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The Certosa & Natural History Museum of Calci Near Pisa

The Certosa di Calci is Huge!

As you exit the main highway at Cascina on the east to west road called the FI-PI-LI and start to drive towards the Apuane Alps, you slowly shake off the busy industrial sensations and start to ease yourself into the quiet and tranquility that first drew the Carthusian monks to this area. The area is a large plain - no hills to speak of, so it is possible to follow the towering facade of the church even from a distance. It looks almost lost and definitely out of place with its prestigious white marble buildings and tall protective walls in comparison to the ancient olive trees and serene country life that surrounds it.

What’s in the Name

The name “certosa” is Italian for Carthusian monastery, or charterhouse and derives from the Chartreuse Mountains in France where you can find the head monastery of the Carthusian order. The origins of the structure are from the mid 1300’s however what you see today has been mainly restructured to accommodate the monks that were fleeing from France & Napoleon with the dramatic new laws that were closing down monasteries.

What is there to see?

In order to visit the Certosa, you have to take the tour. Unfortunately there are many areas that are not open to the public due to its deteriorating state. What is visible, is only a small portion of this opulent estate but it definitely gives a clear idea of the lifestyle of the monks. The guides are very knowledgeable and readily share the little quirks of the Certosa. I arrived on the first Sunday of the month, and had free entrance … and I arrived just in time because the last tour on Sunday is at 12:30 noon! They are very precise.

Surprise: visiting the “cells” of the “padres” (similar to mini-suites at your favorite 5 star hotel) and you can see the skeletons of the humpback whale as it appears to jump out of its exhibition

As you walk under the covered gate you are presented with the 17th century facade of the church in white marble with a grand front entrance, topped with the tower figure of the Virgin Mary. There were 15 “padre” (monks) that lived in the certosa and their job was focused on the Carthusian life: contemplation, prayer and with an emphasis on solitude and silence. So while they were busy praying they had 65 “caretakers” or lay brothers who were there for the daily running of the certosa - growing the food, cooking, cleaning, dealing with the locals and of course, their own time dedicated to prayer.

The tour takes you to see several of the chapels which are located within the main structure, some of which have been recently restored. The refectory, was a large room with frescoes on all four walls including a Cenacolo di Bernardino Poccetti (1597) and two which acknowledge the patronage of the Granduke and his wife.

While I was there, the cloister was covered in scaffolding since they were replacing roof tiles - however, even looking through the bars, it was absolutely amazing with an octagram monumental fountain in the center surrounded by antique cypress trees. The cemetery was small and unassuming with no markers, we were told that the monks were buried without a casket, and without a tombstone - because their earthly name wasn’t need in the afterlife.

The monk spent his time here in prayer, meditation, caring for his private flower garden, perhaps writing or transcribing and then working - mainly as a carpenter for small tasks.

Once you have visited the religious side of the monastery you will be taken to the chambers of the Granduke, who spent much time here, residing in the Foresteria Granducale. Dignitaries from all over the world have been entertained in these walls, one of the last was Tony Blair. Leaving the apartment of the Granduke and his cloister, you will be escorted outside in the long front courtyard, on one side are the buildings that now house the Natural History Museum and on the other side you can see the area which housed the gardens that the lay brothers tended to to provided fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and eggs for the monks - they did not eat meat.

The last stop is the antique pharmacy which was one of the principal sources of income for the local monks. The pharmacy was open and functional up until just a few years ago...fascinating was the degree of accuracy they scales performed at. We had a little demonstration as the guide tipped the scales with a scrap of paper...

Natural History Museum Tells Millions of Years of History

The eccentric collection at the University of Pisa Museum of Natural History started in 1591, with the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’Medici.With the vast and varied assortment, it was considered to be one of the first “museums” of its kind. Fashioned a bit after the German idea of a “wunderland” with natural curiosities and oddities, the collection grew to include minerals, zoo animals, skeletons, fossils and so many little odds and ends. In 1980 the university gathered and organized its scientific research and established the now permanent exhibition in buildings which make up part of the Certosa.

Surprise: the history of the territory of Pisa, literally an ocean of surprises! Many exhibits in English - great for the entire family

Amazing to consider: there are four centuries of Pisan university research and Grand Duke collections gathered together which have established a reputation as one of the world's leading scientific museums. The great thing is that many of the newer exhibitions are in both Italian and English - so it can be a fulfilling experience for any age. This is not a state or civic museum, but entirely run by the University of Pisa - so there are no free Sundays (I learned the hard way).

What is there to See?

Though everything is a bit fascinating - and some parts are a bit like the believe it or not tent at the circus, there are some rather interesting exhibitions. My favorite exhibits were:

The telling of the history of the territory that stretches from Florence to the sea. Millions of years of history to explain why the peaks of the mountains are so white, why we find fossils in the dirt nearby (even today) and what existed here even before the dinosaurs. One large room, divided into three sections walks you through the history by making huge jumps of thousands and thousands of years. (Don’t let them steer you wrong: as you exit the ticket booth/gift shop, walk across the sidewalk in the courtyard and turn to your left, then go thru the first door on your right-otherwise you will be walking backwards - back in time.)

Suggestion: Bring a picnic lunch and eat in the olive grove in front of the museum - the trees are antique and absolutely gorgeous. Or you can use your ticket for a discount at one of the restaurants in town. Ask the staff to assist you, they have a list of places right as you walk into the Certosa.

The second room I really enjoyed is an amazing space, with lots of natural light where you can walk thru the skeletons of the whales. These huge, monstrous skeletons give you just an inkling of how large these amazing creatures are.

There is a special dinosaur display available till August 2016, and though these are not the mammoth dinosaurs that one dreams about, the exhibition is tasteful and probably just the right size for the younger visitors. I enjoyed the archaeologist room which is designed to show you step by step the path a fossil takes before it can be on display in the museum.

The grounds around the certosa and museum are beautiful, and you can definitely spend the time walking around and appreciating the sound of silence - much like the monks did years before.

Author: Donna Scharnagl

It has been over 24 years since I took my first steps in Italy and I still haven’t found a good reason to leave.  Between the food, the culture, the history, the art, the landscapes … did I mention the food? I have become a lifelong student. And I soon learned that Italians all have stories that long to be told; stories that paint a picture of how hard work produces character, how life is made of ups and downs and how good it feels to laugh.


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