Thursday was Pisa day. It was quite cold and cloudy, as cold as we had experienced since Venice. The temperature would never make it to 50 F all day.
But the small van we rode to Pisa with only three other couples was quite warm, stuffy actually. The route was scenic, passing along fields of grapes and through the town of Lucca, known for its roadside nurseries and as the birthplace of Puccini. Off in the distance, we could see snow-capped peaks of the Appenines gleaming in the faraway sun, which had not reached us yet.
Pisa’s main attraction is located in the middle of town, and the tour buses must park nearly a kilometer away, giving the souvenir vendors plenty of opportunity to hawk their wares. The stalls lined virtually the entire 800 meter walk to the town center, some of them set up in semi-permanent teepees.
Trinket sales or not, Pisa is worth a visit. Everyone knows about the Leaning Tower, but perhaps less well known is that the tower is part of a much larger, expansive church complex. The tower itself is unusual in that it is much more elaborate than most and set far back from the church. Usually the bell tower is either adjacent to or even part of the church which it serves. After all, the purpose of the tower is to ring the bells to call worshipers to Mass. Pisa’s bells are no longer used, because the vibrations may compromise the building. The Pisa cathedral now uses recorded bell sounds.
The architecture of both the church and the tower shows a significant Eastern influence, much unlike the pure Italian Renaissance style of Florence, only 75 kilometers away. This is because Pisa was among the medieval maritime kingdoms of Italy that included Venice, Genoa and Amalfi. The Leaning Tower even features a bas relief of two Roman ships, over the entrance, symbolizing Pisa’s civic connection to classical history.
And yes, the Leaning Tower really does lean. In fact, it started to lean even more for several years in recent history, adding a millimeter a year, until contemporary architects and engineers devised a method to stabilize the building and in fact restore its declination to the original five degrees. The tower has been open to the public for only about the last 20 years to climb its 293 steps in the wake of Galileo.
The entire Pisa cathedral complex is quite impressive, spread out over a large expanse of green grass maintained like a golf course. Like the tower, the baptistry is set far from the cathedral, at least 50 yards. To the left of the square formed by the baptistry and the cathedral stands a long blank wall that shields the cemetery. On the opposite side is the old hospital, now undergoing renovation as a museum of drawings.
The interior of the cathedral is resplendent in Baroque and Mannerist paintings along its side walls. The original church burned down in 1596, so most of what we see today has been rebuilt from the 17th century, which is why the paintings inside are all post-Renaissance. Part of the floor near the altar is original, and the decorative marble patterns resemble those at San Marco in Venice, a sure sign of similar Byzantine influence. The pulpit is original as well, but was stored away for a few hundred years in pieces and reconstructed recently in a different location inside the cathedral.
Not satisfied with just the regular history, Lynn and I had wandered off to explore the chancery building in the town. There a handsome collonaded courtyard displays busts of all the archbishops of Pisa since the 17th century and plaques listing the ones before that. They go all the way back to the fourth century, just about the time Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.
After a couple of hours of history and walking around in a cold blustery wind, we braved the phalanx of souvenir vendors for the ride back to Florence. The street vendors pushing watches, selfie sticks, sunglasses and bracelets were among the most intrusive and persistent we had ever seen. As our group gathered around our guide to return to the bus, a watch seller walked up and simply refused to leave, even after our guide told him in Italian to get away.
I was tempted to use more Anglo-Saxon language, but as a gesture to international diplomacy, kept my comments to myself.