Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Bruce Keller joins legions of
tourists to take on the Leaning Tower

No single monument in the world has attracted the attention of the fabled leaning tower of Pisa.
The magnificence of the monuments of the ancient square bears witness to its place in history.

Japanese tourists lean in the foreground, pretending to put the tower upright.

The world’s visitors flock here to be gaze, often listing slightly themselves – consciously and not –to admire the grand tower, begun by Bonanno Pisano in 1174.

Its foundations were sinking from the beginning and it took nearly 200 years to complete her.  But that was finally accomplished with great fanfare in 1350, when Pisa was an important Italian port.

In the early Middle Ages, Pisa was a much sought-after center of trade.  It became a Florentine city in 1405, and was from the beginning recognizable from afar for its remarkable tilting tower.
Cruise ships dock in Livorno, and travelers hop aboard
a bus or taxi to head for nearby Pisa.

The area is a rich architectural center, well worth a visit if you’re in Tuscany.

A delight of Romanesque architecture, the square is photographed on a daily basis by the masses:   Germans, Dutch, French, English, Americans and native Italians, who proudly describe its history, with plenty of hand gestures, of course.

Trade, style and silt
German poet Goethe once said that Tuscany looks like Italy should and the Romanesque cathedral with its celebrated tower makes Pisa more Italian than any other city.

Pisa's Duomo is not quite as dramatic as
the one in Florence, but equally interesting.
In the 12th Century, when nearby Florence or Firenze was still caught in the upheaval of the Middle Ages, Pisa was at her apex.  Situated on the lovely Arno river and just 12 kilometers from the Ligurian Sea,  the town had close ties to ports in the Middle East and beyond.  But Pisa had a brief heyday,   because by 1300 the younger, more vital cities of the region began to pass her by and in the 15th Century, nature stole the bustling port by filling her harbor with silt.

World War II caused an even greater blow to the picturesque city.  Extensive damage fortunately spared the centerpiece of Pisan culture, the spectacular Piazza de Duomo.

That remains remarkably intact, incorporating both the European and Eastern architectural styles which caught the eyes of the well traveled Pisan merchants and sailors.

Though one can no longer climb to the top, as I was allowed to do during earlier visits, it’s possible to get almost within touching distance of the “torre,” whose design has remained the same through numerous attempts to repair it. Scaffolding and immense cables are a part of today’s Pisa, as continuing and sometimes controversial preservation efforts continue.

Pisa's Duomo has a Gothic look.
A structural failure, it seems, was finally pinpointed to the third floor centuries ago, attributed to  shifting deep beneath the earth’s surface.
Designer engineers and structural architects from all over the world have been solicited for their advice.  For the tower represents Pisa’s fundamental role in Italian culture, with its contributions to both a new era in sculpture and to the classic painting which would inspire many of Italy’s best and brightest:  Giotto and the artists of the Camposanto.

New artistic culture is born
During the first two centuries of the millenium, the Pisan republic played an important role in civilized life. Marble had not been widely used for several centuries, but the Pisan architects returned to it, drawn by its beauty and durability.  The square they envisioned was the most grandiose project conceived since the times of ancient Rome and Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni would, through their remarkable sculptural accomplishment, make a name for themselves to parallel those of Dante and Petrarca in literature.
Italy’s great artists of the following centuries would pay homage to the Pisanos as do we all when we admire the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo.

All that glitters: Pisa's Duomo ceiling is gold.
As building progressed, hundreds of workers were assigned to tasks both back-breaking and delicate.  For the nearly  two centuries of construction, the square was the largest work site in Europe, and its effect was wide-ranging.  Architecture students traveled hundreds of miles to observe the then inventive techniques and merging of influences.  Marble was appropriated from Roman monuments.   Islamic designs were incorporated in the cathedral’s Duomo or dome.  Internal colonades rose up from intricate geometrical decorations on the floors and the sculptures of the Battistero or baptistry took on a decidedly Gothic look.  The cloister of the Camposanto, or cemetery, reflected these varied cultural influences and students and masters from throughout Europe must certainly have smiled with pride as they recognized  their own cultures’ unique contributions.

The public unveiling of the square was a huge affair, with feasting, dancing and religious ceremony.  Builders and stone carvers were honored and toasted and the event was attended by noblemen and ladies from throughout the vineclad Tuscan hills.  Guests came from as near as the villages of Casastrada, Mura, Il Castagna, and neighboring Siena, famed for its Medieval spirit, as well as Italy’s larger sister cities of Rome, Venice and Florence.
Eve's apple gets a new spin in this Tuscan poster.

In the neighborhood
If your travels take you to Tuscany, you’ll surely visit Florence, the favorite Italian city of many, including this reporter.  It is immensely welcoming, inviting for walkers and picture-postcard beautiful, surrounded by gentle hills and dotted with villas.
Gorgeous fruits, nuts, candies await in Tuscany.

The steep hills of the eastern and central part of the area are latticed by olive orchards and vineyards and the coast, especially near the inviting town of Grosseto, is breathtaking.

Firenze was the birthplace of the Renaissance and the city has a dignity and grace that take the visitor back.  The harmony imbued by famous men survives the thousands of motor scooters and abundant cellular phones that have become a way of life in Italy of 2000.

For here Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Donatello, Ghiberti and Galileo held court.  The Medicis came to power here, amassing a fortune of the world’s best art, and San Giovanni walked here, known to the faithful as Saint John the Baptist.

The area is rich in history, dating back to the Etruscans.  Romans followed and the name, Florentia, was born.  Prophetically, it meant “destined to flourish” and flourish it did, through Goths, Byzantines, Lombards, clashing Guelphs and Ghibellines, warring blacks and white tribes.

Florentia even survived the deadly Black Plague which took no sides and wiped out half the city in the 14th century.

Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a few days in Florence, and it’s a lovely drive to Siena from Pisa.  You’ll turn inland and weave past industrial towns and the art-filled village of San Miniato.  There, you’ll gaze from a castle above the town’s 12th Century cathedral.  You’ll be the king or queen of the whole Arno Valley as you take minor roads through unspoiled Tuscan hills and towns of medieval towers.

Magnificent views abound from lookout posts built for prestige by noblemen.

Stop for a glass of vino because you’re in Chianti country.  Dine on fish soup and fresh pasta, and stay at hotels converted from Renaissance palaces.    Stroll the charming piazzas and meditate in the cathedrals and palaces, surrounded by ancient and carefully preserved paintings. Remarkably, this part of Italy still has the atmosphere of  hundreds of years ago. The landscape is a patchwork of textures bathed in a beautiful soft, golden pink light that has attracted painters through the centuries.

 English is spoken throughout this part of Italy, but even your basic Italian is appreciated.  A smile, a “prego” and a “grazie” go a long way towards international diplomacy.

You need not be religious to cherish this part of the world.  Its magic will touch you regardless of your persuasion and you’ll almost see the knights on horseback and hear the trumpets blare. You’ll step back in time on the narrow streets, protected by silent walls to hold you however briefly in the richest and most beautiful part of Italy.

If you go:  The two best ways to see this historic and well preserved section of Italy are by renting your own car, or by cruising into the nearby port of Livorno on a luxury liner then taking sidetrips.  Among the world’s best lines, Crystal Cruises offers a luxurious transit of this enticing part of the world, and our last Mediterranean visit on Crystal’s Serenity was a pampering and relaxing treat.  Livorno is on the west coast in the Ligurian sea about 80 minutes from Firenze. Pisa is nearby.  Many other more reasonably priced lines navigate the area, including Royal Caribbean and Holland America, which offer fine value for the dollar, which is increasing against the Euro daily.
Remember to explore, learn and live.  And check us out Wednesdays and Saturdays at:

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