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Travel stories > Monte Carlo

We arrived at Pisa towards evening, and got into comfortable quarters at the Hotel Victoria. Our hotel was close to the river Arno, the river of Dante and Petrarch. There were several gondola-like barges on the other side, and Shelley occurred to my memory. It is impossible to visit Pisa without recalling touching memories of the unfortunate and gifted poet who passed the last few years of his stormy life here, and only left it in the summer of 1823 for the Casa Magni, on the wild sea coast between Lerici and San Terenzio. It was from here that the Don Juan set out on its fatal trip to Leghorn one July morning—never to return.

Pisa was founded about six centuries B.C., and was one of the twelve Etruscan cities. It is generally looked upon as the cradle of Italian art. The busiest part of the town is the Lung 'Arno (Street along the Arno), a handsome quay extending down both banks of the river. On the way we visited San Stefano di Cavalier, the church of the Knights of the Order of St. Stephens where there are some beautiful ceiling paintings of the battle of Lepanto.

On reaching the Piazza del Duomo, we found the chief objects of interest. Forsyth pithily observes, “Pisa was celebrated for its profusion of marble, its patrician tower, and its grave magnificence. It can still boast some marble churches, a marble palace, and a marble bridge. Its towers may be traced in the walls of modernized houses. Its gravity pervades every street, but its magnificence is now confined to one sacred corner. There stands the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Leaning Tower, and the Campo Santo, all built of the same white marble, all varieties of the same architecture.

The Cathedral is very fine; the columns, arches, and carvings are curiously beautiful. It was built by the Pisans after their great naval victory in 1063, and is the finest specimen now existing of the style called the Gotico-Moresco. Baedeker says, “This remarkably perfect edifice is constructed entirely of white marble, with black and coloured ornamentation. The most magnificent part is the facade, which is adorned with columns and arches attached to the wall; in the upper parts with four open galleries, gradually diminishing in length: the choir is also imposing. The ancient bronze gates were replaced in 1602 by the present doors, with representations of scriptural subjects, executed by Mocchi, Tacca, Mora, and others from designs by Giovanni da Bologna.” The interior is upborne by sixty-eight ancient Greek and Roman columns, captured by the Pisans in war. The nave, transept, and dome are most beautifully decorated with paintings, frescoes, and sculpture by Italy's greatest master, of whom Ariosto truly says—“Michael, piu che mortal, angel divino” (Michael, less man than angel, and divine.)

Opposite, and but a few yards distant, is the Baptistery. It is a beautiful, circular structure some 160 feet in diameter, surrounded by columns below, and a gallery of smaller detached columns above, covered with a conical dome 190 feet high. The building was commenced in 1153, but was not finally completed until 1278. It is famous for its wonderful echo.

The Campanile, or, as it is usually styled, the “Leaning Tower,” is on the other side of the Cathedral. It is 188 feet high, 53 feet round the base, and about 14 feet out of the perpendicular. It is now, I believe, generally understood that this obliquity was occasioned by the imperfect state of the foundations and the sinking of the soil, which is light and sandy, and which caused it to settle down on one side while the building was still uncompleted. This is evident from the staircase, of some 294 steps, being also at an angle. There are some very heavy bells on the topmost towers, to counterbalance the deviation. It is supposed to have been constructed about 1174, by William of Innsprueck, and afterwards finished by Italians, but it was not finally completed until 1350. It rises in storeys, which, like the Baptistery, are surrounded by half columns and six colonnades.

It is said that Galileo, who was born at Pisa, took advantage of the peculiarity of the leaning tower to make his experiments regarding the laws of gravitation; and there is in the Cathedral a great silver chandelier suspended after his design from the great height of the roof. This was so mathematically correct that the celebrated astronomer took his idea of the pendulum from it. There is a very fine view from the top of the tower, well repaying the trouble of ascending.

The Campo Santo, or burial-ground, was the next place we visited. It is not so beautiful in statuary as that of Genoa, but from its great antiquity is even more interesting. It is a long parallelogram with a covered cloister; the central part supported by beautiful pilasters adorned with painting and frescoes, chiefly by Giotto, Orgagna, and Memmid. There is a very ancient and interesting collection of Roman, Etruscan, and Mediaeval sculpture and sarcophagi. Through the round and beautifully traced arched windows you look out on the original burial-ground in the centre and, tradition says, is filled in with some fifty-three ship-loads of earth brought from Mount Calvary in the twelfth century (after the loss of the Holy Land), by the Archbishop of that time, so that the dead might repose in holy ground.

One other memento of past naval glory that we saw, was the great chain across the more ancient part of Pisa. This was carried away by the Genoese as a trophy, after their conquest of the city, but was afterwards generously returned.

One of the pleasures of travelling not to be overlooked is that of retrospection: picture after picture and memory after memory rises to the mind, and one could go on forever rebuilding in fancy all that has pleased and interested. With all my heart I can echo Dickens' words—“I find it difficult to separate my own delight in recalling, from your weariness in having them recalled.”

We took train to Leghorn. Leigh Hunt sums up his impressions in a few words: “Leghorn is a polite Wapping, with a square and a theatre.” The grave of Smollett, who lived here for some time, is one of the objects of interest to visitors from the British Isles.

On returning, we had a fine view of Pisa. In the distance it appears like a city of white marble, with its tower leaning at one end, and the blue mountains far away in the background, looking, however, much nearer than is actually the case. Distance is almost annihilated in this clear, dry, Italian atmosphere, which also to a great extent prevents decay, the most ancient buildings looking often singularly fresh. “Antiquity refuses to look ancient in Italy; it insists on retaining its youthful aspect.”
The Torre del Fame, or “Tower of Famine,” where Ugolino and his sons were starved to death, stood “a littel out” of Pisa, as old Chaucer has it, but the very site of this monument of cruel tyranny and vengeance is now lost, or at any rate apocryphal.


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