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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Renaissance Cities--Pisa

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Italy                             
Inasmuch as I've already dealt with the Italian city of Pisa's major malfunction, I won't dwell on it here. I'll post one photo of it (above, in which it barely leans at all) and that's it. I promise. Besides, there's ever so much more to Pisa than a certain architect's worst nightmare. I realize that like writing about Washington, D.C. and ignoring the big, white obelisk in its center. But after all, the city has some twenty other churches all of which stand pretty much upright and many of which are at least as impressive, interesting, historic, and perhaps even more beautiful than its cathedral. For a city with a modest population of but 89,373 residents, that's a pretty impressive number. One of them, the Church of Santa Maria della Spina (below), was even designed by a famous Renaissance architect--Giorgio Vasari.

Santa Maria della Spina façade
designed by Giorgio Vasari.
(Spina is Italian for thorn.)
The right side of the church, one
of the finest example of Gothic
architecture in Italy. 
Hypothetical maps.
Unlike most of the other major cities in Italy during the Renaissance, Pisa was a city in decline, a city that had literally seen its better days during the medieval period and which, by then had come under the thumb of Florence, its much more powerful sister just up the Arno River. In fact, the Arno river was one of the reasons the city was in decline. It's believed by experts that during the 5th-century, the city of Pisa had been a seaport as seen in the upper map at left. However, as the Tuscany area of northern Italy grew in population during the next six hundred years, and growing grapes grew in popularity, the rolling hills were cleared for farming. When that happens, over a period of centuries, erosion happens. In effect, silt from the river killed the harbor. By the 11th-century, (see map at lower left) the once fine harbor had became a swamp. Mosquitos arrived; malaria became a problem. (The same thing had happened to the biblical city of Ephesus, only a few centuries earlier). Ironically, this scenario may also account for the precipitous lean of a certain 12th-century cathedral bell tower. In comparing the medieval map below to the one at upper left, it seems possible that its location was on (or very near) the ancient shoreline, which would account for the differences in the load bearing qualities of the soil beneath the tower.
A map of Pisa dating from the medieval times. The cathedral and its bell tower are indicated in the upper left corner of the walled city. The harbor swamp appears to have been drained by a moat/canal to create farmland just outside the city walls.
Medieval City Gate, Via San Ranierino, Pisa
As Italian cities go, Pisa is a very old city. There's some debate as to which ancient civilization first settled the area but traces of communal living date back to at least 500 B.C., long before the Romans came and built the first city on the site. With its fine harbor, Pisa became an important trading center with a sizable fleet of ships, which also meant a sizable navy to protect the city and its trade routes. A sizable navy also means a sizable inclination toward naval warfare either offensive or defensive. And, over the centuries leading up to the Renaissance, Pisa had seen a sizable amount of both. Even as its harbor disappeared, ships could still simply sail up the Arno to load and unload goods. Pisa's major rival was Genoa, just up the coast and eventually cities in Sardinia, and along the northern coast of Africa. And, as they say, you win some and you lose some.

The interior of the Pisa Cathedral in all its medieval Romanesque glory.

A medieval Pisa watch tower.
(It only appears to lean.)
As time went on, the Pisanos lost a few more battles than they won, culminating in 1406 with their being conquered and occupied by the Florentines. During the Renaissance years, there was enough political intrigue and military treachery for a dozen good Italian operas. At one point the city actually won back its independence from Florence. At yet another point in time, the city was literally sold, lock, stock, and leaning barrel to a wealthy family in Milan. No longer an important trading center, its seaport having migrated several miles down the ever-lengthening Arno River to Livorno, Pisa eventually (and permanently) lost its independence once more to Florence. Of course, by that time, Pisa didn't need much independence or a seaport, they'd become a lively tourist attraction.
View of Pisa, ca. 1859, David Roberts
(Notice, no bell tower.)


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