Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part IV

From Florence it is easy to make day excursions to a number of places, Pisa, Siena, and the like, and on Tuesday morning we headed out to Pisa.

Pisa has a long history of significant events, and for much of that history it was one of the great maritime powers of Italy. Today it is mostly just a college town of limited resources that struggles with the complications that come from having one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, the Piazza dei Miracoli. There are four major buildings in the plaza: the Cathedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, which was designed by Buscheto and whose construction began in 1064; the Battistero di San Giovanni, designed by Diotisalvi, which was begun in 1152; the Camposanto Monumentale, the ancient cemetery, designed by Giovanni di Simone, which was begun in 1278; and, of course, the Torre Pendente di Pisa, begun in 1173, which was designed to be the campanile of the cathedral, and whose original architect we do not know, probably because no architect wanted to be associated with such an egregious architectural error.

The Tower has been studied extensively in recent decades. It has always been known that the Tower leans because it is a massive weight of marble on top of weak subsoil in a fairly water-saturated part of the country. It has not, however, ever been sinking. The stability of the soil varies considerably across the entire square, and the Tower happens to be located at a point where it shifts; the Tower through its history has wobbled very, very slightly, so that on the less stable side, the pressure forces soil and water to move toward the more stable side, which then mounds up under that side of the Tower. In effect, the Tower was pumping itself up on one side. It's an unavoidable problem at this location. In fact, every building in the square is leaning; it's just that the base of the Tower is so much smaller than those of the other buildings that its lean is the only one that is noticeable to the eye; construction on the tower stopped before it was halfway done because it was already obvious that the Tower was going to fall over. In 1272 Giovanni di Simone decided he was going to continue building the Tower; what he did to prevent the Tower from falling over was to make the sides uneven, so the Tower is not just leaning but also curving. It was eventually completed in the 14th century, making it the craziest belltower in the history of the human race. In the 1990s, worries about the stability of the Tower led to massive study in order to keep it from falling; a very large quantity of soil was removed from the high side of the Tower in order to return the tilt to its 1838 inclination, and currently the Tower is no longer shifting and appears to be stuck, for now, at its current tilt.

A view from the tower:

Ascending the Leaning Tower is an interesting experience; you cannot see the tilt while going up the 296 steps, but about a third of the way you start feeling it, and you yourself start leaning. When you get up to the top, the floor feels wrong, as if it were going to tip you over. Here is one of the bells at the top:

The first miracle of Miracles Square, then, is the belltower that leans but does not fall. The second is the baptistry in which you can sing with yourself. (Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go inside; it's actually difficult to fit everything in the Piazza into just a few hours without rushing.) The Battistero in Pisa is the largest baptistry in Italy, but it is actually more famous for its acoustics, which it has due to its unusual construction. The Baptistry was originally designed by Diotisalvi to be a Romanesque building with a pyramidal roof; thus, if you look at it, the lower level has rounded Romanesque arches and a clean, uncluttered work. After Diotisalvi's death, however, Nicola Pisano took over the work, and Nicola preferred Gothic to Romanesque, so he took the building in a more Gothic direction. Thus the upper level has pointed Gothic arches and a rich, ornate look. It still has its original cone-like roof, which has a hole in the middle (like the Pantheon) to reduce stress on the structure. Instead of just replacing the roof, Nicola Pisano kept it as an internal roof and added an external roof to give the outside of the building the cupola-like shape it has. The result is that there is a space between the internal roof and the external roof, and it is this that gives the Baptistry of Pisa its very famous acoustics -- the hollow space between the two hard surfaces acts like a resonating chamber. If you sing a good, solid note in the Baptistry, the note hangs in the air. It is literally possible to harmonize with yourself.

Notice, incidentally, the roof. The original idea, when they were building it, was to have the tile all the way around, but they ran out of money. So they put the tile on the side of the roof people would most likely see, and went with a cheaper option for the other side.

The third miracle of Miracles Square is the cloistered cemetery. (Which, alas, we also did not have time to see the inside of.) According to legend, which may or may not be true, the cemetery is built on soil from Golgotha that was brought back during the Crusades (hence its name, Holy Field). It has sometimes been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world. It seems to have originally been intended to be not a cemetery but a church in its own right; but we don't know the story of how that change happened. It has some very famous, very old frescoes. Unfortunately the whole building was severely damaged by an Allied bomb that set the building on fire and caused the lead roof to melt, but some of the frescoes survived, or were damaged lightly enough to be restored.

Here a lion prowls the medieval wall near the Camposanto:

According to the tour guide, the lion originally faced outward, but when Florence conquered Pisa, they turned the lion around to face inward as a warning to the Pisans that they were being watched.

The fourth miracle of the Piazza dei Miracoli is the Duomo itself. It is one of the great Romanesque cathedrals (with occasional snippets of other styles accumulated over the centuries), and in a square that has Italy's largest baptistry and the Leaning Tower it still manages to be the one that immediately draws the eye. When we see pictures of the Leaning Tower, we often see it isolated, but in the context of the plaza, it is not the most noticeable building; the cathedral is.

This is a famous element of the cathedral: the Pisa Griffin. (As with all the pictures, you can click it to see it more closely.)

It's actually an Islamic statue, the largest known metal sculpture from Islamic civilization, probably brought from Andalusia in Spain, possibly as the spoils of war; it has a blessing in Arabic around the base. It was originally thought to come from a fountain, but the current popular theory is that it was originally designed as a rich man's toy, to emit noises by a mechanism on the inside. Strictly speaking, Muslims are not supposed to have sculptures of animals and the like, but this (like the prohibition of wine) was sometimes, in some places, rather loosely enforced, and it has been suggested that obviously mythical and legendary beasts might sometimes have been considered not to violate the spirit of the prohibition. What you see in the above picture is actually a replica; for preservation reasons, the original was moved to the museum in 1828.

The cathedral is famous for its pulpit. It was carved by Giovanni Pisano (son of Nicola) in Carrara marble from 1302-1310; he did it entirely by himself. The current pulpit is actually reconstructed; the pulpit was packed away in 1595 and completely forgotten until 1926 when it was rediscovered.

On the ride on the way back, a fortress built by the Pisans to try to keep the Florentines at bay:

After returning to Florence, we went directly to the Galleria degli Uffizi. The Uffizi was originally designed to be an administrative office building (that's what Uffizi means, 'offices'), which shows that Renaissance Italians had an idea of what an office building should be that was rather different from ours. It was originally designed and started by Giorgio Vasari, and continued by Alfonso Parigi and Bernardo Buontalenti. Because the offices included the state archives, it became a way for the Medicis to display their art collections. The last of the Medici, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, gave the Uffizi, a number of Medici villas, and all the art within to the city of Florence on the one condition that none of it ever leave Florence. A short time after her death, Florence opened the Uffizi, first by request and then later in the eighteenth century by general admission, and one of the oldest and most important of all modern art museums was born. Its art collection is so large it actually has difficulty exhibiting it -- a number of pieces have been sent out to other Florentine museums, while a very large number are in storage. One reason the lines can be so long for the Uffizi -- five or six hours during the busy tourist season -- is that it only allows a certain number of people into the building at a time, to prevent it from being too crowded.

The most popular rooms in the Uffizi seem to be the Leonardo and Botticelli rooms, but my very favorite was the Sala della Niobe. I didn't get a picture of the room (although you can take photos without flash in the Uffizi, I kept them to a minimum), but you can see it online here. You know the story of Niobe, of course -- Niobe insulted Leto because she had only two children whereas Niobe had seven times as many. So Artemis and Apollo began hunting Niobe's children, killing one. Then another. Then another. Then another, until there were none (or in some versions, only one) left, and Niobe turned to stone, weeping forever for her children. In the sixteenth century a collection of statues depicting the Niobids fleeing futilely from the gods hunting them was discovered in Rome, and brought to the Florence in 1775, where they share a room in the Uffizi. It is a splendid room, and well worth seeing.

A bust of Marcus Aurelius from the hallway:

Some birds on the cafe balcony, which overlooks the Piazza della Signoria:

And that was Tuesday.

to be continued

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