Set on a bend of the river Arno, Pisa lies ten kilometres away from the sea, though it was the sea to which it owes its historical splendour and decline. A flourishing city already in Roman times, maritime activities were fostered during Gothic, Longobard and Carolingian times. In the 11C the fleet, allied with the Genoese, was already strong enough to dislodge the Arabs from Sardinia and to back up the Normans in Palermo. Here the power of Pisa as a mighty martime nation began to grow and it acquired traditional fame as one of the four main historical Maritime Republics of Italy (Repubbliche Marinare).
The golden Age of the maritime republic was however the 12C, when it gave support to the first crusade.
These are the years of great artistic splendour: next to the Cathedral rise the Baptistry and famous tower. However Ghibelline Pisa started to kindle the rivalries of other cities: Lucca, Florence and Genoa. After the victories over the Genoese (1241 and 1258) and over Florence at Montaperti (1260), Pisa will share the fate of other Ghibelline cities: it was vanquished by Lucca and Florence on land and in the naval battle of Meloria (1284) the fleet was destroyed by the Genoese. In 1406 it fell definitely under the Florentine sway.
The origin of the name, Pisa, is a mystery. While the origin of the city had remained unknown for centuries, the Pelasgi, the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Ligurians had variously been proposed as founders of the city (for example, a colony of the ancient city of Pisa, Greece). Archaeological remains from the 5th century BC confirmed the existence of a city at the sea, trading with Greeks and Gauls. The presence of an Etruscan necropolis, discovered during excavations in the Arena Garibaldi in 1991, confirmed its Etruscan origins.
When visiting Pisa, there is no way you should miss out the famous La Torre Pendente di Pisa (The Leaning Tower of Pisa). Known as one of the wonders of the architectural world, the construction of this tower started in 1173 and was finally completed 200 years later in 1372.
However, the Leaning Tower is not Pisa's only claim to fame.
The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is surrounded by exceptional architectural structures and monuments. It hosts the Duomo of Pisa in the midst (Cathedral of Pisa), the Tower on one side and the Battistero (Baptistery) on the other, a majestic Romanesque circular-plan building,which houses a superb pulpit by Nicola Pisano. Inside the cathedral, begun in 1064 and finished in the 12C, one of the most outstanding masterpieces of Italian Gothic art: Giovanni Pisano's marble pulpit and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, with some very famous paintings, sculptures and murals found within the cathedral, dating back to 11C-16C.
Since the 20th century, the Piazza del Duomo has been named as the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). It has also been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aside this square, the Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knight's Square) is equally famous, with the city's most famous palaces and churches, such as the Palazzo della Carovana (Palace of the Convoy), Palazzo dell'Orologio (Clock Palace), a redaptation by Vasari of other buildings and the Chiesa di Santo Stefano (St. Stephan's Church).
Out of these, the Palazzo della Carovana holds a main role, as it is home to the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, which is one of the three higher education institutes located in Pisa; the other two are the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna (Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies) and the Università di Pisa (University of Pisa).
Some other art sites to visit in Pisa include: the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (National Museum of Saint Matthew), housed in the convent of the Benedectines of St. Matthew which hosts outstanding exhibits, among them the priceless collections of Pisan sculpture, medieval Pisan and Islamic ceramics and works of the Tuscan School, ranging to the 12C-15C. The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina (Church of Santa Maria della Spina), that is a fine example of Pisan-Gothic architecture with its ornate exterior and simple interior decorations.
MAIN EVENTS IN PISA:
Pisa also holds its festivals, such as the Luminara di San Ranieri (Luminara festival), which is held on the 16th of June each year to celebrate the patron saint's day. In this festival, thousands of candles are lit and left afloat on the River Arno and festivities are organized in the streets with fireworks to the conclusion of the whole event.
Other festivals include the Regata delle Repubbliche Marinare (Regatta of the Marine Republics), which is a boat race held in May every four years, and the Gioco del Ponte (Game of Bridge) that takes place on the last Sunday of June and features a parade along the banks of the Arno River towards the city's main bridge (Ponte di Mezzo), where the games take place.
Another important festivity is the Capodanno Pisano (New Year's day on March 25). From the 12th century until 1749, Pisa had its own calendar, different from the Gregorian calendar. March 25th, the day of the Annunciation - the Catholic celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus - was New Year's Day.
The new year officially begins when a sunbeam strikes a marble egg placed in the Cathedral, above the beautiful pulpit sculpted by Giovanni Pisano. The sunbeam enters the beautiful church from a small round window located in the chapel of San Ranieri: a very ingenious solar clock!
Each year, Pisa celebrates his history with a parade in period costume, with flag wavers, beautiful damsels, and crossbowmen! Plus soldiers, drums, trumpets and obviously the Anziani del Popolo, the wise men that ruled the Pisan Republic.
Furtherore, if you're in Pisa to relax yourself, don't miss the spas of Casciana Terme and San Giuliano Terme, famous for their natural thermal waters which have many therapeutics benefits.
In the summer you can also spend some time visiting Tirrenia and Marina di Pisa, famous maritime resorts.