The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo opened its doors to the public in 1986. Those doors were closed again in 2015 for a much needed renovation and remodelling of the rooms, but as of 2019 visitors may once again enjoy the fine collection of statues, paintings and other objects from the various buildings of the Piazza dei Miracoli, i.e. the cathedral of Pisa, the Baptistery and the Camposanto. The museum has 24 rooms in total, and it would obviously be undoable to discuss each and every object that has been put on display there. I will therefore confine myself to ten highlights, my personal favourites.
1. The bronze doors of Bonanno Pisano
Bonanno Pisano was a sculptor from Pisa who lived in the twelfth century. In the 1180s he made a set of beautiful bronze doors for the cathedral in his home city. The doors were installed in the right transept of the Duomo and they were fortunately spared during the infamous 1595 fire, quite unlike the bronze doors of the main entrance. In order to protect them against the elements Bonanno’s original doors have been moved to the museum; the transept now has excellent copies. On the doors we see 24 panels. The lower two have two times six prophets, the upper two feature Christ and Mary in Glory. The 20 smaller panels in between have been embellished with scenes from the life of Christ. They start in the lower left corner with the Annunciation and end in the top right corner with the Ascension of Christ and the Death of the Virgin. The doors probably made Bonanno Pisano famous, as several years later he was summoned to Sicily to make the doors for the cathedral of Monreale, the jewel bequeathed to us by the Norman king William II the Good (1166-1189).
2. The Griffin of Pisa
Behind the dome of the Duomo we see a column with a statue of a griffin, a creature that is a mix of a horse, a lion, a rooster and an eagle. However, the bronze statue topping the cathedral is a copy; the original can be admired here in the museum. It is certain that the Pisans took the statue from Muslim territory as spoils of war. This must have happened in the eleventh or twelfth century, possibly during the raid on Palermo in Sicily (in 1063) or perhaps during a campaign in the Balearic Islands (1113-1115). The museum dates the griffin to the twelfth century and attributes the animal to an artist from Moorish Spain, so apparently it considers it most likely that the statue was looted during the latter of the two expeditions. The griffin has a text in Arabic, written in the Kufic script, that wishes the owner all the best.
3. Statues by Giovanni Pisano
Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315) was the son of Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284). Among other things, both were active in the Baptistery of Pisa. Nicola’s pulpit can still be admired there, but Giovanni’s Madonna and Child in the lunette above the entrance of the building have been replaced with a copy. What is remarkable is that the Madonna and Child find themselves all alone nowadays, while the available space in the lunette and the holes in the wall suggest that more statues had been set up here in the past. This suggestion is indeed correct, as in the museum the Madonna and Child are flanked by Saints John the Baptist (left) and John the Evangelist (right). The Baptist is moreover accompanied by another figure, who must represent a man who contributed to the funding of the Baptistery (I have not been able to establish his identity). Giovanni Pisano made the statue of the Madonna and Child around 1300. The other statues of the sculpture group are not of similar quality and were presumably made by his associates.
4. Statues by Lupo di Francesco
We do not know much about the life of Lupo di Francesco. He was a sculptor from Pisa who first worked as a student of Giovanni Pisano (see above) and then of Tino di Camaino (see below). His best-known work in the city is probably the (enlargement of the) church of Santa Maria della Spina along the river Arno (see Pisa: Other attractions). The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo possesses a sculpture group by Lupo, which comes from a portal of the Camposanto. On the photo below we see a Madonna and Child flanked by angels and a kneeling figure. The sculpture group is dated to ca. 1320.
5. Statues from the funerary monument for Henry VII
Henry VII was Holy Roman emperor for just a single year (1312-1313). In 1310 he had marched into Italy, which at the time was torn to shreds in a struggle between the supporters of the pope (the Guelphs) and those of the emperor (the Ghibellines). Henry was reportedly disgusted by either of the two parties, so also by the Ghibellines. He succeeded in having them sign a peace treaty in the abbey of Sant’Andrea in Vercelli, but that did not put an end to the violence. Henry’s desire to be crowned emperor – he had been King of the Romans since 1308 – turned out to be difficult too. Pope Clemens V (1305-1314) resided in Avignon, Henry’s enemy King Robert of Naples controlled the Vatican and ultimately Henry’s coronation had to be performed in San Giovanni in Laterano by three cardinals. As emperor Henry was involved in a failed siege of Florence, after which he decided to go on a campaign against the aforementioned King Robert.
During the siege of Siena the emperor contracted malaria. He died not much later, just 40 years old, and was buried in the cathedral of Pisa, where a sarcophagus with the effigy of the deceased can still be found in the right transept (unfortunately I missed the sarcophagus during my last visit; originally the monument must have stood in the choir of the cathedral). Several statues from the funerary monument have been moved to the museum. These statues are the work of the aforementioned Tino di Camaino (ca. 1285-1337) from Siena and they can be dated to 1315. The central statue is that of Henry VII himself. He is flanked by five court dignitaries; of the fifth only the head remains. Also part of the sculpture group are the Virgin Mary, the archangel Gabriel (i.e. the angel of the Annunciation) and two regular angels.
6. Funerary monuments by Nino Pisano
Can Nino Pisano (ca. 1315-1370) be considered the “court sculptor” of the archbishops of Pisa? It certainly seems so. In the church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Pisa I had already seen Nino’s funerary monument for Simone Saltarelli. Saltarelli was archbishop of Pisa between 1323 and 1342. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo happens to possess the funerary monuments of the archbishops Giovanni Scarlatti (1348-1362) and Francesco Moricotti (1362-1378), which are also works by Nino Pisano and his workshop. Both monuments come from the cathedral. They look almost identical, which makes it impossible to say which one is the most beautiful. What is remarkable is that Francesco Moricotti, a nephew of Pope Urbanus VI, died as late as 1394. This was long after Nino Pisano’s death, which makes it likely the sculptor started working on the archbishop’s funerary monument shortly after Moricotti took office in 1362.
7. Madonna and Child by Andrea Pisano
Nino Pisano was a son of Andrea Pisano (ca. 1290-1348). For the triangular pediment of the façade of the cathedral of Pisa Andrea made a beautiful statue of the Madonna and Child (ca. 1346). That statue has long ago been replaced with a copy. We may definitely count ourselves lucky that the original is now in the museum, as one needs a set of binoculars to see the details of the replica that adorns the upper part of the façade. On the pediment the Madonna is accompanied by Saints Paul (left) and Peter (right). The two saints are again copies, while the originals can be found in the museum. These originals are clearly of inferior quality compared to the original Madonna and Child. I regretfully forgot to take pictures of the captions, so I do not know the names of the artists, but the two statues are probably works from Andrea’s studio.
8. The Burgundian Christ
A very special object is a wooden Christ from the first half of the twelfth century. According to the museum it is a work by a sculptor from Burgundy which was once part of a larger group that represented a Deposition from the Cross. The Christ statue is therefore not a crucifix, which is also demonstrated by the fact that the left arm of the Saviour is not attached to the cross. The statue was painted after completion. This looks a bit odd nowadays, as if Christ is wearing a white shirt and his legs have never been touched by the sun. Of course this is just a case of the paint having disappeared. The crucifix was formerly in the cathedral and survived the 1595 fire, but little is known about its provenance. It is possible that it originally came from the Holy Land, which was then in the hands of the Crusaders. Christ himself is 2.5 metres tall and the cross is 3.7 metres high, so this is clearly a large and impressive work, which was thoroughly restored during the closure of the museum in 2015-2019.
9. Panel painting by Spinello Aretino
Of the paintings in the museum I would like mention a beautiful panel by Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410), a painter from Arezzo. On the panel from ca. 1395 we see, from left to right, Saint Rainerius (San Ranieri), Pope Sixtus II and Sint Michael the Archangel. Rainerius, who lived from ca. 1115 to 1160, is the patron saint of Pisa. On Spinello’s panel he has been depicted in a wirehaired mantle. In his hands he is holding a pilgrim’s staff (Rainerius had lived in the Holy Land for years) and a rosary. Pope Sixtus II (257-258) also had a special bond with Pisa (see Pisa: San Sisto). It was widely believed that the Pisans were usually successful in battles fought on the anniversary of the pope’s death, which was on 6 August. However, on 6 August 1284 they in fact lost the naval battle of Meloria against Genoa.
The panel painting has only been on display in the museum since its reopening in 2019. In an article in the newspaper Il Tirreno from 2013 the work was called un fantasma (a ghost). Journalists who worked for the newspaper were unable to get to see it. The panel was once the left part of a triptych (note that Rainerius and Sixtus are facing right). The triptych used to be in the cathedral of Pisa, but was sawn into pieces in the sixteenth century. The various parts were moved to other churches and convents and have been spread since then. The article in Il Tirreno makes clear that the right panel is now in the Museo di San Matteo, also in Pisa. This panel features three saints as well, i.e. Saints John the Baptist, James the Great and Anthony the Abbot (image here). The presumed centre piece is now said to be in the United States, in the Harvard University Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be more precise (image here). The triptych was likely topped by a cusp featuring the Annunciation, currently in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England (image here). It follows that the triptych may have looked something like this:
10. View from the cloister
Part of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is housed in an old convent. The museum ticket grants visitors access to the Caffè Panoramico, which offers a splendid view of the Duomo, the Leaning Tower and the Baptistery. I ordered an Aperol Spritz here and thoroughly enjoyed my time in what is perhaps the most beautiful spot in all of Pisa.