Searching for the Sea in Pisa

How is it that Pisa came to be a flourishing Maritime Republic and a leading commercial and military power in the Mediterranean during the High Middle Ages, given that the sea is nowhere in sight? In Venice, Genoa, Amalfi and other medieval Italian maritime republics, the sea is visible and its role evident, but what about Pisa, a city nowadays known mostly for its leaning tower, baptistery, and cathedral?

These were the questions that students explored in February during an on-site class with professor Stefano Casu’s Florence and the Mediterranean: A Sea of Culture course, a new addition to the University of Minnesota semester in Florence. The day in Pisa highlighted the impact of Medieval Pisa’s encounters with Byzantine, Islamic, and other Mediterranean cultures on local art and architecture.

After a stop at the National Museum of San Matteo, where an exceptional collection of crucifixes reveals Byzantine influence on the evolution of Italian religious art in the 12th and 13th centuries, the visit focused on Pisa’s conflicted relationship with the Islamic world. Professor Casu illustrated how, throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, Pisa entertained profitable commercial exchanges with Muslim populations, while at the same time participating in the Crusades and leading several wars against the Saracens for naval control of the Mediterranean. He revealed traces of this conflict in the church of San Sisto, which is decorated on the inside with the funerary inscription of an Arab Emir defeated in the Balearic war, and on the outside with bright oriental pottery, a craft in which Arabs excelled during the High Middle Ages.

In Piazza dei Cavalieri, students learned about the history of the Medici-founded Knights of Saint Stephen in a private visit to St. Stephen’s Church. The order had a mandate to fight the Turks on Mediterranean coastlines; today, the church displays a unique collection of flags taken from Ottoman ships during naval battles. At the same time, students were shown Pisans’ admiration for Islamic art and how this aesthetic left a permanent mark on local culture, visible in decorative patterns in Pisan paintings and architecture.

The day closed with a tour of the spectacular Camposanto, Pisa’s historical cemetery, where the city’s maritime past is evident through gigantic iron chains displayed on a commemorative wall. These chains were used to close the medieval Sinus Pisanus, the old Pisan port on the Arno estuary, protecting the city from enemy attacks by sea. Confiscated by the rival cities of Genoa and Florence at the time of Pisa’s decline as a naval power, the chains represent the city’s maritime past and illustrate the rivalry among Italian cities before Unification.