seventeenth century a series of natural disasters due to the climate brought repeated floods of the Arno that caused the collapse of the only bridge usable by the population, the other two were reserved for the Florentine military. From then on a kind of misfortune struck that bridge: 3 attempts were made to rebuild it without success. Only the fourth attempt succeeded. Meanwhile, Pisa had been divided into two and for a period of 24 years it had been possible to communicate from one side to the other only by boat and when the river permitted it. This, in addition to the spread of famine and tertian fever, led to another serious period of crisis.
The last government of the Medici was the longest and most burdensome: that of Cosimo III, a man of rigid Catholic morality, who tried to remedy the situation by introducing the Art of Silk and Leather, not achieving great results.

 

From the government of Lorraine to the Kingdom of Italy

 

The game of the bridge
The game of the bridge

In 1737 the Lorena settled and thanks to some reforms, the city began to recover a bit. The Lorraines saved the Fossi Office from bankruptcy, enhanced the agricultural activity, of which Pisa had become the main market, reformed the Order of the Knights and the Study. These reforms, in addition to the presence of the grand-ducal court for several months of the year in the city or nearby San Giuliano Terme, brought to Pisa many famous personalities, including Alfieri, Goldoni, Shelley, Leopardi and together with them, “tourists” attracted by a city that seemed full of suggestions in a pre-romantic cultural climate, with its marble monuments and its nostalgic solitude. Even the Pisan social environment seems to be serene and welcoming, the Duke appreciated the Pisans for the indifference they showed when he passed through the streets and the festivity on special occasions, such as the luminara of June 16 or the game of the bridge, as in events like the birth of a son of the Grand Duke.
In 1799 the Napoleonic troops broke into the city. Along with the declaration of fraternité began pressing and heavy demands for the contributions of war, new uses and customs, sacrifices and anguish in separating from the sons sent to fight in distant lands, from where many did not return and the suppression of many works of art that today are exhibited in French museums. The occupation ended in 1814.
A brief period of Restoration followed with a weak economic recovery. In those years the idea of ​​patriotism and national independence began to take shape: the arrival of Gioberti in Pisa lit many souls, including those of teachers and pupils who left to go to fight the First War of Independence. In 1859 the Second War of Independence was won, the Grand Duchy collapsed and in 1861 the first Kingdom of Italy was established.
In Pisa there was a notable population growth. Many schools were founded, including a school of Fine Arts, one of Arts and Crafts, aimed at training specialized craftsmen, a School of Female Works, but most important of all was established the Scuola Normale, founded by Napoleon on the model of the Ecole Normale di Parigi, to which the most gifted students were admitted and who had distinguished teachers and conductors, including Ulisse Dini.
The first factories were also born: the Saint Gobain (mirror factory), the Richard-Ginori (ceramics factory), the Piaggio (which originally worked wood for naval furnishings, then moved to aeronautics and war production) and others.

 

World War II

 

 The bombed Pisa station
The bombed Pisa station

World War II hit Pisa hard. On August 21, 1943, an American bombardment destroyed about a quarter of the urban territory, especially the station because from there passed the weapons produced by Piaggio and other factories converted for war purposes, but more than anything else the American allies wanted to give a strong sign to the Italian government in a crucial phase of the armistice, which was in fact signed 3 days later. More 54 bombings followed. In 1944 the front reached Pisa and on the banks of the Arno the American troops and the German troops exchanged shots of machine guns and bombs, with the aim of collapsing the city bridges, damaging heavily the historic buildings.
In July, a group of 1500 people took refuge in Piazza del Duomo and nearby, hoping that the fame of its monuments would put everyone in safety. In the late afternoon of 27 July the allied artillery struck the roof of the monumental Camposanto, burning the wooden trusses and melting the lead plates. Few courageous Pisans rushed to the spot, but they could not do anything but watch the spectacle astonished, unable to intervene due to the lack of water and the continuous throwing of bullets: large drops of molten lead cover the marbles of the floor and the works lined up along the walls internal. Even a passing German soldier stopped and tried, once mounted on the roof, to isolate the flames, but without success. Throughout the night the pieces of the roof ruined the underlying works of art, while the next day the fire completed its work by damaging the frescoes and burning the doors of the building.

At the time of the city’s liberation, which took place on September 2, 1944, the city of Pisa found itself orphaned by thousands of its citizens and tens of its most precious monuments. Fortunately, many transportable works of art were sheltered in Florence, Calci and Farneta thanks to the timely intervention of the then superintendent Piero Sanpaolesi. In the autumn, 50,000 rooms will be destroyed or uninhabitable, with about 18,000 people without a roof and without water, electricity and gas. Urban transport, primarily on rails, will remain on their knees for months. The reconstruction of the city, with the cancellation of its war wounds, will take several decades.

Last Modified on 9 March 2019
this article History of Pisa