Famous as the place Saint Peter landed in Italy, San Pietro a Grado is a handsome romanesque basilica, chock-full of frescoes. It stands a few kilometers from Pisa airport.
San Pietro a Grado is one of the top Romanesque Churches in Tuscany. The Basilica stands on the ruins of an ancient Roman port, though hundreds of years of silt deposits mean it’s now some 6 km distant from the shore. As its name suggests, its most famous visitor was Peter the apostle who arrived here in 44 AD from Palestine. Apparently he stayed in a building on the same spot where the church was later built.
It was from here that Christianity would spread throughout the territory, and in the centuries that followed it became an important stop-off point for pilgrims. The only reminder of this notable past is an altar once used by Saint Peter himself, a single column supporting a simple block of stone.
When the church was built, Pisa was already a strong and wealthy maritime republic and this edifice was an ideal way to flaunt their power. The exterior is both elegant and solid, with a frieze of blind arches and ceramic basins that catch the sun. These are copies; the originals are now at the Museo Civico San Matteo in Pisa).
Remains of the different stages of construction are still visible: Roman marble fragments are built into the northern wall, where the entrance is, and has rows of composite columns with Corinthian and Ionic capitals. It is a singular structure without a facade. Instead there are three apses on one side of the church, and one apse on the other.
What to see in San Pietro a Grado
The frescoes in the interior were commissioned for the 1300 Jubilee and are the work of Deodato Orlandi from Lucca, who following Giotto’s example, attempted to give spacial depth to his scenes. In a profusion of ochre and red, there are scenes from the life and death of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (the first crucified upside down, the second decapitated) and their burial. There are scenes from Constantine’s dream about the true cross, and the episode where Peter, walking across the water, doubted his faith and started to sink.
Situated immediately above the arches there are portraits of the popes still in excellent condition – 31 in total – documenting the succession from the first Pope, Saint Peter to Pope John XVII in 1007. Each has an identical pose with a hand raised in a gesture of blessing and a Bible in the other. The portraits are noted for their exquisite level of detail and colour.