Now that the Duomo, the Bapistery & Leaning Tower and the Camposanto have all been discussed, it is time to take stock of what else the city of Pisa has in store for history enthusiasts. When we walked from the railway station to the Piazza dei Miracoli and back – mostly in the rain I must add – we passed by several very interesting monuments. I will mention four of them.
1. The Sant’Antonio Abate
The medieval church of Sant’Antonio Abate itself is not that spectacular. It has been almost completely rebuilt and little of the original building survives. You will find the most interesting feature of the Sant’Antonio outside, on one of the walls of the convent. I am referring to the large mural titled Tuttomondo by Keith Haring (1958-1990). Haring was an American graffiti artist and social activist whose distinct style with colourful little men and women is immediately recognisable. Tuttomondo was one of his last works. Haring died of AIDS in 1990. The mural can be found near the station, to the left of the large Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.
2. The Santa Maria della Spina
This tiny church is some 500 metres further to the north. It dates to the thirteenth century and is truly a showpiece of Gothic architecture. The church was built on the southern bank of the Arno. Originally it was even closer to the river, but in the nineteenth century, it had to be deconstructed and rebuilt higher up the river bank because of the threat of the water. The ‘Spina’ in the name of the church refers to the precious relic that used to be kept in the church: a thorn (spina) from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion.
On the outside, the church is decorated with all sorts of arches, little towers, rose windows and statues. In other words: it is Gothic galore. The Romanesque interior is much more sober. When we visited the church in May 2010, there was an exhibition of paintings by Francesco Pagliazzi (1910-1988). One of the paintings was about people with umbrellas walking out in the rain. This was very appropriate, as it was raining cats and dogs outside at that moment.
The church possesses a couple of statues by Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) and his son Nino. In the picture on the right, one can see the Madonna of the Rose in the middle, and statues of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Peter to the left and right. Andrea Pisano is probably most famous for the work he did in Florence. He designed and executed the first set of doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni and later became one of the architects of the Duomo of Florence, the Santa Maria del Fiore.
3. Piazza dei Cavalieri
We now cross the Arno and go into the north side of the city. About halfway between the river and the Piazza dei Miracoli we find another large square, the Piazza dei Cavalieri. The Cavalieri in the name of the square are the Knights of the Order of Saint Stephen, a Tuscan military order founded by the First Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574). His statue can be seen in front of the most spectacular building of the Piazza, the Palazzo della Carovana. This palace was designed and constructed by Cosimo’s trusted architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) between 1562 and 1564. He basically renovated the existing Palazzo degli Anziani (Palace of the Elders; the former city hall) and turned it into something even more beautiful. The most impressive decorations are the sgraffito paintings on the walls, although they were in fact repainted in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Palazzo now houses the elite Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. People who watched My Brilliant Friend will recognise it immediately: this is where Elena Greco studied.
Immediately to the right of the Palazzo is the church of the Knights of the Order of Saint Stephen. Although Vasari was one of the original architects, the church is by no means exclusively his design and many others have worked on the building over the course of several centuries. The facade mentions the name of Cosimo and a date of 1566. The building is topped by a Maltese cross, the symbol of the Order. Since the Order fought against the Ottoman Empire and Arabic pirates, it should not come as a surprise that captured banners and standards are displayed inside. Above the main entrance is the text IN HOC SIGNO VINCES – “You will conquer in this sign”-, which is a reference to Constantine the Great and a fitting text for a military order.
4. San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno
On our way back to the railway station, we decided to take a small detour and have a look at the San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno, a church located close to the river Arno. It is some 300 metres to the west of the Santa Maria della Spina. The San Paolo is very old, even older than the Duomo further to the north. In fact, the church looks a lot like her bigger and more famous sister. It was built in the same Pisan Romanesque style and above the main entrance are three loggias or colonnaded galleries on top of each other (the Duomo has four levels of galleries). Unfortunately, we found the church closed and could not admire its interior. Apparently, the San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno is still closed to the public even today (in the summer of 2016, we saw an advertisement in a local supermarket, asking for donations; the church is in desperate need of renovation). The permanent closure – it was still closed in 2023 – is definitely a pity.
Updated 21 August 2023.