Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Medieval Skyscrapers of Pisa

We live in a casa torre in Pisa that was already 350 years old when Galileo was born in 1564 in a neighboring house. Case torri are tower houses - high, narrow medieval skyscrapers built to meet the needs of merchant families who lived in the trading areas of towns. Pisa is brimming with these architectural marvels.

By Galileo's time, Pisa was under the control of Florence and had lost much of its fame and riches. Many of its towers, defensive in nature, had been knocked down or lowered by the Florentine victors. In many cases, the stone from the destroyed towers was used to join several houses, creating the Medici-style palaces that now adorn the banks of the Arno, the river that runs through Pisa.

But in the 1200s when our house was new, Pisa was at the height of its military and artistic prowess. The city was surrounded by a high, strong wall with defensive towers (large portions of which still exist). A powerful naval state that ruled the seas, its ports brought in goods from all over the known world. Its merchants were so wealthy that it gave rise to the medieval saying: "to be rich as a Pisan."

As often happens, with riches came excess. Towers grew higher and more numerous as families vied with one another for power and fame. The rulers of Pisa placed limits on the height of the towers and their defensive equipment. The existence of the town wall, however, gave Pisans little place to go but up. And so, the building of the towers continued.

Imagine what a sight it must have been - a port city of 10,000 towers (as one exaggerated medieval chronicle records) crowded together within the city walls, but reaching 20 or more meters into the sky. Only as wide as the length of an average beam, about five meters, the insides of the tall houses never saw the famous Tuscan sun. So Pisans suspended terraces and porches from the fronts of the buildings and much of life was lived outdoors. Built of the local stone, the houses were supported by arches with the same pointed form that Pisan shipbuilders used for their war ships. An altarpiece from the 12th-century Church of St. Nicola on via Santa Maria depicts the church surrounded by towers.

Most of the high towers are gone now, but Pisa still has one of the best collections of medieval buildings in all of Italy. A few towers do remain - including the one in which Galileo, with his newly-perfected telescope - showed his discovery of the moons of Jupiter to the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo II de'Medici.

So if you come to Pisa, take the time to look for the tower houses. They're all over town and they are beautiful.

Don't be a tourist who can't see the tower houses for the Tower.


To see more photos, click here.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Run In With the Pisa Police

I was working in my apartment in Pisa, dressed in old jeans and a sweatshirt, when the door bell rang. No one was expected so I figured it was a service person wanting to get into the building. Just then my phone rang and at the same time, I heard the downstairs door close. Whoever it was had obviously been let in.  A couple of minutes later, however, the door bell rang again. The voice on the intercom  was muffled and was not anyone I knew.

"Scusi, non parlo l'italiano," I said with the worst Italian accent I could muster. The voice then asked for my landlady. "Roma, Roma," I said indicating that she was in Rome. "Okay," came the reply, "then we'll just tow the car." "Wait, wait, I'm coming down," I yelled in my suddenly-improved Italian.  

Along with the apartment, we're renting our landlady's car. Pisa has strict parking restrictions, but I knew the car was in a legal spot. I grabbed the car key and the keys to the apartment and ran down the 61 steps to the street level, still in my slippers. I opened the door to find a policeman astride a motorcycle.  He was a young, very nice-looking policeman, but he didn't look particularly happy to see me. (To read about the various police forces in Italy, click here.)

"Signora, why haven't you moved your car?"  I explained to him that my car was parked legally - I had until the third Saturday of the month to move it. It turns out, however,  that while it was legal when I parked there, in the meantime some construction work had begun. Apparently four days earlier a no parking sign had gone up and the workmen had put a note on my windshield. Out of about 100 parking spots on the street, mine was the only one affected. I tried to plead ignorance, but my policeman just shook his head, "Signora, even if you don't use your car, you must check it all the time.," he said.

"Am I going to get a ticket?" He looked at me very sadly and said yes, but we could talk about that later. First I must go immediately and move the car. He would meet me there. Immediately sounded serious so I padded the couple of blocks to my car in my slippers. When I arrived, two young workmen looked at me, shook their heads, wagged their fingers and said:  "We didn't want to call the police, but, Signora, you never came to move it. Don't you ever drive your car?"

"I only drive it on the weekends," I explained.  "Last weekend we went away with friends and they drove."  Their eyes perked up with interest. "Where did you go?"  "Ravenna," I said.  "Ah, Ravenna, bella, bella," they said approvingly. "Did you like it?" I started to reply when a policeman standing nearby more or less told me to get on with things.  

He looked more sympathetic than the last one so I decided to plead my case with him. "Am I going to get a ticket; the other policeman said...." "Signora, I am the other policeman, you just talked to me."  "Oh," I said, "you look much taller than before." "Signora, before I was sitting on my motorcycle!"  

"Do you have a driver's license," he asked. "Yes."  "With you?"  Actually, in my haste, I'd left it in the apartment. Now all three men shook their heads. The policeman told me to drive very carefully, but to move the car now.  When that was done, I was to meet him on the street in front of our apartment with my driver's license.  

Back at the apartment, I ran back up the 61 steps, got my license and thought for good measure, I would also bring down my passport so he'd know for sure that I was a foreigner and not at all well versed in Italian law. But as luck would have it, that very morning I had given my passport to my husband to make a copy because the one I had was  old and  dog eared.

I ran back down the 61 steps, opened the door and there was my policeman--looking short again on his motorcycle. "Michigan," he read as he turned over what was obviously in his opinion an insufficient-looking license, "is this all you have?" I handed him the copy of the passport. He held it by one corner as if it were contaminated  "Where's the original?"  I started to explain. "What's this on the back of your license," he interrupted. "Ah, that," I said with enthusiasm, "that gives my body to science in case I die in an accident."    

He didn't seem to care that I was unselfishly willing to further the cause of medical research. "Let me get this straight," he said. "This is the only driver's license you have; you have a passport, but it's in your husband's office. How long will you be in Italy?"  When I told him we were leaving in May, he seemed quite cheered.  He handed everything back to me and told me to be sure to check on the car at least every 48 hours.  "What about the ticket," I asked. 

"Let's forget about the ticket," he said. Then he smiled - a nice if somewhat condescending smile - and told me to enjoy Italy. 


For more photos, including Italian police encountered only from afar, click here.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Leaning Tower - No Regrets

Spring has come to Pisa. The sweet smell of the profusely-blooming wisteria fills the town and has turned the walls of every garden and terrace into miniature Gardens of Babylon. It's a perfect time to climb the Leaning Tower, something I have never done. 

During our first stays in Pisa, the tower was closed to visitors - essentially because  it was falling down. When it reopened in 2001 after years of very costly repairs, I still put off going. New Yorkers don't visit the Empire State Building; Parisians and Pisans  don't climb their respective towers.

In 1867 the American writer Mark Twain visited Pisa and gave this account of the tower in his wonderful travel memoir The Innocents Abroad.

At Pisa we climbed up to the top of the strangest structure the world has any knowledge of--the Leaning Tower....As every one knows, it is in the neighborhood of one hundred and eighty feet high...There is no record that it ever stood straight up.  It is built of marble.  It is an airy and a beautiful structure and each of its eight stories is encircled by fluted columns, some of marble and some of granite, with Corinthian capitals...The winding staircase within is dark, but one always knows which side of the tower he is on because of his naturally gravitating from one side to the other of the staircase with the rise or dip of the tower. Some of the stone steps are foot-worn only on one end; others only on the other end; others only in the middle. Standing on the summit, one does not feel altogether comfortable when he looks down from the high side; but to crawl on your breast to the verge on the lower side and try to stretch your neck out far enough to see the base of the tower, makes your flesh creep, and convinces you for a single moment in spite of all your philosophy, that the building is falling. 

After reading Twain's account, I decided that the time had finally come for me to experience the Leaning Tower. There was no line and the ticket seller informed me that I could go up with the next group of people in just a few minutes. Admission: 15 euros.

Fifteen euros, that's about 20 dolllars! Are they crazy? "I'm not paying that," I said to myself. The tower's not even that high. I turned around and began to walk away. 

And just like that, I had a vision. There I was a very old woman sitting in a retirement home with similarly old white-haired friends. One of them asked me in a very creaky, but wistful voice: "You lived in Pisa, tell us what it was like to climb the Leaning Tower?"  The disappointment on their faces was palpable as I turned to them and said:  "I never climbed the tower.  I was going to, but I didn't because it cost $20."

I turned around, bought a ticket and climbed the tower. I tried to lean over the edge, but the guide wouldn't let me. 

For more views of the Leaning Tower, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passion in Pisa

It's almost Easter and stores in Pisa are filled to  overflowing with Easter eggs and cakes. Like Thanksgiving in America, Easter in Italy is a time for families to be together.

In Roman Catholic Italy, the week before Easter -- Holy Week -- also means church services, concerts of sacred music and reenactments of the Passion of the Christ. The most famous reenactment takes place in Rome, but others can be found in cities and towns all over Italy. The drama recounts the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion. 

We went to a Passion in Arezzo a few years ago where the whole town was transformed into a theatrical scene. It was dramatic and interesting, but for my tastes just a bit too realistic and violent. Throughout history, passion plays have also been associated with the fostering of anti-semitismSo I hesitated when we were invited to a Passion performed in the Church of San Stefano dei Cavalieri here in Pisa. Our friend Fabrizio, an Italian Linguistics specialist, assured me, however, that this Passion was different.  

It was performed by the Pietro Frediani Maggio Theatrical Company of Buti, a Tuscan hillside town not far from Pisa with a centuries-old theatrical tradition.  A maggio is a popular drama based on legends and the lives of the saints.  Sung in metric poetry, they are similar in structure, but the singing style varies from town to town. For at least two hundred years, they have been a tradition in the western part of Tuscany and the nearby region of Emilia Romagna.  

The theatrical company of Buti is made up entirely of citizens of this small town. Their Passion, dramatically acted and hypnotically sung, was nonetheless understated in its tone. Its backdrop was the Passion, but its story is a tragic one of love, hate, friendship, betrayal, death and salvation -- topics that are universal.  

To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Happy New Year Pisan Style

                                The Annunciation, Leonard da Vinci, 1472-1475, 
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Wondering what the next year will bring?  Then come to Pisa where it's already 2010!  

Capodanno, the first day of the year was March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. According to Christian belief, the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas, is the day on which the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she would be the mother of God. Pisa began using this date as the start of the new year in 985 and continued to do so until 1749. That's when the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered the fiercely independent population of Pisa to change to the Gregorian calendar -- almost 200 years after it was codified by Pope Gregory XIII.

The tradition remains and more than nine months ahead of the rest of the world, Pisans have popped the corks on their champaigne (or spumante) bottles and toasted in the new year. New Year's Day itself was marked by religious and traditional ceremonies that date back to the Middle Ages.


At 11:30 a.m., we joined  flag-waving heralds, churchmen, city officials and ordinary citizens in a procession through the Pisan streets, across the Campo dei Miracoli and into the cathedral. The new year officially begins at noon when a ray of sunlight comes through a window at the very top of the cathedral and illuminates a marble egg. The window, tradition says, was put in place when the cathedral was built in the 12th century.

Guidebooks tell you the egg is located next to Giovanni Pisano's famous medieval pulpit. In fact, it's in a rather obscure place behind a pillar high up on the church wall. The location makes me question the accuracy of the unknown architects of this solar clock or that of the legend. Since the cathedral is an architectural marvel, I'm inclined to doubt the legend. I'm also a bit unclear about what happens if the sun doesn't shine. Fortunately, it was a bright, cloudless day.

All heads turned upward and on the stroke of noon, the sun illuminated the egg. The cathedral filled with applause and 2010 officially began. Good cheer was everywhere and there was no room for skeptics.

As Pisan Mayor Marco Filippeschi said after the ceremonies: "It's a way of remembering our history as well as a manifestation of hope that in the nine months that separate our New Year from that of the rest of the world, we will all see an upturn in fortune that will strengthen our belief in the future."

Buon Anno! Happy New Year!

To see photos of New Year's Day 2010 in Pisa, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To see previous photo albums, click here