Thursday, 18 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Leaning on Pisa

Despite the leaning, the bell tower is a gorgeous sight
We made a short but fun visit to Pisa and the Leaning Tower is still tilted but looks much cleaner than it used to be. It was such a gleaming shade of white we had to wear shades.

The Baptistry standing under blue skies
The bell tower was built in 1152 and it is believed it was designed by Bonnano Pisano, and the story goes that he realized the first few tiers of the tower were leaning due to the swampy area it was built on so he skipped town out of embarrassment.

However, recent studies suggest Diotisalvi was the original architect as the style looks similar to the bell tower of San Nicola and the Baptistry, both in Pisa; however he usually signed his buildings and there is no signature on the bell tower.

Nevertheless, the tower was built over a period of 199 years and several attempts were made to straighten it out, while at one point a war prevented work on it for almost a century.

The story that Galileo dropped two cannon balls of different masses from the tower to demonstrate speed was independent of mass, but apparently this was not true, as the only source is Galileo's secretary.

Inside the baptistry there are clean, simple lines
In any event, in 1990 efforts were made to stop the tower from tilting further -- but also to retain the tilt for tourism reasons. This was accomplished by removing the soft soil and replacing it with dry soil to mesh with the environment like glue and this was finally completed in 2008.

These days people have to pay 15 euros to climb the tower, and only 25 people can go up at a time in 20-minute intervals.

Given the short time we had here, we just took pictures with the tower -- trying to push it back up -- and marvelled at how clean it was, as it didn't look like that the last time we saw it over 20 years ago.

Before getting to the Leaning Tower though, there are two other magnificent buildings to check out -- the Baptistry and Duomo, or cathedral. There's also the Campo Santo or cemetary, but we visited the first two.

Looking over at the Dumo, or cathedral
The Baptistry was built because in Catholicism, it was believed that if you weren't baptized you were not allowed into the church. And so the baptistry was for people -- mostly babies -- to be baptized and then they could enter the church. Smaller churches would have a tiny corner near the entrance of the church for baptisms.

This particular one in Pisa called Battistero di San Giovanni, or the Baptistry of St John, is very grand. Construction began in 1152 and completed in 1363. The architectural style is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic as well as Byzantine with the black and white marble.

Inside is is relatively simple with the though the decoration is ornate, and visitors can go up to the second floor (walking up 69 1/2 steps) to the upper gallery. It's a magnificent sight looking down. Apparently the accoustics in here are brilliant, but we didn't stay around long enough to hear people singing in this space.

The colourful mosaic of Jesus in the dome
What's interesting about the roof is that half of it is covered in terracotta tile, but then they ran out of money and the other half was covered in slate.

Meanwhile the cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, or St Mary of the Assumption. The gorgeous facade is gray marble and white stone with discs of coloured marble as decoration.

The interior is very ornate complete with detailed ceilings, chandeliers, marble columns and arches, and a massive mosaic of Jesus on the inside of the dome. One of the highlights is the massive pulpit designed by Giovanni Pisano, who spent eight years carving it. Many allegorical scenes are carved around the pulpit, which is supported by several lions.

It's just a pity that there are blue plastic chairs set out to add more seats to the wooden pews -- they threaten to take away from the grandeur of the place. Luckily most people are too busy looking up in awe of the place to notice them...
Giovanni Pisano's ornately carved pulpit

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