PISA CATHEDRAL COMPLEX, ITALY


PISA CATHEDRAL COMPLEX, ITALY
   Pisa Cathedral and its sur-rounding buildings form a Romanesque complex unequalled in all of Italy in its large scale, high quality, and unique style. Constructed from 1063 to 1350, this complex consists of a large cathedral, a separate baptistery that rivals the cathedral dome in height, and a separate bell tower, called the campanile, which is the famous "Leaning Tower of Pisa." Next to the cathedral is an enclosed courtyard with the camposanto, or cemetery. At the time these buildings were constructed, Pisa was a powerful port city, one of the most prosperous on the Italic peninsula. Pisans negotiated control of the Mediterranean trade routes from the equally powerful merchant leagues of Venice, Amalfi, and Genoa, and Pisan merchants went on to dominate the western Mediterranean Sea over their greatest rivals, the Muslims. Muslim control of the neighboring Iberian peninsula, which they called Al-Andalus, reached back 700 years, and by 1000 it included not just all of Spain, but parts of Portugal and France as well. In 1063, when the Pisans won a decisive military victory over Islamic forces, this victory was seen as a monumental event not just for Pisa but for the entire Christian world, and it precipitated the construction of the Pisa Cathedral.
   More important than Florence or Siena during this time, Pisa enjoyed a highly sophisticated Romanesque culture. Romanesque architecture is generally characterized by its use of rounded arches and other features that recall Ancient Roman architecture, but Pisa's cosmopolitan interests are imprinted on the varied stylistic influences seen at the Pisa Cathedral complex. There, Byzantine and Muslim aesthetics blend with Roman classicism. The motivation for the use of classical elements in the Romanesque period is different from that of the more philosophically extensive Renaissance brand of antiquarianism, however. Romanesque classicism was meant specifically to recall not only the architectural grandeur of Ancient Rome, but also to confirm its historical importance as the first official seat of western Christianity, established there in the 300s under the reign of Constantine. From that beginning was created a powerful Roman papal court with political and religious control over large portions of Europe. Thus, the decision to construct a cathedral at Pisa and to dedicate it to the newly popular Virgin Mary was a clear reference to the Christian victory over the Muslims in Spain.
   The cathedral is built of white marble, with a unique west façade that includes three entrance portals and then four shorter registers of blind arcades, two that rise up to the height of the side aisles and two more that reach into the taller nave roof. The exterior walls are decorated with colored stone inlay, much like the Romanesque and Gothic buildings found in Venice. This colored stone provides a somewhat Eastern aesthetic, and is followed through with Corinthian columns topped by carved human and animal heads. Inside the cathedral, the nave is flanked by pairs of side aisles and topped by a flat timber roof, intricately carved into squares called coffering, in emulation of Ancient Roman basilicas. The interior walls are articulated with greenish marble to create a striped effect, a feature found in other central-Italian churches, such as at the Cathedral of Siena, built in the next century. At Pisa, the walls are divided into three registers, with a round-arched arcade running the length of the nave toward the high altar, then a triforium, or gallery level, and finally, a row of small clerestory windows. In general, Romanesque churches are thicker and more austere than is found in subsequent Gothic architecture, and the windows are markedly smaller and lack stained glass. In Italy, Romanesque windows tend to be even smaller than those found in northern European structures, given the greater amount of direct sunlight found in southern Europe. Moving toward the high altar of the Pisa Cathedral, wide transepts, also called the arms of the church, extend from the dome crossing. The high altar features a monumental Byzantine mosaic of Christ as Judge.
   Outside the cathedral the baptistery, located in front of the west façade, is a round structure divided into three registers and topped by a large tiled dome. At the ground level, a blind arcade features rounded arches, but the upper registers begin to demonstrate, through their pointed arches and an increase in architectural sculpture, the subsequent Gothic style that was in existence by the time the Pisa Cathedral complex was completed. The camposanto is architecturally simpler in design than the cathedral and baptistery, but the blind arcade is carried through on the exterior to create a visual link to the complex. Finally, the campanile, like the baptistery, is a free-standing structure designed with seven registers of arcades that lead up to a lantern. The tower was begun in 1173, and its current lean, which resulted from an improperly laid foundation, was evident during construction. Attempts to shift the weight of the tower at the upper levels of construction resulted in a slightly bowed shape. The tower currently leans at 5.5 degrees, and while over the years attempts have been made to stabilize the structure, most architects have agreed that the lean should not be corrected but that the subsoil must instead be stabilized. Benito Mussolini was the first leader of the 20th century to tackle this project, but the concrete base poured into the surrounding soil during this project only made the tower lean even further. More recently, the tower underwent a sophisticated restoration, concluded in 2001, to provide a subterranean support system that one hopes will prove successful in arresting any further tilting. It is this combination of unique stylistic features and interesting construction history that has made the Pisa Cathedral complex so famous today.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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