Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 15, 2017

A Snapshot of Pisa

One of an occasional series of posts with brief glimpses of Italian cities.

As the summer travel season approaches, many travelers will have Italy as their destination. First-time travelers might be headed for Rome, Florence, Venice or the Cinqueterra. Tuscany is always popular. Without question, many travelers will at least squeeze Pisa into the itinerary. Who, after all, doesn’t want to see that famous tower?

Pisa tower Brad Nixon 145 (480x640)

Here’s something every visitor to Pisa should know: There’s more to see in Pisa than the leaning tower.

Pisa isn’t a village. It’s a large city with more than 200,000 people in its metropolitan area and replete with history and commerce. It was a center of trade with the Greeks and Gauls 2,500 years ago. The Etruscans occupied Pisa, leaving remains of a significant necropolis. Centuries later the Romans held the city, which thrived after the fall of the Empire as a maritime power and political center, reflected in the city’s Medieval walls, bridges and buildings.

The University of Pisa has its roots in the 12th Century, placing Pisa alongside Bologna, Paris and Urbino as one of the world’s oldest educational institutions. (If you want to start a challenging conversation, engage some Italians in debating who was first!)

But, let’s be honest. You (or some friend of yours) is going there to see the Leaning Tower. That’s the subject I want to address.

Visitors to Pisa find a great deal more than a tower that tilts sharply to one side, and it’s best to be prepared.  Prepared for what? They’re on their way to an sizeablecomplex: the Piazza del Duomo or Piazza dei Miracoli:

Pisa campo santo Brad Nixon 130 (640x479)

There, from left to right, are the Baptistery, the Duomo (cathedral) and its famous bell tower, the campanile. A first-time visitor may dashed over to Pisa by train, motor coach or car, to “do” the Leaning Tower, only to discover that in one location is just as much to see as the Baptistery, Duomo and campanile they spent half a day exploring in Florence.

The Baptistery

Pisa baptistry Brad Nixon 129 (640x477)

Officially the Battistero di San Giovanni, it’s the second-largest baptistery in Italy. The people near it in the photo indicate the scale. Built from 1152-1363, it started out (lower levels) in the Romanesque style, but once Nicola Pisano succeeded the original architect, he shifted to the current Gothic style, and added the domed cupola atop the original pyramidal roof. The interior is one massive space, and if you can schedule your visit to coincide with a musical performance, you’ll hear some impressive acoustics.

It’s built on the same unstable ground as the campanile and leans slightly toward the cathedral, but its mass makes the inclination difficult to discern.

The Cathedral (Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta; Duomo di Pisa)

Pisa duomo Brad Nixon 140 (640x480)

In 1063, Pisa was vying with Venice for pride of place as the foremost maritime power of the era. Venice started building a massive church (St. Mark’s). Not to be outdone, so did Pisa. The structure you see today has been through several transformations, but still has an essentially Romanesque quality, but ornately decorated inside and out.

Pisa duomo Brad Nixon 141 (640x480)

If you reach Pisa at the end of a long traunch of travel through Italy, this may be the moment that your spirits sag, afflicted by church fatigue: Not another one … so much to absorb.

Pisa duomo Brad Nixon 146 (566x640)

The exterior alone, to quote from Wikipedia, “Contains multicolored marble, mosaic, and numerous bronze objects….”

Pisa duomo Brad Nixon 138 (640x480)

The interior is vast and also richly decorated, including the last work done by Cimabue. Because this is a snapshot, not a tour, I’ll only point out the famous pulpit by Giovanni Pisano from the first years of the 14th Century as one feature to  examine.

Pisa duomo Brad Nixon 132 (480x640)

The canny traveler will do some advance study to determine where to focus, because a thorough examination of the church would require a number of hours.

The Tower

Did I mention that the church has a bell tower?

The last of the 3 major structures, work on the campanile started in 1173. By the time work began on the second level, the tower had begun to sink to one side: inadequate foundation. Once the 3rd level was complete, work stopped for about 100 years. There were 2 subsequent phases of work, including an attempt to compensate for the tilt by building floors 4 through 7 with taller sides on lower side, with the result that the tower has not only a tilt, but a curve, too. Construction concluded in 1372, 199 years after it began.

I’m confident that every visitor is stunned by how far the tower departs from perpendicular.

Pisa tower Brad Nixon 144 (523x640)

The official measurement is about 3.99 degrees from vertical, representing 12′-10″ of variance from center at the top, 183 feet from the ground. That’s an improvement from its most radical degree of departure prior to restoration work: 5.5 degrees.

And More …

There is an excellent museum adjacent to the complex near the bell tower, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. I advise allowing an hour to see it. On display are some of the original works by the master artists  — including Nicola and Giovanni Pisano — that were originally located in the cathedral.

Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed for repairs, and no source I’ve found indicates a scheduled reopening, so it may be off your itinerary, at least for this summer.

Bordering the north side of the complex, the Camposanto Monumental is a massive Gothic cloister begun in 1278. It’s a cemetery. You can see a portion of the wall just to the left of the Baptistery in the first photo. rather than subject you to my inadequate photos, see the Wikpedia article, here.

If you know someone who’s looking forward to the visit, mention that they should consult the guidebook. There’s an enormous amount to see.

I welcome comments about highlights of Pisa that will help us be better-informed visitors.

P.S. If you visit Pisa (or anywhere) this summer and encounter a significant closure like the one for the Duomo Museum, or some monument or building obscured by scaffolding, consider contributing a notice and a photo to

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017


  1. Very interesting! I love looking at all the details in the pics!


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