Monday, April 8, 2013

Pisa Unchanged

To see more photos, click here

Recently, I attended a press conference given by the mayor of Pisa. Its purpose was to announce an upcoming Dante conference and a new summer program entitled: "Reading Dante in Pisa." (If you would like to enroll, click here.) In 1312-1313, Dante is believed to have spent quite a bit of time in Pisa writing his famous Monarchia. After his death, Pisa was a center of Dante studies and some of the best-known Dante commentators and historians lived here. The University of Pisa is, in fact, still home to a host of illustrious Dante scholars. (One of them, Marco Santagata, recently published a well-reviewed narrative biography of the poet: Dante, Il Romanzo della sua Vita.) While Florence, Bologna and Ravenna have capitalized on their role in the life of Dante to attract visitors to their cities, Pisa's connection to the great poet is much less known. 

How big a draw is Dante, you might ask. Well, when the well-known actor Roberto Benigni read the Divine Comedy on Italian television, more than 10 million people tuned in. The entire 13 programs have reached more than 45 percent of Italian households.

The Dante initiative is just one part of a larger plan to make Pisa more attractive to tourists. Contracts with the European low-cost airlines are bringing more and more visitors to Pisa and the city wants people to know that it has a lot more to offer than one magnificent leaning tower. 

A new, multi-media web site with tourist itineraries is in the works; two new museums - Palazzo Blu and the Museum of Graphic Design - have opened on the Lungarno in recent years; and the restoration of Pisa's incredible medieval walls is well on its way to completion. Soon it will be possible to walk the restored portions of the nearly 35-foot high walls and see Pisa from a whole new point of view. A relative late-comer, the town's beautiful Teatro Verdi, completed in 1867, has a new web site (presently in Italian only). Visitors can now buy tickets online to the theater's many plays, concerts, operas and dance performances. On the splendid Piazza dei Cavalieri, the ugly blacktop paving has been removed and replaced with more traditional paving stones. The Piazza Victorio Emanuele II, under construction for many years, is now finished, complete with underground parking. Cars are no longer allowed on the square, which means locals and tourists arriving at the near-by train station can enjoy a long passeggiata from the Piazza down the renovated pedestrian street of the Corso Italia, over the Ponte di Mezzo and on to the medieval Borgo Stretto. Along the way, they pass great shops, book stores, restaurants, bars, cafes and gelaterias.

Not every citizen in Pisa, of course, is happy with all the changes, but from a visitor's point of view, the biggest draw in Pisa is all the things that haven't changed - not in hundreds  and hundreds of years.  

The cathedral, one of the most celebrated Romanesque buildings in the world, was started in 1064, the Baptistery in 1152, and the famous Leaning Tower in 1173. The town walls of Pisa were begun in 1155. Just outside the walls is the modern-day Jewish Cemetery, which opened in 1674 on the site of an earlier 13th-century one. The University of Pisa, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, was founded in 1343. The National Museum of San Matteo, housed in a 13th-century Benedictine convent, is filled with magnificent works of art from the 12th to the 17th centuries.  At the archeological site of the Cantiere delle Navi Antiche, there are the remains of ships dating from the 5th century b.c. to the 7th century a.d, a testament to Pisa's maritime dominance, which continued into the 13th century. The Borgo Stretto, as it name implies, is a narrow street in the heart of the old town lined with 15th-century arcades. 

In addition to its monumental buildings, Pisa is packed with beautiful, smaller Romanesque churches, magnificent town houses along the Arno, and hundreds of traditional Tuscan-colored, medieval tower houses. One of them is the house where Galileo was born. And although more than 1 million people visit the Leaning Tower each year, it is still possible in Pisa to walk alone down any number of small streets and to imagine yourself in a time far removed from the present.  

Our apartment is right in the heart of medieval Pisa, just down the block from the Teatro Verdi and Galileo's house. We're just steps away from the Arno River, but we've not seen many tourists in our neighborhood. The other day, however, I saw two American women with a guide book, looking up at our tower house.  

So, if you want to see Pisa before the rush, come now.   

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by GFK


  1. You always have a winner! The Pisa blog made me want to get on a plane and go straight there (if only!). A.

  2. The Pisa Chamber of Commerce should be paying you big bucks for this incredibly inviting introduction to the many changes and renovations going on!!! M.L.

  3. Loved it. What a beautiful city. Mary


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