Recently, our friend from Discovery Pisa lead us around one of Italy’s most impressive squares: the Square of Miracles in Pisa. It’s a fascinating place where history and legend mix with otherworldly architecture. A place of rare beauty that glistens white on a field of green, with a tower that defies gravity and belief – the iconic Leaning Tower that has become a symbol of Tuscany and all of Italy.
Discovering the Square of Miracles
We meet our guide Andrea at the Porta Nuova, from which we can already see the tower of Pisa leaning at its crazy angle. It’s hot and the Square of Miracles that opens out behind the gate is filled with excited tourists posing for photos in front of the tower. “This is nothing”, says Andrea. “There are usually more people here.” Though it certainly looks full enough to us. A crowd of hats, shorts, flags, selfie sticks. The excitement in the square is tangible. For many, it’s the dream of a lifetime and a thousand cameras are already hard at work capturing the moment.
“The Porta Nuova, or New Gate, was opened here by the Medici, the new rulers of Pisa, in 1562″ Andrea tells us. “The original Medieval gate is much simpler and you can see still see it on one side of the Baptistry. People would originally come through this door and enter the Baptistry from the west, the ‘dark side’, and after being baptised and so purified, they would come out from the baptistry’s door facing East – the one that is used today”. In the square, all the stages of human life were symbolised; from birth (Baptistry), to marriage in the Cathedral, to the hospital (south of the square, today it hosts the Museo delle Sinopie). The last stop in this journey was inevitably the cemetery to the north, the Camposanto.
Where does the name “Square of Miracles” come from?
“It wasn’t called ‘Piazza dei Miracoli’, or Square of Miracles at that time, the name came much later. It was invented by Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio in one of his novels at the beginning of the 20th century and after that is stuck, being so apt to describe the magnificence of this place”, explains our guide.
Pisa was a Maritime Republic, and this Square had to reflect its glory.
The square was the pride of Medieval Pisa, at the time when the city was a European power busy conquering the Mediterranean posts against the other Maritime Republics and fighting the Saracens. And this role of Pisa is clearly reflected in the architecture.
Pisa was in touch with Mediterranean cultures and the Arab world and so brought back cultural influences. Arab artists were probably working in Pisa at the time, and Pisan artists were taking notes from islamic art. This wasn’t only the case in art and architecture however. Pisan born Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, contributed by being the first westerner to recognise and write about the Hindu-Arabic number system which made calculation so much easier.
“Built in 1064 and enlarged in 1118, for almost a century the Cathedral was the biggest in Europe. Pisa was determined to keep it this way.” Andrea points out where the addition was made at the side of the church, where it’s clear different stone is being used. “At this point they had more money to spend and used the richer marble instead of the poorer sandstone from the Livorno area”.
Visiting The Cathedral – the splendid interior
“Everybody comes here for the Leaning Tower, which is the church’s bell tower, but my favourite place in the square is the Cathedral”, says Andrea as she gives us the tickets. “The entrance is free, but you still need to get a ticket from the booth as they limit the number of visitors: 90 every 30 minutes. When there are too many people you can’t get in unless you buy the ticket for the baptistry and cemetery”.
The Cathedral is a mixture of Lombard, Arab and Byzantine styles – a real mix that shows us just how much of an international power Pisa was. The open galleries of the facade are Lombard, the mosaic 14th century byzantine, the use of double colours and and the dome have clear Islamic influences. Inside we find an example of matroneo, the gallery reserved for the women during mass, that was a common feature in Byzantine churches.
“The wooden doors and ceiling of the cathedral were destroyed in a fire in 1595. At this point it was given a new ceiling paid for by the Medici. The splendid golden sky that we see today contains a staggering 24 kilos of gold leaf. The mosaic done in 1302 by Cimabue miraculously survived the fire”
Andrea shows us her favourite piece, the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano. “It’s a masterpieces of Gothic sculpture, filled with religious symbols. If you examine the scene of Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents you can clearly recognise Pisano’s style, vivid and alive, and you can really empathise with the terrified mothers. He makes the marble come alive”.
The Baptistry – the biggest of its kind in Italy
The Baptistry stands like a massive cake on the green expanse of grass. The lower part is in Romanesque style and simpler, while the upper part has Gothic extravagance. The edifice is dedicated aptly to Saint John the Baptist and its significance was very important within the square. People couldn’t attend mass in the church without being baptised. With the purification of Baptism people could enter into the Christian life.
A menacing lion guarding the city of Pisa
Looking at the entrance of the baptistry you can see a lion on the city’s walls. Its origin is Etruscan, placed at the perimeter of the square. Originally the lion faced outwards as if protecting the city. However, after the Florentine occupation the lion was turned to face the inside of the square, as if surveying it. “The Medici“, explains Andrea, “were sending a clear message to the Pisans here. They were in control and keeping them in check”.
The star of the show – the Leaning Bell Tower
Finally we arrive at the bell tower, where a long queue is waiting for the exciting climb. “I’ve climbed it a couple of times. When you climb you can really feel the inclination, it’s quite weird. I’m not in a hurry to go back up”, says our guide. The soil rich in water has created problems since the very beginning. “The first architect to work on the tower, in 1173, left the work unfinished at the third floor, when the edifice began to tilt dangerously”.
The story of the tower is a story of determination. Passion versus physics. The soil of the square was too soft to build on and this fact, combined with the tower’s small base, made the structure unstable. Throughout the centuries many things have been tried to stop the inclination; from draining the soil below the foundations to injecting liquid sulphur into the soil. Though some of these things have been total failures, others gave hope to this beloved tower. So far, so good. The tower is still standing and still attracts fans from all over the world.
“You should see the city during the Luminara di San Ranieri‘, concludes Andrea before leaving. “I really recommend it. Pisa is covered with tiny lights – thousands of candles illuminating the city centre. It’s quite magical. It happens every year on the 16th of June”. She really loves this city and her passion is contagious. She’s one tour guide that really makes history come alive.
Please note: On this tour we were guests of Discovery Pisa. All opinions are our own.