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The Square of Miracles is the Heart of Pisa

The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, the Square of Miracles in English, was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The square is not located right smack in the center of the city as you might imagine but along the north western edge along the city's fortified wall, almost out of the center. This is where space was available back in 1094 when construction was first started on the cathedral.

Since the times of the Etruscans, the three structures found in the piazza have been considered central to religious life, symbolizing the main stages of a human life: the Baptistery represents birth, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta life and the Camposanto, of course, alludes to death.

What about the Tower of Pisa? Well, we haven’t forgotten it but the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually considered a part of the cathedral since it is really its bell tower.

The square is surrounded by a beautiful green lawn where tourists and university students often lie down and relax in this amazing setting despite all the signs that say to keep off ;-).

As in most cities, the square was called Piazza del Duomo until Italian writer and poet Gabriele d'Annunzio described the square as the "prato dei Miracoli," or "meadow of miracles" in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910). The square is now simply known as the Campo dei Miracoli, which is literally the "Field of Miracles".

Construction of the Duomo began in the 11th century and, after many changes, was actually only completed in the 19th century when the architect Alessandro Gherardesca gave the square its final present appearance.

A Few Historical Notes

The Square first started taking shape in 1064 with the creation of the centerpiece of the entire complex: the Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. The cathedral symbolizes the maximum expression of Pisan Romanesque architecture influenced at the same time by various stylistic elements. At the time, Pisa was a Maritime Republic (from the 11th through 15th centuries), and sailors travelled around the Arab world and remained smitten by all the beautiful things they saw.

Years later the enlargement of the fortified wall began (the church at the beginning wasn’t inside the walls) and the building of the baptistery began only in 1152. The baptistery was located directly in front of the Cathedral with a diameter equal to the facade of the cathedral. About 20 years later, work started on the bell tower which is now known simply as the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. In 1277, work stated on the graveyard, known as the Camposanto.

Before the Florentine siege in the 15th century, you could enter the square through the Porta del Leone, but this was closed by the Florentines when they built the current door called Porta Santa Maria. During the era of the Medici and Lorraine dominance in the region, the four monuments were surrounded by the construction of many other buildings: these were knocked down only at the end of the 19th century when the architect Alessandro La Gherardesca reorganized the square to give it its current structure.

The most recent changes were made during the Fascist era: the monument She-Wolf of Rome was added on the lawn north of the bell tower and 17 cypresses were planted east of the square, in memory of the soldiers that died in the war.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the Duomo

Emblem of Pisan Romanesque architecture, the cathedral was designed by the architect Buscheto in 1604 and shows, in its brightness, the influence of various styles and cultures: Byzantine but mostly Islamic components which testify of the power of the Maritime Republic of Pisa at that time. During trips to North Africa and the Middle East, Pisan sailors could admire the characteristics of the different worlds they visited and were deeply influenced by them. Look at the columns within the Duomo: they will remind you of similar ones you find in many mosques! The cathedral was consecrated in 1118. Despite a fire in 1595 within the Cathedral, many important works are still preserved within, including:

- the great mosaic of St. John the Evangelist in the apse (1302) by Cimabue - simply stunning!

- the Pulpit (on the left here), a masterpiece by Giovanni Pisano (1302-1310) which was dismantled between 1599 and 1601 and reassembled and returned only in 1926 to the cathedral, with some original pieces missing, including the staircase

- Bas-reliefs executed by apprentices of Giambologna

- Works by Beccafumi and Andrea del Sarto in the chancel

The Baptistery

The works for the realization of the Baptistery, the biggest in Italy, started in 1152 under supervision of the architect Diotislavi; the structure is set in front of the Cathedral and was entirely revisited by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni around the mid-thirteenth century. They changed the baptistery by adding Gothic elements, a lodge and a cupola. In the middle of the baptistery, the Baptismal Font by Guido Bigarelli is set center stage with natural illumination coming from a hole in the ceiling, now covered by the Cupola. The Pulpit by Nicola Pisano (1255-1260) has stories from Christ’s life on the five panels, while the columns represents the Virtues. We can easily notice a classical style in the work, and for this reason Nicola Pisano is considered by many as a precursor to the Renaissance.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The construction of the Tower of Pisa dates back to 1173. It fame is owed to its inclination, caused by the shifting ground in the subsoil and for this reason works were often interrupted throughout its construction. In 1275, the tower was enlarged with the addition of three levels while the belfry was added only in 1350. The Leaning Tower is 55 meters high and is inclined 5° southward. One has to climb up 294 steps to reach the top. Each of the levels has galleries and arcades except for the last one, where there are 7 bells. The tower was closed from 1990 to 2001 because of instability but is once again open today to visitors.

Want to visit the Tower of Pisa? Buy tickets ahead of time!

The Graveyard or Camposanto

The graveyard is an ancient monumental cemetery set on the north side of the Square of Miracles. Begun in 1277 by the architect Giovanni de Simone, it is a rectangular structure with an inner cloister with Gothic arcades. As ancient tradition would have it, the graveyard was built on dirt carried back from the Holy Land, in particular from the place where Jesus was crucified. Within the cloister you’ll find many sarcophagi and Roman graves, used exclusively for the burial of prestigious men, while beneath the floor are graves of the nobles of Pisa. Here you can admire a lot of artworks including: the Pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, the Lamp by Galileo Galilei, frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Buonamico Buffalmacco with the famous Triumph of Death, a tabernacle by the Della Robbia and many more.

The city offers many other enchanting monuments, churches and museums to visit but the Piazza dei Miracoli on its own represents a single great reason to head to Pisa. The beauty of the square itself and its many monuments are to be enjoyed, we recommend taking a whole day to discover them all - so what are you waiting for?

See more photos of the Square of Miracles »

Author: Lourdes Flores

I'm from California but have called Florence my home for over a decade. I love to explore Italy; it is a lot of fun to try to see everything like I'm seeing it for the first time, keeping you, our readers, always in mind. I enjoy sharing what I know and helping others as they make their travel plans for Tuscany through our Forum. If you have itinerary-related questions, please post them there!


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