Pisa Excursion

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Pisa Excursion

We're taking a modern Autostrada west, through the Apennines to the once-proud city of Pisa, formerly the capital of an independent republic and one of the most powerful port cities in Italy. Along the way, we'll have a glimpse of several enchanting and historical towns, as well as the Tuscan countryside.

Prato  Off to the right, we can see the city of Prato, which illustrates the density of population in Italy. From here, it barely looks like a town, yet it has a population of over 100,000! The town thrived during the Middle Ages for its wool-making, which enabled it to employ famous artists and artisans in the building of its churches. Two things are of importance about the town: the legend of the Holy Girdle, and the life and art of the painter, Fra Filippo Lippi.

The Holy Girdle (Sacra Cintola). You recall "Doubting Thomas" from the New Testament: the apostle who wasn't entirely convinced that the resurrected Jesus was for real, and who had to thrust his hand into the wounds on Jesus' side before he believed. Well, he didn't believe in the Assumption of the Virgin either — at first. So he insisted that Mary's tomb be opened: it did not contain a corpse, but lilies and roses instead. His doubts began to melt. Seeking further enlightenment, he turned his eyes to heaven, and had a vision of the Virgin in Glory, who loosened her "girdle" (sash), and let it fall to him. The legend further states that a citizen of Prato found the girdle in Jerusalem while on the First Crusade (12th century), and brought it back to Prato. It is venerated in the city, and kept in the Chapel of the Holy Girdle, located in the Cathedral.

Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469)  His career illustrates perfectly the mixture of piety and worldliness in Renaissance Italy. Ordained a monk at age 15, he didn't stop chasing skirts, and used to sneak out of the monastery at night for carousing in the town. One time, he was captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in Africa. But his artistic ability so impressed the Saracens that they freed him. He returned to the monastery as chaplain. One of the young nuns — Lucrezia — was blonde and beautiful, and the two had an affair. A child was born. A scandal developed, but Cosimo de Medici, ruler of Florence, intervened, released Lippi from his vows, and permitted them to marry. Lippi painted Lucrezia's smooth, oval face often, sometimes representing her as the Virgin, sometimes as the wicked Salome. Strange mixture! Lippi continued chasing skirts, and finally a jealous husband poisoned him. Though privately a libertine, Lippi continued to paint religious scenes, and is one of the leading figures of Italian Renaissance art. An unforgettable psychological portrait of Lippi is given in the poem by Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi," in which the painter/monk tells his life story, admitting that he isn't exactly a saint, but claiming to be as human as the next man, with faults (a robust libido among them) we all share.

Pistoia  To our right, this town is situated in the foothills of the Apennines. It is an old Roman town, once called Pistoria in Latin. It was a "free commune" (independent city state) in the 12th century, when it reached its height. There was some fighting in this area toward the end of WW II, and a number of older buildings were damaged, but then restored.

Montecatini Terme  Also on our right, this town is a famous health spa, as the name "Terme" indicates. The ancient Romans discovered the mineral waters, and even today flocks of Italians with liver, gastric, bowel, and diabetic ailments assemble in the town for the cure during the summer and autumn.

Lucca  Also to the right, this town is an old Roman army camp from the days of the Roman campaigns against the Etruscans. That's why its streets are laid out at right angles, marking the rows of army tents. Like the other cities in the area, it became a "free commune" and prospered from trade. Two items are of special interest in Lucca: the legend of the Holy Visage, and the exploits of Elisa Bonaparte.

The Holy Visage (Volto Santo) refers to the face of Christ on a famous crucifix kept in the local cathedral. It is said that these features were carved by Nicodemus from his actual memory of Christ. The legend claims that an Italian bishop found this miraculous crucifix while on a crusade in the Holy Land. Convinced that no harm could come to him as long as he was with it, he embarked on a simple rowboat, without a crew or even sails, and drifted across the Mediterranean, landing on the coast of Italy. But then rivalry grew up between the people of Lucca and the people of Luni about which town should have the crucifix. The Bishop of Lucca conducted a "test" to see which town should get it: he put it in an oxcart, and let the oxen take the cart wherever they wanted. The oxen started off toward Lucca, and the crucifix has been in Lucca's cathedral ever since. The fame of this crucifix was spread by merchants traveling to and from Lucca, and even the kings of France would take their oaths by saying: "By Saint Vaudeluc" (Santo Volto di Lucca). Every 14th of September, a procession takes place in Lucca with the Holy Visage, and various orchestras in the town compete for prizes — a flashback to the competition between Lucca and Luni for possession of the crucifix.

Elisa Bonaparte (1770-1820), the sister of Napoleon, was made by him the Princess of Lucca in 1805, and married an Italian officer named Baciocchi. She had her brother's strong will and public spirit, and had the local roads repaired, improved farming, and cleared the area of bandits. She also gave handsome patronage to artists and writers, although her interest was often less in their work than in them — and rumors spread far and wide. After the fall of Napoleon's empire, she retreated to the provinces of northern Italy, controlled at the time by Austria.

Introduction to Pisa  (COURIER: Start this right after Lucca, to leave enough time.)

This is one of the loveliest towns in Italy — a city that attained grandeur early, then sank slowly into decline; this fact alone illustrates how different medieval life was in northern Europe as against southern Europe. At the time that northern Europeans huddled in rough, massive castles, the people of southern Europe were enjoying commercial and artistic splendor: the Leaning Tower, e.g., was begun as early as the 12th century! Pisa is situated on the banks of the River Arno — the river we thought we left behind in Florence.

Historical sketch: Pisa is one of Italy's oldest cities: founded by the Greeks, then taken over by the Etruscans, finally conquered by the expanding Roman state (180 B.C.). The Roman Emperor Hadrian liked to spend part of his summer in Pisa, and built a palace in the center of the town. The cathedral stands on the spot today. In the early Middle Ages, all cities along the Mediterranean faced a common threat: the Saracens, Arab pirates who sailed along the coast, plundering towns and carrying off the population to sell into slavery. The people of Pisa built stout defenses against the Saracens, and they also built a large fleet. Pisa became a leading maritime republic, adding Sardinia, part of Corsica, and the Balearic Islands to its domains. But this brought it into rivalry with two other maritime republics: Venice and Genoa. The Pisans struggled bitterly with Genoa, but finally lost a sea battle in 1284; from that time on, Pisa was subordinate in importance to Genoa. But during its period of flourishing, Pisa supported the arts, built churches and squares, and founded a famous university where the scientist Galileo later studied and taught. Finally, in 1405, Pisa was incorporated into the territory of Florence, and shared its fate from that time on. Pisa was badly bombed during WW II, and some of its oldest districts were seriously damaged. Still, painstaking effort was put into restoring these older areas, and the visitor walking among the narrow streets would hardly guess that they are a reconstruction.

Galileo: One of Pisa's most illustrious citizens. An astronomer and physicist, Galileo Galilei was born in the town, studied at its university, and became known throughout Europe for his experiments, for which he used several of the buildings of the city. In the cathedral, for example, he studied the movement of the pendulum to determine the rate at which a moving pendulum begins to slow down. His most famous experiments were conducted from the top of the Leaning Tower, S feet above the ground. He dropped various objects, and measured the time (t) it would take them to fall to the ground. He formulated their rate of acceleration (a) as 16 feet per second, per second, in accordance with his now-famous equation: S = 1/2 at2 Later, he came into conflict with the church by upholding the view that the earth rotates around the sun (the Renaissance, heliocentric theory), whereas the established view was that the sun and other planets rotate around the earth (the pre-Renaissance, geocentric theory). He was forced by the Inquisition to renounce his view, on pain of execution. The Church would be at the center of things, not rotating around the sun. He did renounce, but, according to the story, said secretly under his breath: "But the earth does move!"

Cathedral: Like most church buildings in Pisa, this one shows a unique style peculiar to this area, a style known as "Pisan Romanesque" — featuring brightly colored marble slabs, of alternating colors (reminiscent of the cathedral in Florence). It was begun at the incredibly early date of 1068 — when the people of northern Europe dwelt in hovels! Another peculiarity about Pisa's cathedral (like the other cathedrals in this area of Italy) is that its various parts are actually separate buildings. Usually in Europe, a cathedral will include somewhere inside a Baptistry, and, attached to it, a Bell Tower. Here, however, these are three separate buildings. The Baptistry is a lovely construction begun in 1153, and finished 200 years later. It is made of handsome marble, with six sides. But the most famous building is, of course the Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente), begun in 1174. This is the bell tower of the cathedral, made up of six galleries, each one having 30 columns. The tower is built of brilliant white marble. Various theories have developed to explain the leaning. One holds that it was actually intended by the architect, Bonnano Pisano, to prove his engineering skill. (Imagine if the Empire State Building had been made to lean for the same reason!) Another, more widely accepted theory is that the leaning was caused by the sinking of the soil during the early stages of construction. In fact, the top of the tower is a full 14 feet off-center, and it continues to lean farther year by year, prompting widespread concern about its possibly toppling over. Various engineering projects have been undertaken to retard the leaning: braces inserted underneath through ditches, new foundations, etc., but nothing so far has seemed to work. There are 292 steps up to the top, forming a spiral: as you take them, you'll feel an odd sensation. You keep being drawn to the lower side of the tower each time you go around, as though you were in one of those undulating walkways in an amusement park. From the top, of course, you'll have a splendid view of Pisa as well as the other buildings of the cathedral.

(COURIER: Now give a brief preview of activities in Pisa: sightseeing, free time, if any, etc.)

Ponte Santa Trinita  This is the next bridge downstream (west), which you can see from the Ponte Vecchio. You wouldn't believe it, but the whole bridge was put back together from bits of stone after WW II. In the closing days of the war, when the Allies were advancing on Florence, the Germans blew up the bridge to make it difficult for the Allies to cross the river. After the war, the whole city participated in the search for the pieces. Bit by bit the bridge was reassembled and everything put into place — except the head of one of the statues. A search was conducted again, and the missing head finally turned up downstream. Almost the whole of the city came out to see the last piece fitted into the puzzle.

(COURIER: Turn around and head back north, taking the broad Via Roma. Note the Piazza della Repubblica on the way back to the Duomo. It shows you the more modern side of Florence. Here in the evening, the cafes are full of people singing and talking excitedly, and roving bands turn out popular tunes.)


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