Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Discover Pisa's Medieval Heart
Though the Leaning Tower draws most visitors to Pisa, the city's medieval heart deserves just as much attention. Wandering the narrow lanes, Gothic arches, and timeworn brick reveals a historic charm you simply won't find beyond Piazza dei Miracoli.
Pisa's medieval nucleus centers around Piazza dei Cavalieri, or Knights' Square. Back in the 11th century when Pisa was a maritime powerhouse, this piazza lay at the heart of civic life. The square's storied buildings transported me back to Pisa's days of medieval glory.
On the north end looms Palazzo della Carovana, the ornate 16th century headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. With its blend of Gothic and Renaissance elements, this palace exemplifies Pisa's transitional architectural aesthetic. Don't miss the carved Medici coats of arms above the arches.
Facing the palace stands the 13th century Church of Santo Stefano. Though the marble facade gleams white today, both the church and piazza once flaunted polychrome decoration. Inside, don't miss the engraved 14th century tomb of Emperor Henry VII.
Just beyond Santo Stefano sits the Domus Comeliana. Constructed as a private home in the 1100s, grand rooms with cross-vaulted ceilings now comprise Pisa University's museum of medieval artifacts. Wandering this colonnaded complex mimics stepping back in time.
But Pisa's medieval allure extends beyond Cavalieri Square. Meandering south down Borgo Stretto, Pisa's erstwhile main street, unveils hidden architectural gems. Check out the Gothic loggia sheltering the 15th century Madonna and Child above a drugstore at #29. Farther down at #46, the sgraffito facade displays mythological scenes etched into wet plaster.
Nearby Piazza Dante packs plenty of medieval marvels into a small space. To the north, the Church of Saint Sebastian shows off Pisa's distinctive black and white marble facade. Look south to find Logge di Banchi, a portico dating back to the 14th century that once housed silk merchants.
For the most atmospheric medieval meandering, wind through the lanes between Borgo Stretto and the Arno River. Here you'll find quiet cobblestone, sleepy piazzas, and ancient osterias perfect for a glass of Chianti.
What else is in this post?
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Discover Pisa's Medieval Heart
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Marvel at the Pisa Baptistery's Architectural Wonders
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Climb the Overlooked Torre Pendente
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Wander through Pisa's Lush Botanical Garden
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Experience Local Life in Piazza dei Cavalieri
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Tour the Camposanto Monumentale Cemetery
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - See Rare Artifacts in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
- Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Indulge in Cuisine from Pisa's Riverside Restaurants
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Marvel at the Pisa Baptistery's Architectural Wonders
While the famous Leaning Tower grabs the limelight, Pisa's circular Baptistery warrants just as much architectural awe. Dating to the 1100s, this domed sanctuary gleams with an intricate fusion of Romanesque and early Gothic elements.
Stepping inside the Baptistery's lofty interior, my eyes soared upwards. The breathtaking dome ceiling depicts an ornate mosaic of Christ enthroned amid angels and the Evangelists. Bands of striking black and white marble draw the gaze even higher, mimicking the upward thrust of Gothic architecture. This blending of Romanesque and Gothic sensibilities aptly captures Pisa's aesthetic transition in the late 12th century.
Yet the Baptistery's dazzling exterior may even surpass its storied interior. Rounding the building, visitors are met with a kaleidoscope of pillars, arches, and arcades spanning multiple architectural eras. The lower portion exemplifies Romanesque, with smooth pillars and rounded arches along the base.
Higher up, pointed Gothic arches poke through, foreshadowing the coming stylistic shift. These stacked arcades create a verticality that almost prefigures the skyrocketing French cathedrals soon to come. The building both encapsulates the Romanesque while gesturing towards the Gothic future.
Adding striking contrast, columns of murmured black granite and marble in four hues interrupt the creamy white stone. This polychromy creates visual dynamism, bringing vibrancy and depth to the Baptistery's blending of styles.
Echoing the layered arcades, the building's conical roof assembles a confection of multicolored tile rosettes that draws the eye heavenward. The rooftop pinnacle alone integrates six centuries of architectural heritage, from the Romanesque colonnade to the 14th century Gothic spire. This synthesis of eras is both visually sumptuous and historically revelatory.
Yet the Baptistery delivers detail alongside dynamism. Around the building's base, a series of striking medieval carvings recount stories from the Bible. Don't miss Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the Annunciation, and a tempting serpent twining around an apple tree.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Climb the Overlooked Torre Pendente
While the famous Leaning Tower grabs the limelight, many visitors overlook that the Torre Pendente can actually be climbed! Though far less renowned than the thronged Leaning Tower, ascending the overlooked Torre Pendente provided my most intimate experience of Pisa's unique architectural heritage.
Unlike the Leaning Tower, visiting the Torre Pendente involves no crowds or queues. I simply showed up, purchased a ticket from the small booth, and began climbing the tilted steps moments later. Looking out the slender windows while circling the eight floors, I gained an entirely new perspective on Pisa’s precarious treasure.
Gazing down at that iconic lean from above brought the tower’s remarkable engineering to life. I marveled at how, despite the famously substantial slant, the tower's arc subtly curves to maintain an upright vertical axis through its center. This clever architectural trick fools the eye, concealing the true extent of the lean. Peering down the angled inner wall, I gained a new grasp of the meticulous medieval masonry defying gravity nearly nine centuries later.
Reaching the top lookout, Pisa unfurled below my feet from an unexpected vantage. The bird's eye panorama stretched from the Baptistery's candy swirl of marble to the dense Lungarni warehouses shoulder to shoulder along the Arno. Looking outward, undulating Tuscan hills due south met sleek Apennine peaks looming north.
Yet the most stunning view faced directly downward, where the tower’s pale marble flank swept dramatically earthwards. The overlooked Torre Pendente provided Pisa’s best background for Instagram-worthy leaning poses! After shooting the requisite pseudo-propping-up-the-tower shot, I simply sat drinking in the views. The Torre Pendente lookout boasts a far more relaxed, crowd-free vibe than its famous counterpart.
For visitors eager to venture inside the tilt, the Torre Pendente also offers access to fascinating architectural details impossible to glimpse from outside. Narrow stone stairways wind around the listing support pillars, exemplifying intricate medieval engineering. Many subtle tricks, like walls subtly curving and stairs dropping at varying angles, keep the interior floors feeling flat despite the exterior lean.
Inside, panels document the tower’s structural interventions across the centuries, from buttresses added after construction to today’s subterranean counterweights. For architecture buffs, the tower interior provides an interactive learning laboratory. Visitors can trace cracks and undulations, grasp load distributions, and scrutinize reinforced foundations. The Torre Pendente lays bare the thought and effort that goes into preserving history.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Wander through Pisa's Lush Botanical Garden
Beyond the manicured lawns of Piazza dei Miracoli lies a little-known urban oasis: Orto Botanico di Pisa, the city’s sprawling botanical garden. Founded in 1544 under Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici, this verdant escape in the heart of Pisa provides the perfect counterpoint to medieval masonry and Renaissance artwork. Lose yourself amid rare tropical plants,biesoteric herbs, and the lush foliage of five continents.
Crossing the garden's threshold transports visitors into a leafy cocoon. Gravel crunches underfoot meandering between beds bursting with botanical diversity. Over 1200 different plants from around the world thrive in this unexpected horticultural haven.
For gardeners, the sheer diversity delights as much as the rare species. Wander through alpine flowers from the Andes, carnivorous plants from the Americas, and exotic palms from Asia and Africa. Find medicinal herbs used in ancient Chinese medicine, experience the cottony heads of ripening baobab, and smell the bubblegum scent exuded by the Star Magnolia tree.
Beyond botanical marvels, the garden architecture captivates. The Orto Botanico unfolds as a series of themed garden "rooms", each with its own ornate wrought iron entryway. Pass through the archway adorned with cornucopia into the Fruit Tree Collection, showcasing persimmon, pomegranate, jujube, and more. The Life Cycle Garden traces plant growth through seedlings, buds, blooms and decay.
Most striking is the Water Garden, where a shimmering pool reflects lush foliage and a late 16th century Medici fountain. Here tall bamboo rustles beside fragrant frangipani trees that perfume the air. It's easy to forget you're steps from urban Pisa while enveloped in this lush oasis.
The garden's pièce de résistance is the Glasshouse of Succulent Plants, completed in 1858. Stepping inside this antique Victorian greenhouse feels like entering a secluded world. Strange silhouettes of cacti and euphorbias cast quirky shadows across the glass. The humid air hangs heavy, hinting at the exotic origins of these desert and tropical species. Don't miss the majestic 8 meter Sansevieria thyrsiflora, an ancient "mother-in-law's tongue" plant that thrived when dinosaurs still roamed.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Experience Local Life in Piazza dei Cavalieri
Beyond sightseeing, Piazza dei Cavalieri offers visitors a chance to experience authentic local life in Pisa. More than a relic of history, this lively square remains an integral hub of the city's social fabric today. Exploring the piazza delivers an intimate glimpse into what gives Pisa's heritage meaning – the community who inhabits it.
Arriving in the piazza on a Saturday morning, the square bustled with townsfolk going about weekend routines. Children dashed about with balloons and stuffed toys just purchased at the market. Chattering locals lingered at cafés, dispensing espresso and the latest neighborhood news. Young couples and elderly Signoras alike paused to greet one another with kisses on both cheeks.
Throughout the morning, a heartwarming intergenerational scene unfolded at the piazza's epicenter. Local seniorsgathered for their weekly passeggiata, leisurely promenading arm in arm, stopping to chat, and nodding greetings to shopkeepers. Beside the old-timers, toddlers stumbled about exploring fountains and pigeons while nonnas kept watch. Teenagers whizzed by on bikes running weekend errands for their parents.
I joined smiling families at small trattorias bordering the piazza to enjoy lunch al fresco with the view. Children slurped gelato while parents lingered over espresso, embracing the Italian rituals of slow food and leisure. Seeing their evident enjoyment of both good company and good cuisine offered a microcosm of what makes this city – and country – so cherished.
Throughout the afternoon, I wandered through impromptu street festivals as community groups set up booths. Scouts sold pastries to fund their camping trip while the soccer club raffled off jerseys. Students showcased science projects and artistic creations. Joining the communal festivities forged an authentic connection with the city beyond architecture and history.
In the evening, I returned to find the piazza transformed once more. Now elderly couples took slow evening strolls, while university students laughed over aperitivo cocktails at outdoor bars. Street performers sang folk songs echoing off medieval walls as families danced together. Romantic candlelit dinners brought in the night.
Before leaving, I paused at a small window glowing with flicker candlelight. Inside, a wizened priest murmured last rites at the bedside of a pallid elderly man, clutching the hands of weeping relatives. Even at the inevitable close of life, faith and community intertwined in Pisa's historic core.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Tour the Camposanto Monumentale Cemetery
Beyond manicured lawns and marble monuments, the gated Camposanto Monumentale cemetery merits a spot on any Pisa itinerary. Though often overlooked by hurried visitors, Pisa's monumental burial ground offers much more than a somber place of remembrance. Exploring the labyrinth of ornate tombs and expert frescoes transports travelers back through centuries of buried history.
Entering the cemetery's cloistered confines, don't miss the opportunity to stroll the entirety of its lengthy arcades. The Camposanto's hallmark covered walkways display exquisite 14th and 15th century frescoes depicting biblical scenes, virtues and vices, and a Last Judgment flanked by Heaven and Hell.
Yet centuries of weather and war have left many frescoes damaged or incomplete, with haunting phantom faces emerging from crumbling plaster. The fragmentary art poignantly echoes the transience of life and certainty of decay. Even with modern restoration efforts, these vestiges retain an ephemeral, ghostly quality.
The Camposanto's heritage suffered gravely during World War Two, when Allied forces accidentally demolished the medieval cemetery's original Gothic cloister. But like after the 1666 fire that originally destroyed the frescoes, Pisans resiliently rebuilt. The cemetery endures as a tribute both to loss and rebirth.
Beyond the cloisters, the Camposanto interior surprises with an eclectic trove of century-spanning tombs. No visitor leaves untouched by the tiny grave holding beloved local artist Puccini's young son, marked "R.I.P." in simple block letters. All become philosophers studying the iconic "Triumph of Death" fresco depicting corpses felled during a hunting outing, contemplating life's impermanence.
In bright contrast, several opulent tombs announce the occupant's prestige with great pomp. The imposing 15th century Tempio della Certosa resembles a mini-chapel flanked by marble columns. Even more lavish, the tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII would not look out of place in Rome's Basilica di Santa Croce.
Yet subtle symbols on more modest tombstones speak volumes through carefully chosen images. A young girl's gravestone displays only a rose in its prime - a life cut too short. A physician's marker incorporates motifs of healing, from laurel wreaths to orb-bearing saints. Crosses, harps and lambs convey hope.
Though a site of mourning, the Camposanto Monumentale remains integrated into the fabric of local society. Elderly couples can be spotted strolling the shaded walkways, families pause to lay flowers, and teens sneak furtive cigarettes behind pillars. Just outside the gates, laughter spills from a bustling restaurant patio. Locals treat the historic cemetery not only with quiet reverence, but also casual familiarity - a long-lost loved one rather than an untouchable reliquary.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - See Rare Artifacts in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Beyond Renaissance paintings and medieval manuscripts, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo safeguards Pisa's historic ecclesiastical treasures. Wandering these hallowed halls provides intimate access to rare liturgical artifacts centuries in the making.
Given the cathedral's eight-century timeframe, the collected works span a millennium of Italian artistry. Sacred items range from exquisite 10th century ivory carvings to a gilded 1700s processional cross. Even mundane objects become touchstones to bygone eras of faith.
Yet the museum’s most powerful draw remains its extensive collection of original statuary and architectural elements from the iconic monuments of Piazza dei Miracoli. In a city defined by its architectural heritage, this museum offers unparalleled insight into the artisanship behind Pisa’s storied buildings.
Here, visitors can circle the original carved marble pulpit from the baptistery’s sanctum, gazing up at intricately sculpted scenes from the life of Christ. Each biblical episode springs to life through a medieval artist’s skillful chisel.
In the cathedral's Sala delle Lunette, the museum's pièce de résistance gleams above visitors’ heads. The spacious hall assembles 21 glittering stained glass lunettes salvaged from the cathedral's original medieval windows. Dating from the 1300s, these shimmering glass scenes depicting prophets and saints have witnessed seven centuries of worship within those storied walls.
Adjacent lies the graven copper doors of the cathedral's central portal, painstakingly engraved over two centuries by Renaissance metalsmiths. Biblical vignettes intermingle with images of Pisan life, from harvest scenes to portraits of guild masters who funded the doors' creation.
Through the arches, guests enter a room lined floor to ceiling with monumental statues from the cathedral's 14th century marble facade. These towering effigies of saints, angels, and the Virgin Mary once stared down piously upon medieval congregations from the peaks of the cathedral's pristine exterior.
The most humanizing exhibits share insight into those who crafted Pisa's wonders over centuries. In one display case, cathedral stone working tools from across three centuries of restorations rest in silent testament. Folded leather work aprons await long-dead stonemasons, chisels still dusted with ancient plaster.
Nearby, visitors peer into the studio that Renaissance artist Beccafumi used while painting the Duomo's scenes of the Passion. Strewn brushes, chalk sticks, and jars of dried pigment provide touching evidence of the labor behind Pisa’s priceless works.
Guests also gain insight into the generous patrons who donated funds and fine materials to construct the grand cathedral complex. Intricate relic holders encrusted in precious gems, likely offerings from noble families, gleam within the Treasury. Elaborately embroidered ecclesiastical garments hint at the prestige attached to involvement with the church.
Beyond the Leaning: Exploring the Lesser-Known Sides of the Tower of Pisa - Indulge in Cuisine from Pisa's Riverside Restaurants
Beyond medieval architecture and Renaissance art, one of my favorite ways to savor Pisa was indulging in the city’s delectable cuisine along the Arno River. Whether relaxing at a cozy trattoria or sampling the catch of the day at a dockside eatery, Pisa’s riverside restaurants proffer plenty of mouthwatering opportunities.
Strolling south down the lungarni, Pisa’s scenic promenades overlooking the Arno, a bevy of charming trattorias tempt visitors. I opted for a table with a view at Osteria di Piazza, founded the very year the Tower started tilting! Watching novice rowers practice on the gilded waters while sampling a tagliere of local salami and cheese proved a quintessentially Pisan experience. The crostini con fegatini, a regional Tuscan delicacy of chicken liver pâté on toasted bread, delighted with its richness.
Further along the lungarni, family-run Ristorante Gambe di Gatto came highly recommended by my B&B host. “You must try the cacciucco while in Pisa!” she urged. Cacciucco, a hearty seafood stew blending five types of fish and shellfish, has fed Ligurian and Tuscan sailors for centuries. The aromatic bowl brimming with shrimp, squid, and local catch satisfied after a day of sightseeing. I sopped up the savory broth with garlic-rubbed bruschetta.
Nearby, I joined the lively local crowd at Osteria I Passatelli for their weekend aperitivo happy hour. Sipping an Aperol Spritz, I grazed on small bites like chickpea panzanella, spinach and ricotta crostini, and platters of local salume as the sun set over Pisa’s iconic architecture.
Seeking the city’s freshest seafood, I headed to the string of dockside restaurants just steps from where fishermen moor their boats along the river. Local legend claims Puccini himself once exclaimed after dining at Il Marinetto, “I almost never eat as well in Pisa!” Sampling their renowned cacciucco, I understood his praise. The extensive antipasti spread, from sweet gambaretti prawns to marinated cuttlefish salad, left me regretting the finite capacity of my stomach.
Nearby, La Pergoletta’s nautical decor and daily rotating seafood menu epitomize Pisa’s maritime spirit. Feasting on just-caught calamari drenched in lemon and grilled branzino topped with fresh herbs, I felt immersed in the city's centuries as a fishing port and gateway to the sea. Watching watercraft drifting down the Arno while tasting the river's bounty made local history palpable.
I also discovered several holes-in-the-wall prized by locals for cheap, authentic eats. Osteria dei Cavalieri became my go-to for hearty panini stuffed with prosciutto, artichokes, and other seasonal ingredients. Just downriver, tiny family-run Il Montino draws crowds seeking their perfect pesto gnocchi and tender bollito misto. AffordableBYOB Trattoria la Faggiola south of the river mixed fresh pasta, friendly banter, and a cozy neighborly vibe.