The Pisan Romanesque

Aerial view of the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa (Tuscany, Italy). It is recognized as one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. In first term is the Camposanto Monumentale, to the left upper corner is the Leaning Tower, right next to it is the Pisa Cathedral and to the center right is the Pisan Baptistry.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, Pisan architects developed a brand new style, a style that eventually led to the revival of the Italian art during the Renaissance. It is undeniable the great importance that Pisan art had over all the other artistic forms that were developing in Italy throughout the XIth century. During the peak of the Romanesque period, when other countries in Western Europe were totally focused in the construction of groin vaults, Pisan architects came up with the superb design of the marble cathedral of Pisa based solely on the purity of lines characteristic of the ancient classical architecture. In addition, these Pisan masters surrounded their cathedral with other beautiful monuments: the leaning tower of Pisa, the Pisa Baptistry (which also served as a concert hall), and the cloister or cemetery known as Camposanto Monumentale. These four neighboring buildings occupy the space of a large square now known as Piazza dei Miracoli (or Square of Miracles) in Pisa.

The Pisa Cathedral with the Leaning Tower to its right. This cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption).
The facade of the Pisa Cathedral was built by master Rainaldo and is in grey marble and white stone with inlaid discs of colored marble.

The Pisa cathedral, the oldest and most important building of the Piazza dei Miracoli, was begun in 1060. This cathedral was built under the direction of master architect Buscheto, who apparently was of Greek origin. Buscheto seemed more influenced by ancient Roman architecture than by the Eastern-Byzantine building style and method. This large church, designed in the style of the ancient Roman basilicas, was completed after Buscheto’s death and finished by master architect Rainaldo. In general terms, the Pisa cathedral embodies an architectural unity comparable only to that of the classical temples.

Above the main doors of the Pisa cathedral are four rows of open galleries, here a detail of some of these galleries’ arcades at the facade of the cathedral.
The interior of the Pisa Cathedral is covered with black and white marble and has a gilded ceiling and a dome decorated with a fresco. At the apse is the impressive mosaic of Christ in Majesty. The granite Corinthian columns between the nave and the aisles were taken from an ancient roman building. It is believed that inside this cathedral, Galileo formulated his theory about the movement of a pendulum by watching the swinging of the incense lamp that used to be hanging from the ceiling of the nave. This lamp is now kept in the Camposanto Monumentale, in the Aulla chapel.

Its floor plan is of a Latin cross with five naves, the central one covered with a wooden ceiling while the lateral naves are covered by groin vaults; over the crossing rises an ellipsoidal dome. The columns between the naves have beautiful monolithic shafts of polished granite, with ancient capitals and Attic bases, all of them uniform and perhaps taken from some ancient Roman building from Sicily or Tuscany that were disassembled in order to embellish the new cathedral. These columns support large arches above which the upper gallery runs along the lateral naves and that is completely decorated with bands of white and green marble forming a natural polychromy.

View of the coffered ceiling of the central nave of the Pisa cathedral, it was replaced after the fire of 1595. The present gold-decorated ceiling has the coat of arms of the house of Medici.

The exterior facades of the Pisa Cathedral have these same decorative alternate bands, white and dark, a characteristic of Pisan architecture. Also on the facades, at the arches’ spandrels, there are beautiful inlaid mosaics especially in the main facade. This church was built to produce a noble effect of architectural beauty with the simple repetition of arches and galleries forming a kind of lattice on the church’s wall. At naked eye all these arches are apparently equal, but watching them closely it is evident that in fact they are all different and rich in variety. Thus, with the simplest means, the whole building is neither dull nor common. All Pisa cathedral is decorated with this simple combination of arches and squares; there are no sculptures but mosaics representing geometric shapes made with hard stones and marbles. Since the times of ancient art humankind did not achieve such an admirable result using these simplicity of means. The lines are also never straight both outside and inside the cathedral: straight lines curved to rectify the effects of perspective, as ancient Greeks did before in their classical temples. The Pisa cathedral was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius. However, beautification works and perhaps also its restoration had to last until the end of the thirteenth century.

The Pisa Baptistry of St. John (Pisa, Italy). This baptistry was designed by Diotisalvi, whose signature can be read on two pillars inside the building together with the date 1153.
The interior of the Pisa Baptistry is overwhelming and lacks decoration. The octagonal font at the center is from 1246. At the center of the font is a bronze sculpture of St. John the Baptist.

The Baptistry of Pisa was begun in 1153 with master Deotisalvi as the architect in charge. The Pisan Baptistry is another architectural wonder. It has a circular floor plan with a nave that runs all around it and a gallery at the second level; the central space, with the baptismal fonts, is covered by a very high conical dome in order to enhance the acoustics of the construction. It is believed that this dome had originally a hole at the very top and that the dome itself was extradosed, that is, visible to the outside with the same conical shape seen at the interior of the building. But in the Renaissance, this conical dome was surrounded by a spherical surface from which now protrudes the tip of the original cone. In the original construction, the exterior wall of the baptistry had a simple ornamentation with arcades characteristic of the Pisan style but was later decorated with Gothic pinnacles*.

The inner dome of the Pisa Baptistry. The original pyramidal roof was covered with a spherical cupola. As a result of the combination of these two roofs, the pyramidal inner one and the domed external one, the Baptistry’s interior is acoustically perfect making of its space a resonating chamber.
A scale model of the Pisa baptistry showing the internal structure of its dome, with the original pyramidal roof built inside a spherical dome and slightly protruding at the top.

Next to the cathedral stands the Campanile, traditionally known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a cylindrical tower with seven floors topped by a cylinder of smaller diameter where the bells are placed. The tower’s exterior wall is decorated by arcades on each floor, a design that was in complete harmony with that of the cathedral’s facade. The unique leaning of the tower was not preconceived but the result of the irregular and natural sinking of the ground on which it was built.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a campanile or freestanding bell tower located behind the Pisa cathedral, and is worldwide known for its unintended tilt. The height of the tower is 55.86 mt (183.27 ft) from the ground on the low side and 56.67 mt (185.93 ft) on the high side.
External loggia of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The construction of the tower began on August 14, 1173. During construction, in an effort to compensate for the tilt, the upper floors were built with one side taller than the other. Because of this feature, the tower is actually curved. The seventh floor was completed in 1319 and the bell-chamber was finished in 1372 by Tommaso di Andrea Pisano, who succeeded in harmonizing the Gothic elements of the bell-chamber with the Romanesque style of the tower. The tower has seven bells, one for each note of the musical major scale.

The Pisan Campo Santo or Camposanto Monumentale is the last building that together with the Cathedral, the Campanile and the Baptistry form the monumental architectural ensemble known as delle quatro fabbriche. Its construction begun in the late thirteenth century and is a rectangular patio or courtyard filled with soil from the Calvary, which was transported to Pisa in the large Pisan ships returning from the Holy Land. The Camposanto does not have any exterior openings; its marble walls are completely smooth and solid. In its ample cloister’s gallery are placed glorious trophies mixed with the graves of the protectors of the Republic, plus some works of art. These last include ancient Roman busts and Greek stelae and sarcophagi decorated with Early Christian art motifs located next to the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII who wanted to be buried in Pisa, his Ghibelline city.

External view of the Camposanto Monumentale of Pisa. The structure was built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha brought back to Pisa during the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century. The Camposanto’s outer wall is composed of 43 blind arches.
The interior courtyard of the Camposanto Monumentale. Most of the tombs are placed under the arcades, although a few are on the central lawn. The inner courtyard is surrounded by elaborate round arches with slender divisions and pluri-lobed tracery. The cemetery has three chapels: the chapel Ammannati, the chapel Aulla and the chapel Dal Pozzo.

In subsequent essays we will learn the important role the Camposanto Monumentale played in the development of Italian art; its huge lateral walls were covered with frescoes painted by the greatest masters of the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the first period of the latter.

A view of one of the inner aisles of the Campo Santo Monumentale which contains an important collection of Roman sarcophagi and other ancient works of art.


Gothic pinnacles: An architectural ornament generally forming the cap or crown of a buttress or small turret. The pinnacle looks like a small spire (a tapering conical or pyramidal structure). It was mainly used in Gothic architecture.  A pinnacle has two purposes: 1) Ornamental – by adding to the loftiness and verticity of the structure. 2) Structural – the pinnacles were very heavy and often rectified with lead, in order to allow the flying buttresses to contain the stress of the building’s vaults and roof. This was done by adding compressive stress (a direct result of the pinnacle weight itself) to the thrust vector and thus shifting it downwards rather than sideway.