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This image shows that the history of Pisa has left little mark on the beautiful countryside of Tuscany
The history of Pisa has left little outward mark on the beautiful countryside of Tuscany.

The History of Pisa 

The history of Pisa began 180 years before Christ on the banks of the Arno River, approximately ten miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Known as Pisae, a Roman colony, the settlement displayed some Ligurian and Etruscan influence.

Through 800 AD, the Pisans were repeatedly sacked by various enemies including the Vikings, Byzantines, and Saracens. Through trade agreements, land deals, and the occasional successful rebellion the Pisans were able to maintain control of the territory and develop lucrative trading activities with Spain to the west and the prosperous merchants of northern Africa to the south. 

In 1075 the elder statesmen of Pisa developed a code of  laws known as the Conseutudini di mare. These merchant rules created a legal environment that enabled the mercantile empire of Pisa to grow and prosper. 

In 1099, at the dawn of the 12th century, the Pisans joined the Vatican in the 1st Crusades. This was a period of thriving economic growth and expansion through colonization. The 12th century saw Pisa develop several colonies; among them were Antioch, Tripoli, and Tunis.  In 1111 the city elders forged an agreement with Byzantium enabling transit for trade in the Holy Land.


The intricate frieze on the baptistery (Campo dei Miracoli) building a fine example of melding of the arabesque styles and classic medieval Italian architecture that was prevalent in the latter half of the 12th century. This exemplifies the fine architecture that one finds in Pisa. The student of history will find similar architecture all over Italy in places such as St. Mark's Square in Venice and at the Casamari Abbey in the Lazio region.

The Field of Miracles or Campo dei Miracoli began to take shape in 1118. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa had not yet been constructed, but in this year the cathedral (Duomo in Italian) was consecrated by Pope Gelasius II. It was not until 35 years later, in 1153, that work would begin on the Pisan Baptistery. In 1172, after another 20 years, a widow of a wealthy Pisan merchant made a substantial donation of 'sixty coins' to the church with instructions to build the marvelous campanile (bell tower).

History shows that between 1228 and 1254 there were ongoing skirmishes between Pisa and Florence. The Pisans were able to maintain the upper hand until the armies of Florence finally overcame them in an attack in 1254.  Pisa managed to remain sovereign by giving up land to Florence and forging restrictive trade agreements.

In 1284 the Battle of Meloria, fought against Genoa, proved to be one of the most devastating losses in the history of Pisa. A large number of ships were lost along with more than 11,000 men that were killed in battle or imprisoned in Genoa. Less than ten years later, in 1293, the Guelph forces invaded a weakened Pisa and took control of the harbor. The Guelphs forced harsh terms on Pisa that included the loss of Pisan territories on the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica.
Though not yet completed, the first commission to investigate the tilt of the leaning tower was formed in 1298 to tour and inspect the tower.  At the time the tower was not leaning as much as it is today; the angle was less than 1.5 degrees from the perpendicular. The tower was officially completed in 1370 measuring 1.6 degrees from vertical.

Through the 1400s and into the 1500s Florence continued its assaults on Pisa until the Pisans were forced to surrender in 1509 turning over control of the government to the Council of the Ten, controlled by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Students of history already know that Galileo Galilei, born in Vincenzo in 1564, moved to Pisa to begin teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589. In the period between 1589 and 1591 Galileo conducted his legendary experiments on gravitational forces by dropping objects from the leaning tower.  What some students of history may not know is that in the inquisition of 1633 Galileo was persecuted for heresy because of his published support of the Copernican theory of the solar system written in The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).

Through the 18th and 19th century the tower's tilt continued to worsen and several councils and commissions were convened to investigate and remedy the problem with, what had become, the city's most valuable building.

Leaning Tower of Pisa behind the right nave of the Cathedral at the Campo dei Miracoli

During the 19th and 20th centuries the Leaning Tower proved to be a powerful attraction fueling the city's tourism based economy. The tower's foundation has been re-engineered and it is currently thought to be stabilized.

Today Pisa has emerged from history with a population of approximately 100,000, a thriving tourism economy, and governing authority as the provincial capital of Tuscany. 

Credit for information on this tour:

Shrady, N. (2003) Tilt. Simon & Shuster. NY, NY, USA.

Machiavelli, F., Martin, S., Townsend, H., Tyrrell, N (1996). Eyewitness Travel Guides: Italy. DK Publishing. NY, NY, USA.

Sarti, R. (2004). Italy - A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present. Facts on File Inc.. NY, NY, USA.

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