Sunday, July 25, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Pisa

From Florence, heading back to France, Pisa is a natural stop. Given the fame of the place and the throng of tourists around it, parking was surprisingly easy and inexpensive. There is a good parking lot walking distance from the tower, the cathedral, and baptistery that costs only €0.60 an hour. Food is another matter. Avoid the obvious places near the tower.

Yes, the tower really leans--a lot. But I was expecting that. What impressed me more was the dazzlingly white marble of the tower, the cathedral, and the baptistery. Both the tower and church have inscriptions and carvings at random positions. Some of the inscriptions set into the church walls are incomplete and upside down. Clearly stones were recycled from other buildings--evidently by illiterate craftsman. A good example is a pair of stones near the bottom of the tower with a bear, dragon, and ram (pictured). The effect is rather charming. The bright marble contrasts sharply with the broad green lawns that surround the buildings.

The tower is not unique either for leaning or for being round (although round bell towers appear to be rare), but it certainly is unique for the degree of its lean. The spiral staircase leading up the tower is surprisingly wide, and the steps are of generous size. It would be an easy climb if not for the effects of the inclination. As there are no windows, there is no horizon to use as a reference. The result is a sort of pulsation of gravity. Walking into the lean, there is an impression of lightness. You get the feeling of crossing a flat surface or even descending as you the walk up the stairs all the while feeling not quite upright--which is disorienting. Gradually the height and inclination of the stairs seems to grow as you begin to walk against the lean--as if someone has "turned up" gravity. The effect repeats as you go around and around the building. From the top is a panoramic view of the cathedral, baptistery, adjoining cemetery, and the countryside beyond. Pisa today is about 8 miles from the sea. In its heyday it was nearer the coast. The river Arno has deposited much silt at its mouth over the centuries.

The cathedral deserves more attention than it gets. It gives an impression of both richness and restraint. I didn't realize how old the building is. It was begun in 1063, before the Battle of Hastings, and fully a century before the start of construction on the campanile--the famous leaning tower (begun in 1173), making the church nearly 1,000 years old. Something about the place immediately put me in mind of buildings I've seen in southern Spain and in Istanbul. There is something vaguely Islamic about the numerous columns, the use of alternating bands of white and colored marble in the interior, and in the heavy use of abstract inlays. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, given Pisa's history as a maritime republic.

The architectural highlight of the interior is usually said to be the elaborately carved stone pulpit (1302-1310), the work of Giovanni Pisano, son of Nicola Pisano, creator of the earlier pulpit in the baptistery (1260, also considered a masterpiece of medieval carving). Both are remarkably animated considering how early they are. Columns are supported by lions that have just downed prey. Some of the panels showing scenes from the bible, crowded with many figures, have a riotous look not typical of Romanesque statuary, which is usually very plain, solid, and stable-looking. My photo here shows a figure on one of the supporting columns from the pulpit in the cathedral that anticipates renaissance sculpture. There is also a 13th century mosaic in the apse that recalls some of those at St. Mark's, in Venice, and reminded me also of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul.

The ceiling is covered with richly carved and guilded (in some areas polychromed) panels of wood. All in all, a beautiful building. Gallileo is said to have been inspired to think about the physics of the pendulum by observing the motion of the large hanging lantern here, but that story requires an anachronism. Gallileo does appear to have used the neighboring tower to do experiments on gravity and acceleration. There is a stone tablet to that effect set into the wall near the exit of the tower.

The Baptistery is a round building and the largest baptistery in Italy. It's impressively spacious, but notably bland inside--with very little decoration and a completely plain dome (although a guard told me that at least part of the interior of the dome was once painted sky blue). The building dates to 1152, when construction began to replace an older baptistery on the site. A plaque somewhere noted that the remains of an even older one were found in 1936 under one of the big lawns.

The outside, however, is comparatively ornate. Gothic features were added to the original Romanesque design in the 13th and 14th century. One half of the dome is covered with what look like terra cotta tiles. The other half is plain, giving the dome a somewhat unfinished look. I could find no information about this, but one guard speculated that it was done to protect the building from salty sea air, which is plausible; the baptistery is the building closest to the sea, the tiles are on the seaward side, and the sea at the time was many miles closer. The acoustics of the very big space are notable. Once every 30 minutes a guard walks into the center of the building and sings a few notes to demonstrate the echo and sustain. The design of the building is attributed to Diotisalvi. His name and the date 1153 (corresponding to 1152 by today's reckoning) are inscribed on a pillar, but I learned that after leaving the place. The large round interior columns are made of stone from Sardinia and Elba.

In 1257 a hospital and in 1277 the cemetery (the Camposanto) that complete the complex as we know it today were added. Today the hospital houses the Museo delle Sinopie, which preserves detached and restored sinopie (preparatory drawings) from the frescoes of the Camposanto. Gravestones from all around the cathedral complex were moved to the cemetery. The cemetery was built as a cloister with a central lawn. The gothic accents in the archways around the cloister were added in the 14th century. Long ago roman and other classical sculpture and sarcophagi were brought here for display. Many of these are still in place along the walls. Hundreds of carved tombstones are set into the pavement, including stones honoring people buried as recently as a few years ago, but most are very old. I particularly liked one with an image of scissors and clippers--perhaps the grave of a metalworker? The date in Roman numerals looks like 1377.

Also eye-catching was a more modern tomb topped by an incongruously comely lass. A little searching on the Internet turned up a few facts. This is the tomb of Ottaviano-Fabrizio Mossotti, who died in 1863. He was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist. He chose exile in the early 1820s following the political disturbances at around that time. He moved to Argentina (after periods in Switzerland and London), where he taught astronomy and physics. He was the Chair of Experimental Physics in Buenos Aires between 1827 and 1835. He eventually returned to Italy. In 1841, he took the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Pisa University and later took on responsibility for teaching celestial mechanics and geodesy there. He eventually became a senator, in1861, two years before his death, in Pisa. As for the comely lass, notice that she is leaning on a stack of thick books. Call her a personification of science, and her presence here makes more sense.

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