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


  1. Well, that's fascinating! I've been to Pisa, and what you say here certainly makes sense, but I wasn't really aware of some of this history. Thanks for the education! I thought Pisa was a beautiful area.

  2. Congratulations! Bravo! Welldone Geraldine. I am an 84-year-old blogger, and I find your site fascinating. As I am writing about our visit to Pisa in 1956 and came accross your wonderful discription of the Casa Torre(spelling) in "Medeival Skyscrapers" I wonder if you would please allow me to use some of this information for my blog? ( it is called Cookenjoy blog My e-mail is

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  4. Geraldine,

    I find the woodblock illustration of Pisa here quite interesting. It appears quite old, and yet includes the bell tower at an angle. Do you know its source or who made it?


Thanks for your comments.