Once upon a time, two Tuscan city-states grew rich from trade. They used their wealth to build a slew of cathedrals, towers, piazzas, and palaces in their own unique version of the Romanesque style.
A bit of context: when the Roman Empire fell apart, so did building techniques throughout most of Europe. Over time, the Christian church became a dominant force in society, financially as well as culturally. Architecture’s re-emergence, not surprisingly, focused on churches. Romanesque architecture encompasses a huge range of localized styles and regional crafts, with some delightfully quirky concoctions. In Pisa and Lucca, this meant capitalizing on the proximity of the Carrara mountains, with their exquisite white marble. Traders brought back inspiration from Byzantine mosaics as well as intricately worked Islamic surfaces. The two city-states developed a style using row upon row of columns with blind arches, giving plenty of opportunities to showcase local carving.
Romanesque Architecture, Part I: Lucca’s Eclecticism
Lucca lies in a lush valley surrounded by the green Carrara mountains. The river (Fiume Serchio) lies outside the old city walls. However, the walls themselves have been converted into a park which offers views of the historic center as well as the landscape around it. And because it’s full of massive trees, the park was pleasantly cool on a hot day.
We enjoyed a picnic amongst the locals sitting, strolling, running, cycling, and walking their dogs. The park continues outside the walls, too, with meadows, a moat, and groves of trees. Each side of the walls has been planted with a different kind of tree, giving seasonal displays of color.
Inside the walls, you’ll find one lovely piazza after another. The streets are medieval in scale, but never cramped. Lucca’s historic buildings are scattered throughout town, which is small enough to wander without fear of getting lost. Part of the fun here comes from never knowing what you’ll see next and discovering interesting details tucked away. For example, the Guinigi tower has a grove of ancient oak trees sprouting on top. The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro derives its oval shape from a past as the site of a Roman amphitheater. The cathedral has a labyrinth embedded in the right pier of the portico.
Lucca’s Romanesque churches are special favorites of mine because they are so playful: stacks of columns in every shape and color, plus animal statuary galore. They remind me of being a kid in the candy store who’s told it’s ok to pick one of everything. Perhaps the best examples are the facades of the San Martino Cathedral and the San Michele in Foro, both of which feature tiers of colored, carved, patterned columns, of which no two are the same.
Local legend says the cathedral’s collection originated in a contest for the best column: instead of awarding a winner, the townspeople decided to use them all, thus saving the price of a prize and fabricating a whole new set. Whether or not that’s true, the one-of-each approach shows up in other places, such as the bell tower with a different number of openings on each level (a feature typical of Italian Romanesque).
Up close, the play continues with details like the small lion statues perched on top of pilasters inside the portico of the cathedral, each one smiling down at us in its own particular way.
Note: Italian painting fans won’t want to miss the Tinoretto’s Last Supper and Fra Bartolomeo’s 1509 Madonna and Child, both inside the San Martino cathedral. The San Michele in Foro has a terracotta Madonna with Child by Luca della Robbia and a panel with Four Saints by Filippino Lippi.
Lucca’s train station is across the street from the old city. The walls are about 4 km in circumference, with everything inside no more than a few minutes’ walk away.
Lucca has more to see and do than we could fit into a single day, especially since we visited on the day of the monthly antique market. In fact, we plan to use this relaxed and charming town as a base on future trips to the area.
Romanesque Architecture, Part II: Pisa’s Elegance
You can’t do justice to Pisa on a hot day. Like Florence, Pisa straddles the Arno River, and many of the most scenic views can be found along its elegant sweep. Also like Florence, Pisa does not have much by way of greenery. This makes it easier to appreciate the beauty of the buildings, which include no less than five museums and three major churches along its banks. However, the openness exposes you to the elements. When we visited, temperatures were in the 90’s with no breeze; perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the pandemic, but we found the riverfront empty in the late morning.
The Piazza dei Miracoli consists of a carpet of grass surrounded by walls, with the cathedral, baptistry, and tower (you know, the one that leans) right in the middle. I initially assumed the name refers to something religious, but it actually comes from writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who called it the prato dei miracoli (“meadow of miracles”) when he saw it from an airplane in 1910. Apparently he liked the contrast between the lawn and the marble. We were more preoccupied with the heat radiating off the grass. There were few places to sit and no shade whatsoever.
On the positive side, the simple layout highlights the architecture, which is distinctive enough to earn the name “Pisan Romanesque.” Constructed between 1063-1118, the cathedral is the largest Romanesque church in Tuscany. The intricate but elegant design uses strict geometry to temper an abundance of decoration. With its white-on-white color scheme and bordered edges, it almost looks like it’s made of paper.
For many historians, Nicola Pisano’s influential baptistery pulpit of 1255-60 marks the beginning of Renaissance sculpture. After visiting the ruins in Rome, Pisano began mixing classical elements with the more ornate style used in Catholic churches at the time. He adopted ancient Roman forms (such as putting sculptures on top of columns), subjects (a naked Hercules is sandwiched between two saints), and even incorporated actual pieces from the ruins themselves (the pulpit columns came from Ostia Antica).
Regarding the tower: take a moment to savor the irony – this ‘failure’ of engineering turned into one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in the world.
Visiting the Piazza dei Miracoli was as much about watching people photograph themselves as seeing the Leaning Tower and the cathedral, lovely as they are. We attempted a few pictures ourselves before giving in to the sun and heading back to the train station. Along the way, we found some excellent panini and a shady loggia, just cool enough for a picnic.
Pisa makes a good day trip, but you can also pass through en route to elsewhere. (The train station checks bags for €5.) Walking from the train station directly to the Piazza dei Miracoli takes about 20 minutes. Several avenues branch out from the station, but they all go to the river. From there, you can wander the old city, or head straight for the Piazza dei Miracoli along the Via Roma or the Via Santa Maria.
For a different kind of Italian Romanesque, see our post on the Striped Cathedrals of Orvieto and Siena.