From the B&B Belleville turn left and reach via Luigi Bianchi. You can see beyond the road the entrance to the Arena Garibaldi, currently the stadium of the football team of Pisa with a capacity of 35,000 spectators. It was born in 1807 as a daytime theater for shows and games, with a central stage and a track for horse racing all around. According to the chronicles, the first building was rather rough with parts of masonry and rough wooden planks, in 1831 it was enlarged and embellished with a large masonry arch at the entrance.
In Via Luigi Bianchi on the right is the Palazzo Ricciardi-Bargilli, nineteenth-century and with a facade adorned with three busts symbols of youth, maturity and old age.
The Walls of Pisa
Continuing we meet the Walls of Pisa. The gate from which we will cross is called Porta a Lucca, one of the entrances to the northern part of the walls. This gate was built in 1544 together with the bastion which is next to it, so called because, in fact, it entered the road to Lucca. This area is called “Largo del Parlascio”, because once another gate was used, the “Porta del Parlascio”, a short distance away.
Until the beginning of the 20th century it functioned as the center of a stagecoach station, and around it there were stables, barns, harness shops, farrier rooms. Recent archaeological excavations have also revealed the existence of a gabelle where the duty was paid for entry into the city.
The walls are of medieval origin, built during the period of the Maritime Republic. Before these, Pisa had other Roman walls, but much more restricted and which mainly concerned the southern part of the city. The demographic increase led to the need for this new belt, built with squared and regular blocks of materials coming from Livorno and from the quarries of the nearby San Giuliano Terme and Asciano. These walls surround the city for about 6 km, have a thickness of 2.20 meters and an average height of 11 meters. The walkways above the walls are accessible.
Beyond the door you can immediately notice the Bath of Nero: the name was erroneously attributed in the Middle Ages, in reality this building dates back to the I-II century a.C., when the emperor was Hadrian. It’s the only building of the Roman era remained in Pisa, well preserved is the sudatio laconicum , the place where the warm waters flowed, and had to be richly decorated, because they were found marbles and statues that adorned it.
From Largo del Parlascio, if we look to the right we can already see the Leaning Tower, continuing in that direction we arrive in Piazza dei Miracoli.
Piazza dei Miracoli
World Heritage Site since 1987, the Square is composed of 4 main monuments, namely the Duomo, the Leaning Tower (the bell tower), the Baptistery and the monumental Camposanto (a cemetery). The name “Campo dei Miracoli” was attributed by D’Annunzio.
The Cathedral: dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, it was begun in 1064, after a resounding victory by the Pisans against the Saracens. The architect Buscheto had a large capital at his disposal and he poured out all the culture he had as a Mediterranean traveler with reference to the classical Roman basilicas and the Arab and Armenian architectures. In the middle of the twelfth century the work was continued by Rainaldo who lengthened the longitudinal body and made a new facade. But in 1595 the carelessness of a worker who worked on lead plates caused a fire that devastated most of the furnishings and the ceiling that was then rebuilt to coffered. Federico I dei Medici commissioned new decorations and furnishings.
The façade is in Romanesque-Pisan style and built with white, yellow and gray marble. Beautiful doors with bronze relief that now are protected by barriers because there was a popular and superstitious custom to go and touch some figures, especially in the central door, in particular the lizard (good luck for studies), the frog (symbol of luck), the breasts of a female figure (fertility). Of particular artistic importance is the Porta di San Ranieri, located in the back side of the Duomo, in front of the Tower.
Next to the Cathedral there is a block of marble furrowed and holed: it is said that those are the scretches of the devil, who did this spite because jealous of the beauty of the building, and one curious thing is that, every time you count, the bill never returns the same.
The Leaning Tower: The famous tower is the bell tower of the church. Its slope is about 4.50 meters from the base. It was begun by Bonanno Pisano in 1173 on a 3.50 meter deep foundation, but on the third floor, the tower began to tilt. It was only in 1275 that Giovanni di Simone resumed his construction, he made another 3 floors trying to compensate the slope of the first, finally Tommaso di Andrea Pisano concluded the work with the bell cell. It is in fact noted that the tower raising line bends in the opposite direction to the total slope. Even when it was over, it continued to tilt so much that it was feared it could yield, but it has lasted for centuries, even if with various interventions to strengthen its base.
Inside, on the first floor, the instruments to measure the stability of the Tower and an inscription recalls the experiment carried out by Galilei, namely the launch of two metal spheres, one full and the other empty, to measure the speed of fall.
To get to the top we have to climb 293 steps, made smooth and furrowed by wear, from the top of the Tower you can see the splendid panorama of the city with the surrounding plains, the mountains to the north, the sea and in clearer days also the silhouettes of the islands of the Tuscan archipelago. The top of the Tower is home to 7 bells, each different named from the other, because each served for a different time of day.
The Baptistery: the baptistery of S. Giovanni Battista too has a slight inclination of 45 cm. Started in 1152 by the Pisan Diotisalvi, once built the first part in Romanesque style, moneys began to lack… each one of the Pisan families voluntarily paid one gold coin, which for the time was a lot. From 1260 Nicola Pisano built the second part, finally in the fourteenth century the dome was built, covered in red tiles except the part in front of the Duomo, which is in lead. A curiosity is the acoustics of the Baptistery: the echo is repeated several times and with different shades.
The Camposanto: it is a cemetery with a rectangular plan, called “Camposanto” because, when it was built, during the period when Pisa was the Maritime Republic, it was brought a certain number of ships filled with earth from the Holy Land just to fill it, and it seems that this land was able to decompose a corpse in just 24 hours. It is a real treasure trove of works of art, there are sarcophagi from the Roman era that the wealthy Pisan families bought to reuse, frescoes inspired by the Dominican culture of the most gifted artists. Note the fresco of the Last Judgment that recalls the vision of the afterlife described by Dante Alighieri and “the Triumph of Death”, whose restoration lasted 20 years and was very difficult due to the damage caused by the fire in the Second World War.
In the 1800s it was the first city museum and was much appreciated by European visitors, but over time the tower’s reputation prevailed.
The Piazza dei Miracoli is limited in the northern and western part by the city walls, on the southern side is the ancient Hospital of the Misericordia, today the Santa Chiara Hospital, which was built by the Medici, thus closing the ideal cycle of life represented by the monuments of Piazza: the baptistery that is the birth of man, the cathedral that is maturity, the tower that is the elevation to faith, the cemetery that is death and before this the inevitable hospital.
Other “minor” monuments that we find in Piazza dei Miracoli are the Fontana dei Putti, the Museo delle Sinopie, where the preparatory drawings of the Camposanto frescoes are kept, and the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.
Continuing along via Santa Maria, on the southern side of the square, at the number 108, just at the beginning of the street, is the Hospice dei Trovatelli, that is where children abandoned by their parents were helped. On the façade, under the third window to the right of the door, there was a small window with a marble frame and decorated with a relief representing a newborn in swaddling clothes. In that window a revolving wheel was placed, where the newborn was left in a total disguise. The structure that housed this orphanage is one of the few remaining 15th century architectures in Pisa.
Continuing along this route, among souvenir shops and restaurants, many noble palaces are noted, today mostly for university buildings or branches, others are museums , libraries and a few are private. In fact, the University of Pisa is not located in a single building, but the various faculties are scattered around the city, which in practice can be defined as “a large campus”.
Turning into Via Luca Ghini, the entrance to the University Botanical Garden, one of the oldest in Italy, with centuries-old and rare plants and visit the botanical museum set up in the lovely Palazzina delle Conchiglie (=shells) inside the garden.
Piazza dei Cavalieri
Coming a little back and going straight along via dei Mille, you get to the other spectacular pisan square, Piazza dei Cavalieri, once the roman forum, then the political centre, called also “Square of the seven streets”, because in addition to the five streets that are seen today, two more were opened, one between the Palazzo dei Cavalieri and the Torre dell’Orologio, the other where Palazzo Puteano is.
The Palazzo dei Cavalieri, or della Carovana, home of the Scuola Normale di Pisa, one of the most prestigious universities, dominates the square. Cosimo dei Medici built it in the mid-1500s by Giorgio Vasari on a previous Palazzo degli Anziani and was the first seat of the Order of the Knights of Santo Stefano. The façade is decorated with graffiti, representing below the signs of the zodiac and higher allegorical figures (Arts, Gods, Virtues), then you see the busts of the Medici and their crests and of the Knights. The Scuola Normale was established here by Napoleon in 1810, modeled on the Ecole Normale of Paris, later reformed and reorganized in a more modern way by the Lorraine. This school has seen many illustrious directors and professors pass, including Enrico Fermi, Ulisse Dini, Giosuè Carducci.
On the right of the Palazzo della Carovana is the Church of the Knights, dedicated to St. Stephen and built this too on a design by Vasari.
Facing the Church is the Conventual or Canonica Palace, once intended for the Cavalieri chaplains of Santo Stefano and today the headquarters of the Civil Engineers. Two other Palaces in the Piazza were dedicated to the order of the Knights: they are the Palazzo del Consiglio, with a stately and lively facade and the characteristic Palazzo dell’Orologio, to the left of the Palazzo dei Cavalieri, which was to serve from nursing and housing for the elderly Knights. It was built by joining two towers: on the left the Tower-palazzetto della Giustizia and on the right the Torre dei Gualandi, also called Torre della Muda, so called because it was used for “mudare”, that is to change the feathers to eagles, symbols of Pisa or even Torre della Fame (=Hunger Tower), because it seems that it was in this building that Count Ugolino was imprisoned to die of hunger with his sons for having betrayed Pisa, as Dante tells us in canto XXXIII of the Inferno (Divine Comedy). The fact that, in despair, the count had fed on the bodies of his sons (already dead) seems to be only a belief due to a wrong interpretation of the Canto, which has long been debated without ever reaching a certain conclusion.
From Piazza dei Cavalieri there are 3 ways to reach Lungarni:
-you can go back to via Santa Maria, see Palazzo Quaratesi, the Parish Church of San Nicola, the Palazzo delle Vedove and finally, at the crossroads with the Lungarno Pacinotti, the Palazzo Reale which houses an important national art museum.
-Continue in via Ulisse Dini , to the right of the Church of Santo Stefano, where we can admire the bronze statue of Ulisse Dini, the famous Pisan mathematician. After the road, you are in Borgo Stretto , one of the main streets of the center, which leads to Piazza Garibaldi and the Lungarno.
-Take Via San Frediano, then turn in via Domenico Cavalca, you can see the Torre del Campano, dating back to the 13th century, in whose upper cell there is a bell that was played every morning to announce the beginning of university lessons. This area is full of typical shops and cozy restaurants. From here you can take the vicolo del Tidi, where, around halfway, we find Lumiere, the oldest cinema in Italy, which offers musical and theatrical performances accompanied by catering. After the alley, we are on the Lungarno Pacinotti, next to the Palazzo dell’Ussero or Rosso, whose facade stands out from the others.
Palazzo dell’Ussero has a brick façade and ornaments in terracotta. The building derives from the union of two slightly different houses, as you can see from the differnt windows (some are two, some are three-light). The Palazzo is home to the Caffè dell’Ussero, opened in 1794, a meeting place for university students and in particular for patriots during the Risorgimento, also frequented by important historical figures.
The Lungarno pisano (Lungarno also exists in Florence) is ample and evocative, much appreciated by nineteenth-century writers and artists, including Giacomo Leopardi, who wrote:
I like the appearance of Pisa much more than that of Florence. This lungarno is such a beautiful show, so wide, so magnificent, so gay, so cheerful that it falls in love: I have not seen anything like it either in Florence or in Milan, or in Rome, and I really do not know if in all of Europe find views of this sort.
You will then walk in the winter with great pleasure, because there is almost always an air of spring: so in certain hours of the day that district is full of world, full of carriages and pedestrians: you hear ten or twenty languages, there shines a beautiful sun between the gilding of the cafes, shops full of gallantries and in the glazes of palaces and houses, all of beautiful architecture. In the rest then, Pisa is a mixture of big city and small city, citizen and country, a mixture so romantic, that I have never seen the same. To all the high beauties, the beautiful language is added.
Giacomo Leopardi, 12 December 1827, letter to his sister Pauline
(..) I am enchanted by Pisa for the climate; if it lasts like this it will be a bliss. I left the cold of a degree in Florence above the cold; here I found it so hot that I had to throw the gun and lighten myself of cloths.
Giacomo Leopardi, 12 November 1827, letter to his sister Pauline
I have here in Pisa a certain delicious road, which I call Via delle rimembranze: there walk when I want to daydream.
Giacomo Leopardi, 25 February 1828, letter to his sister Pauline
In addition to the Palazzo dell’Ussero and the Palazzo Reale mentioned above, other important buildings on the north bank are Palazzo alla Giornata, (“alla giornata” means “for the day”) so called because when the owner Francesco Lanfreducci returned to Pisa after years of imprisonment in Algiers, he was completely broke and had to live “for the day” precisely and had the renovation work done as his possibilities allowed it.
Going east we find Palazzo Roncioni, headquarters of the State Archives, Palazzo Medici, headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza, to get to the Museum of San Matteo, one of the most important in Europe for medieval sacred works.
“Mezzogiorno” (Pisa South)
Returning to the Ponte di Mezzo and crossing it, we leave the north-side of Pisa (called “Tramontana”) and go to the South. After the bridge, you can see the Logge dei Banchi, that often host various markets
Along the southern Lungarno we find palazzo Lanfranchi, home to an interesting Museum of Graphics, the Church of San Sepolcro, whose particularity is the octagonal plan, Palazzo Pretorio, Palazzo Gambacorti, Palazzo Giuli Rosselmini Gualandi, better known as Palazzo Blu (named after the blue façade), that hosts a permanent art exhibition with free admission and in another section organizes art exhibitions by famous European artists.
On this side of the river is also the church of Santa Maria della Spina, a small Gothic jewel dating back to 1230, so called because it contained a thorn (=spina) of Jesus’ crown. Originally built in a more prominent position and subject to the dangers of the river, including the subsidence of land and floods, it was ordered to move it and from 1871 to 1875 it was completely dismantled and rebuilt in todays’ position. The interior no longer retains the original works of art, which are in the museum of San Matteo, and sometimes it hosts free art exhibitions.
Further on we find the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno, which was the ancient Pisan cathedral.
From here we can cross the bridge of the Citadel to visit the Republican Arsenal and the Citadel. The first was built by the Medici Grand Dukes between 1548 and 1588 and it was here that the powerful galleons were built for the knights of the Order of Saint Stephen. Soon the Museum of Ancient Ships will open here. For Cittadella we mean the complex that stands in front of the arsenal which was an old medieval fortress of which we note in particular the agile and tall Torre Guelfa, from here started several channels that favored the introduction of ships towards the sea.
If from the Ponte di Mezzo we go straight instead, we can get to Corso Italia, the main street that ends at the Central Station. Once arrived in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, go right, take a short stretch via D’Azeglio and turn into via Zandonai, to see “Tuttomondo” (=all the world) by Keith Haring. This is the last and only permanent work that the contemporary artist has created, in 1989 on a surface of 180 square meters. It was made in 4 days in which the artist whitewashed the wall and painted the black shapes of the figures, then with the help of craftsmen and students, he painted the figures with the paints supplied free by the Pisan company Caparol. Haring was staying in those days at the hotel in front of the mural, from the window he watched the reactions of the people intrigued and appreciated for this the city in a particular way, as well as for the food. At the center of the painting we can see the Pisan cross, the painting represents peace and harmony in the world.
Parks in the city
If at a certain point after so much walking and visiting you are tired and look for a cool place where you can relax go see Giardino Scotto, also called Fortress or New Citadel, to distinguish it from the Old Citadel which is on the other side of the city, where the Arsenal is. It is an ancient Pisan fortress, built by the Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo in 1512 on previous fortifications. Today there are few walls and a rampart to the south of the fortress, while the central part is occupied by a large and elegant tree-lined garden, with raised porch built by the owner Domenico Scotto in the eighteenth century. In 1930 it became a public garden used for exhibitions and theatrical performances and also housed two aviaries with exotic animals, from 1945 to today it is also used as an outdoor cinema. Inside the park is the statue of Leonardo Fibonacci, jokingly called “the bighellone” (=time-waster) by the Pisans, who thought that his mathematical theories were not very useful. In 2013 he was retrained and returned to the citizenship, after damages suffered in the Second World War.
Going further east we find the avenue of the Piagge, a tree-lined road along the Arno where the Pisans go for a walk, to play sports and to pass the time, and where is the second most leaning building in the city, namely the bell tower of the Church of San Michele degli Scalzi.