Pisa, Its Leaning Tower, Baptistery, and Cathedral
Pisa, once a wealthy sea-trading power, built its three must-see sights in one spectacular square, the Field of Miracles: the grand cathedral (in Pisan Romanesque), the baptistery (with remarkable acoustics), and the famously tipsy tower.
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While Florence is the big draw in Tuscany, there are a handful of side-trips within about an hour by bus or train. Pisa, with its famous tipsy tower, makes a wonderful day trip.
Pisa is a grand city with a grand history. For nearly three centuries, until about the year 1300, Pisa was a booming port town, rivaling Venice and Genoa as a sea-trading power. From here, where the Arno River meets the sea, its 150-foot galleys cruised throughout the Mediterranean.
Pisa’s three must-see sights — the Cathedral, Baptistery, and leaning bell tower — are reminders of its long ago sea-trading wealth. This dazzling ensemble floats regally on the best lawn in Italy. This square — the Piazza del Duomo — was nicknamed the “Campo dei Miracoli,” or Field of Miracles, for the grandness of the undertaking. The architectural style throughout is Pisa’s very own “Pisan Romanesque.”
Where traditional Romanesque has a heavy fortress feel, Pisan Romanesque is light and elegant. The buildings — with their tight rows of thin columns, geometric designs, and striped colored marble — give the square a striking unity.
The 200-foot-tall bell tower is famous because it leans about 15 feet. The tower started to lean almost immediately after construction began. Various architects tried to “correct” the problem of leaning by kinking the top level up straight. Climbing to the top is an unforgettable experience, offering great views of the city, the square, and its dramatic duomo, or cathedral.
Pisa’s huge and richly decorated cathedral is artistically more important than its more famous bell tower. Its ornate facade glitters in the sun. The 320-foot-long nave was the longest in Italy in the 12th century, when it was built. The floor plan is that of a traditional Roman basilica — 68 Corinthian columns dividing the nave into five aisles. The striped marble and arches-on-columns give it an exotic, almost mosque-like feel.
The pulpit by Giovanni Pisano dates from around 1300. Pisano left no stone uncarved in his pursuit of beauty. While this was sculpted over a century before the Renaissance began, Michelangelo himself traveled here to marvel at Pisano’s work, drawing inspiration from its realism.
In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t even enter the church until you were baptized. That’s why baptisteries like Pisa’s were free-standing buildings adjacent to the church. The interior is simple and spacious. A statue of John, the first baptist — the man who baptized Christ — seems to say, “Welcome to my baptistery.” The finely crafted font is plenty big for baptizing adults by immersion — medieval style.
A highlight here for many is the remarkable acoustics… resulting in echoes long enough to let you sing three-part harmony… solo.