Pisa Cathedral is one of the most impressive churches in Tuscany, Italy. A masterpiece of Pisan Romanesque architecture chiefly famous for its bell tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In the magnificent Piazza dei Miracoli stands the awe-inspiring Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Take time to enjoy the countless details of this elaborate white marble edifice, and don’t miss Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit inside.
Pisa Cathedral – One of the wonders of Italy
In 1063 Pisa’s fleet had just defeated the Saracens in Palermo, and the spoils of this conflict provided the funds to start building the Cathedral. At the time Pisa was one of the superpowers of the Mediterranean Sea and needed a Duomo that would match its prestige. The architect Buscheto combined Eastern architecture, Byzantine features and Lombard decoration to create a new style, called ‘Pisan Romanesque’. A style that expanded from here to many areas under Pisan control.
Enlarged in 1118, it was the biggest Cathedral in Europe for almost a century, and the pride of the city. If you look on one side of the edifice, you’ll notice where the new part was added, in prestigious marble instead of the poorer sandstone from Livorno.
Highlights of Pisa Cathedral
The marble is so finely worked it looks almost like embroidery. The black and white alternation of marble is an Islamic feature, while the blind arches are a Lombard motif. If you visit Lucca, you’ll see the same kind of arches at the Church of San Michele in Foro. The striking elliptical dome, added in 1380 and inspired by the Moors, was the first of its kind in Europe at the time.
The bronze doors were made by Florentine artists in the 17th century, after the original wooden doors were destroyed in a fire in 1595 that severely damaged the Cathedral.
The Romanesque-Gothic Leaning Bell Tower is both quirky and elegant, and deserves all the attention it gets.
Inside you’ll find striped columns and a great deal of gold decoration. The Byzantine-style mosaic in the apse, a Christ in Majesty with the Virgin and John the Baptist, dates from 1302 and is said to have been completed by Cimabue. The spatial division recalls that of Islamic mosques and Byzantine churches, with the columns and the matroneo or womens’s gallery, while the golden ceiling was added during Medici’s rule in the 16th century. The original wooden ceiling was destroyed by the fire.
There’re 68 monolithic columns brought here from Sardinia, that was under Pisa’s rule. The number represented how many churches were in Pisa at the time of the Cathedral’s construction. Notice the Medieval marble floor that was saved from the fire.
The marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano is Pisa Cathedral’s artistic highlight. It represented a new concept in Medieval sculpture: here the figures are detached from the background and seem to step out of the frame. They’re dynamic, alive. With the precise calculation of light and shadow (‘chiaroscuro’ effect) the artist created a real feeling of drama.
Giovanni Pisano has been called ‘the first modern sculptor’ by Henry Moore and mixes French Gothic with Classical influences. These scenes from the New Testament would have been particularly impressive at the time, showing realistic physicality and dramatic poses.
If you visit the Baptistery, have a look at the pulpit. It’s the work of Nicola Pisano, Giovanni’s father, a pioneer in this new form of sculpture.
San Ranieri patron of Pisa and the ‘Luminara” Festival
The mummified body of San Ranieri, the patron of Pisa, is kept on the chapel on the left of the main altar. He was a Pisan merchant, and after a life of travels and pleasures, left everything behind and spent years in the Holy Land, dedicated to prayers and performing miracles. Later he came back to Pisa and died here in 1161. His relics were moved to the Cathedral in 1688, and a big celebration that involved thousands of candles was organised for the occasion. Since then every year on the evening of the 16th of June, Pisa looks magical under this special illumination of the city centre. The Leaning Tower is decorated with candles, too.
The ‘lamp of Galileo Galilei’
Legend has it that Galileo, the founder of modern physics (born in Pisa in 1564), made one of his important discoveries right here in this church. While he was watching the swing of a bronze chandelier during mass, he noticed that it was taking exactly the same amount of time to swing back and forth, and came up with the theory of isochronism. The lamp that hangs in the Cathedral today is not the same lamp, but with the rich atmosphere of the cathedral, it’s not hard to imagine Galileo sitting in the pews.
Visit the Cathedral – practical information and tips
The entrance to the Cathedral is free, but you still need to collect a ticket and book a specific time. 90 people are allowed to enter every 30 minutes, and when there’re too many people, they only let you in if you buy the ticket for the Baptistry or the Cemetery (5 euros per person). In high season we strongly recommend you go early to book a time for your visit.