On The Road Travel Essays

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This is a half-day unguided excursion. It includes the entrance fee to the cathedral in Pisa. The journey takes the A11 motorway west, a few miles out of Florence after traversing some dull suburbs, and passes through fairly attractive Tuscan landscape for about an hour. The foothills of the Appenines and then the Apuan Alps lie always immediately to the north until you turn away from the mountains towards the mouth of the Arno on which Pisa stands. The built landscape is at first predominantly industrial and suburban, then fields given over to agriculture, then some olive groves around Lucca. You pass four towns of importance but unfortunately can get no real impression of them from the motorway.

Prato (9 miles) an industrial town, 165,000 inhabitants. A textile city, has been since the Middle Ages, one of the most important in Europe. It does have a lovely historic centre (though the distant impression from the road is of ugly suburbs). Its jewel is the relic of the Sacred Girdle, la Cintola, which the Virgin Mary gave to St. Thomas after the Assumption.

Pistoia (21 miles) another industrial town, 90,000 inhabitants. Originally Roman, it reached its height of wealth and power in the C12. It was an ironworking centre then as it is now. It gave its name to the pistol.

Montecatini Terme (30 miles) Italy's most famous spa town, 25,000 inhabitants. A wonderful place, stylish, chic, with a turn-of-the-century elegance. Has over 200 hotels and 8 curative establishments dedicated to liver, gastric, bowel and diabetic ailments. You drink the warm mineral water, take mud baths, hot baths and various wondrous elixirs and inhalations. It also has a golf course, a horse-racing track, natural parks with beautiful walks, elegant gardens with bandstands and a delightful historic upper town reached by funicular railway. A little paradise. Verdi used to come here all the time, as did Gary Cooper in his prime. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco honeymooned here.

Lucca (45 miles) great historic Tuscan city, 86,000 inhabitants. Perfectly preserved C16 walls, among the best in Italy, medieval historic centre. This was the birthplace of Puccini (Madame Butterfly etc.) Lucca's most famous relic is the crucifix of the Holy Visage or Volto Santo which, according to legend, was carved from memory by Nicodemus shortly after the Crucifixion and finished by an angel. (Sadly this figure actually turns out to be C11 in origin, but that is the kind of rationalist objection that should be swiftly ignored.)

The last short stretch, another 10 miles or so, between Lucca and Pisa is unappealing, following the ill-kempt marshy lands of the Arno delta.

On arrival in Pisa you will not be going into the town centre itself but just to the north of the centre, to the Piazza del Duomo. This grassy square, containing three great landmarks and dominated by the extraordinary Leaning Tower or Torre Pendente, is an astonishing sight, one of the most famous images in the world. The Pisan authorities may do their best to ruin it with cheap and rubbishy souvenir stalls all around but its impact remains undiminished. The square's better known nickname, the Campo dei Miracoli or Field of Miracles, is an appropriate description.

A Bit of History  In origin Pisa is a very old city, already inhabited for 2,000 years before the arrival of the Romans. Its great age though was from the C11 to the C13. Its strength came from the sea. It had gained this maritime power after centuries of struggle against the Saracens. These were piratical Muslim peoples from the North African coast (principally Libya and Algeria) whose success was based on pillage and plunder. In the early Middle Ages the Saracen fleet controlled much of the western Mediterranean. When the Pisans captured from them the strategic Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Mallorca, they in turn came to dominate the sea. From Pisa down almost to Rome they ruled the entire Italian seaboard. But there were two other coastal cities which like Pisa were growing at the same time into maritime powers — Venice and Genoa — and they became, all three, bitter rivals. In 1284 Pisa was defeated in battle by the Genoese and from then on its days of hegemony in the western Mediterranean were over. The harbour silted up. (It now lies six miles to the west.) The town remained wealthy but it plummeted in power and had to submit to a succession of overlords like Genoa, Milan and Florence. Pisa still had its moments. In the early C16 for fifteen splendid years this little city held off the combined might of Florence and France. In fact Pisa never really ceased to matter. It mattered enough in WW II to merit continuous bombardment from Axis and Allied forces. Today it is a city of 100,000 inhabitants with a major university. Nonetheless, after the defeat by Genoa in 1284, Pisa never again reached the heights of glory that it achieved in the Middle Ages at the time of the creation of the Campo dei Miracoli.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) Pisa's most illustrious citizen. Physicist and astronomer, he studied and taught here at the university before moving to Florence. He built a telescope for astronomical purposes and with it he discovered Jupiter's moons and the formation of Saturn. He confirmed by his observations Copernicus' theory that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun, opposed to the official Church view that everything moved around the earth. The theological implications of this were the cause of massive controversy. He was summoned to Rome by the Pope in 1633 to renounce his conclusions publicly on pain of torture or even execution. He did so but under his breath he whispered secretly "E pur sì muove" ("But [the earth] does move"). His experiments with the velocity of falling objects (conducted from the top of the Leaning Tower) and with the movement of a pendulum (supposedly inspired by watching the bronze lamp hanging from the cathedral ceiling) paved the way for Isaac Newton and the birth of modern mechanics.

Campo dei Miracoli  Three buildings decorate the square: the cathedral, the Baptistery and the campanile or Leaning Tower of Pisa. (It is typical of Tuscany, cf. also Florence, that these should be three separate buildings rather than all part of the same structure which is the norm in the rest of Europe.) They form a magnificent ensemble laid out among green lawns. They all belong to Pisa's golden age, C11 to mid C13. The material is pristine white marble alternating with slim bands of dark marble. This cool and beautiful colour coordination is one of the most striking aspects of the site. The style is known as Pisan Romanesque and again is common to all three buildings. It is characterised first by the material but more importantly by the use of simple sequences of geometric shapes. Look, for example, at the cathedral facade: rectangle, triangle, rectangle, triangle — a beautifully simple rhythm. The other obvious and omnipresent feature of the style is the row upon row of open arcades. You can see this again in the cathedral facade, or around the first floor of the Baptistery or round the six galleries of the Leaning Tower.

Cathedral  This is the prototype of that Pisan Romanesque style, begun in the 1060s. It is normally entered through the door nearest the Leaning Tower (though you may have to buy your ticket in a nearby office). The interior is massive, 320 ft long and 110 ft wide. It has five aisles and 68 huge pillars. Make sure to look up at the decorated ceiling of the nave. There are numerous monuments but the most famous is the Gothic pulpit (1302-11) by the brothers Giovanni and Nicolà Pisano. It stands on eleven columns representing the apostles without Judas, all resting on lions. The beautiful reliefs are of scenes from the new Testament. The decoration is florid and exquisite. Above you now hangs the lamp said to have inspired Galileo's theories (though in fact this lamp was put up some years after Galileo formulated those theories). Incidentally, the campanile isn't the only building around here that leans. If you look at the west front in profile you can clearly see the cathedral falling ever so slightly forward.

Baptistery  This baptistery was begun in 1152 and completed about 100 years later. Inside it is quiet and moving and has a very beautiful acoustic. Remember that Pisa had important trading and cultural connections with the Mediterranean. The design of this building is inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Look out especially for the lovely C13 marble font, inlaid in marble, and the pulpit with its five scenes sculpted in high relief of the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi,the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement.

Leaning Tower  This is of course Pisa's pièce de résistance and one of the great icons of the world. It is the cathedral belltower. It has eight storeys and a spiral staircase to the top of 294 steps. (At the time of writing, late 1998, it is no longer open to the public because it is now considered a dangerous structure.) It is about 180 ft high on the north side and 182.5 ft high on the south side. It leans about 15 ft out of true. Every year it moves about 1 milimetre. The various attempts through the centuries to stop the tower from collapsing have probably only accentuated the problem. At the moment they have got steel cables inserted around the base in an attempt to stabilise the structure.* The tower leaned (and in fact twisted — you can see if you look carefully) almost from day one. It was begun in 1173 and when it was only 35 ft high they noticed the lean stopped construction. About 100 years later, seeing that the tower showed no sign of falling over, they carried on at an angle. It has been that way ever since.

*Postscript: December 1998: The latest phase in the project to stabilise the Leaning Tower has just begun. Two steel cables have been connected to a wire 'corset' that has been fixed at the height of the second storey. They will soon be extended out to two metal pylons situated about 100 yards away on the north side of the square, so as to serve as a brace against any further lean. Two taut steel cables stretching across the Campo dei Miracoli is not likely to have any kind of beautifying effect on the place, but they will ensure the safety and continued existence of one of the most famous monuments in the world (at least if the engineers have calculated right).

**Postscript no.2: Parking at Pisa has changed. Coaches can no longer pick up and drop off outside the Campo dei Miracoli. There is now a new parking well away from the square from which the group have to walk about 10 minutes to their destination. If necessary, i.e., if you have an adult group or a group incapable of walking, there are also shuttle buses available on the spot. They go regularly and cost LIT 2.000 per person each way. Play it by ear. If you think it's best to get the bus, do so and put it on expenses. Get the group to walk if you possibly can.


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