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Architecture - Pisa

( Originally Published 1915 )

The cathedral at Pisa, with its baptistery, Campo-Santo, and Leaning Tower, makes one of the most wonderful and beautiful groups of buildings in the world. They stand apart from the city, and are almost the only cathedral group in Italy that is surrounded by grass and space. All the others have myriads of houses huddled of the sun, up against them, but here it is a thing apart, " The other Pisa," Taine calls it, and he goes on to say : " The true Pisa is here, and in these relics of an extinguished life, you find a world. Everything is of marble, rich, mottled, orange marble. On all sides are large solid forms, the cupola, the full wall, the balanced stories; the firmly-planted round or square mass; but over these forms, revived from the antique, like delicate foliage that clothes an old tree-trunk, there is spread individual invention and the new decoration of small columns surmounted by arcades, and the originality and grace of this architecture thus renewed cannot be described."

Having no great architect at home, the Pisans called in Buschetto (Busketus), who was probably an Italian, though some say he was a Greek. He made the body of the church and began the front. He was followed by Rainaldo (Rainaldus), who did nearly all the rest. These two are buried in the front wall of the building that is also their monument. They were followed by Ildebrando, of whom still less is known. These men were familiar with the building of their day; and further-more, they had studied the mighty work left them by the Romans; and were surrounded by building material of that distant time, on which they drew as from a quarry.

The new church was based on the form of a Roman basilica, but the addition of transepts, like arms, made it a Latin cross. Its central space, the nave or wide aisle, was separated from the narrower aisle on either side by two rows of twelve huge red granite columns that once stood in Greek or Roman temples : these were taken by the Pisans in war and brought home in their ships. Resting on the great columns are upper walls made in stripes of marble, dark and light, and pierced with windows. These walls form the clerestory, and they carry the beams combined into trusses that cross the nave and support the main lead-coated roof. The roofs of the aisles are supported against the clerestory walls. The nave forms the longest part of a cross, of which the choir, containing the high altar, is the head, and the north and south transepts stretching to right and left form the equal arms. It is customary to set, or place, a. cathedral so that one who is facing the altar is also facing the east. Over the crossing of the nave and transepts is a dome built much later than most of the church.

The eastern end of the choir is rounded, and this part is called the apsis, or apse. The termination of the choir in a Romanesque church is usually semicircular in plan and vaulted. The Cathedral of Pisa, has the apse at rear.Columns surmounted by round arches supporting the clerestory. The apse with its semi-dome is at the rear behind the altar. The pulpit is at the right.Not one of the four arcades is of like height with another. The highest is the third counting upwards; and they diminish in nearly arithmetical proportion alternately: in the order 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 4th. The inequalities in the arches are not less remarkable; they at first strike the eye as all equal; but there is a grace about them which equality never obtained: on close observation it is perceived that in the first row of nineteen arches, eighteen are equal, and the central one larger than the rest: in the second arcade, the nine central arches stand over the nine below, having, like them, the ninth central one `largest. But on their flanks, where is the slope of the shoulder like pediment, the arches vanish, and a wedge-shaped frieze takes their place, tapering upwards, in order to allow the columns to be carried to the extremity of the pediment; and here, where the heights of the shafts are so fast shortened, they are set thicker; five shafts or rather four and a capital, above, to four of the arcade below, giving twenty-one intervals instead of nineteen. In the next or third arcade—which, remember, is the highest eight arches, all equal, are given in the space of the nine below, so that now there is a central shaft instead of a central arch, and the span of the arches is increased in proportion to their increased height. Finally, in the upper-most arcade, which is the lowest of all, the arches, the same in number as those below, are narrower than any of the facade; the whole eight going very nearly above the six below them, while the terminal arches of the lower arcade are surmounted by flanking masses of decorated wall with projecting figures. Now I call that Living Architecture. There is a sensation in every inch of it.

The Duomo, or cathedral proper, and the baptistery close to it are surrounded each by a wide white platform with a step; and a broad, green lawn all about them sets off the marble, porphyry, and alabaster. The mellow color of the three softly bright buildings taken together when shining between the blue sky and the green grass makes them seem like fine, old, curiously careen ivory boxes.

Having built for themselves the largest, most ornately beautiful cathedral ever made in the Pisan-Romanesque style, the Pisan people felt that it should have near it the very finest bell-tower that they could build. They were well aware that the Venetians had finished in 1155 a very notable tower, and were bent upon making their own as much more rich and impressive as they could. They knew that their rivals had built with brick mainly; so they made up their minds to have white marble for all the outside.

In Italy it was not usual to join a campanile, or bell-tower (called so from campana, a bell), to a church, so they looked for a possible site not very far away. They had already taken the best and safest place for their cathedral. For the tower they took what seemed to be the next best, though it had no formal relation to the great building nearby, not being exactly behind, nor even close beside it. Though it was the best they could use, the spot was very swampy indeed, so they began operations by driving a large number of logs, called piles, into the wet ground. Bonanno was chosen to design the new work. For the foundation he made a ring of masonry ten feet deep and as large as he intended the base to be, and in 1174, nineteen years after the Venetians finished their tower, this new one was begun.

The inner walls and stairs were made of stone quarried at the mountain five miles away, that is called La Verruca, or The Wart. For the outer side walls, the columns, and the arches nothing less than fine white marble would do. The outer wall of the first story was made like that of the cathedral, with a blind arcade; that is, a series of three-fourth columns having arches turned from each to each, the whole being engaged, or attached to the wall back of it. These columns divide the wall into fifteen high sections decorated with square panels, of which one is given to the entrance door and fourteen are turned diamond-wise, and ornamented with sculpture and colored marble inlays.

There are two stories as to the progress of the tower. Some say, and the Italian government takes that view, that it was intended from the start to have the tower lean. There were other towers that were made to lean on purpose and there is much to make us suppose that the Pisans wanted to have a leaning tower. The object was to surprise the beholder, and to have it pass for a wonder.

The other story has it that, when the first colonnade was finished, a great difficulty arose. The tower was sinking, and not even sinking evenly. The south side had gone down so much faster and further than the north side that the entire structure was quite far from upright. Bonanno knew that if, as it grew, its center of gravity could be kept within its baseline, the tower would stand. But if, as story was added to story, an undue proportion of weight should overhang on the south side, the whole would fall in ruin. As a first attempt at correction, they tried to make the third story more nearly upright than the second then was. But the ground continued to yield, and the tower to sink; Bonanno ceased to be the architect; all were discouraged, and for sixty years nothing more was attempted.

In the year 1234 the chief workman on the cathedral, Benenato by name, undertook to finish the long-neglected tower. He found the difficulties greater than ever for, while the work was stopped, the sinking had been going on. The fourth story was added under his guidance, and from that time onward we hear and know no more of Benenato.

Nearly a hundred years later Pisano undertook to bring the work to such a conclusion as the unforeseen conditions would permit. It was plain that the tower must surely fall if more stories of the same size were added at the same inclination, so he designed a narrower belfry, with wide, open arches in its sides, and a flat roof, reached by a curved and very narrow stone stairway.

It was in part a thirst for greatness that induced the Pisans to build their tower; and though it rose only about half as high as that of their Venetian rivals, their Leaning Tower became a sort of new wonder of the world.

The causes for the strange effect produced were soon forgotten in the general wonder that a tower, seemingly in the act of falling, should continue to stand through the slow-passing centuries. Visitors to the Leaning Tower descend several steps to its handsome entrance, for the base, once even with that of the Duomo, is now seven feet below the general surrounding level. Slowly climbing the two hundred and ninety-four stairs that lead to the summit, we pass, at the top of each story, a door leading to the external arcade. When we have risen forty feet we can look over the neighboring city wall; the later, longer wall, that was made to protect the city when it had grown far beyond its early bounds, and had treasures to guard.

In the eighth story, which is the belfry, we find seven bells. Opposite to the side, that overhangs its base by thirteen feet and seven inches, is carefully placed the largest and heaviest one. Suppose that all the bells are ringing while we mount to the flat top of the belfry and lay our hands on the light encircling metal railing: the vibrations from the booming and caroling bells are so repeated by the whole structure that the thin rail under our fingers quivers like a violin string. Nearby, forming the last of this wonderful group, is the Campo Santo, the gar-den of the dead. It was planned on the dimensions of Noah's Ark and filled with more than fifty ship-loads of sacred earth from Calvary.


Twelve altars in the Cathedral are said to have been designed by Michaelangelo. The twenty-four pillars of the central aisle were brought from the island of Siglio and Elba, while those at the sides were evidently collected from ancient buildings. Many of the sixty-eight columns which support the ceiling are of early Greek and Roman origin.

On a mighty pillar is the St. Agnes, and the lamb of Andrea del Sarto ; one of the finest specimens of the master's art. The slow swinging of the chandelier suggested to Galileo the idea of a pendulum. Its ton of bronze suspended from the center the same motion from which an-other great scholar derived the secret of the attraction of gravitation.

The baptistery, begun in 1152, was not completed for more than two hundred years. An offering, of one soldo each by thirty-four thousand families, was used toward its completion. The marvelous echo of the interior is one of the best-remembered sounds which many a traveler brings away from Italy. Repeated again and again, the most ordinary sound is taken up and trans-formed into beautiful music, one note multiplied into a choir of singers. The pulpit by Niccolo Pisano, carved in 1260, is his masterpiece and was one of the important beginnings of the Renaissance of the art of sculpture.


There was a Romanesque architecture in France, Germany, and England, highly developed and beautiful, even though none of the buildings came to rank among the few most famous in the world.

The church at Vezelay in France was one of the finest and most interesting buildings of France.

The Romanesque Church of the Apostles at Cologne, which is one of the best examples of the German Romanesque. This was called Rhenish architecture because many of the churches along the Rhine showed similar traits. Some of them were circular in form.

Durham Cathedral in England is one of the very best examples of Romanesque. Early Romanesque in England was often called Norman.

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