The History of Pisa

What should they know of the present who only the present know?
(Blair Worden)

Etruscan settlement, Roman city, a medieval commercial harbor, a powerful Maritime Republic, a bitter enemy of Florence, Lucca and Genoa, a magnificent noble city in the 17th century, a host town for many artists in the 19th century, an excellent University town in the last few centuries and home to some of the most prestigious Academies in the world: these few lines make it evident that Pisa is definitely much more than a bell tower, albeit a very beautiful one.

The area was first settled by the Liguri and was then inhabited by the Etruscans who left many signs of their passage.

The real development as a city arrived with the Roman era: the present layout of the most ancient part of the city centre is the clearest proof of their presence. At that time, Pisa was a coastal town and a very important Roman port.

The city is divided in two halves by the river Arno, the same which passes through Florence, and which flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea at Marina di Pisa. Nowadays, the coast is 12km away, since over the centuries debris from the river sanded up its watercourse downstream and moved the coast away.

However, Pisa and seamanship remained synonymous for much longer, and even nowadays, Pisa is one of the major centers in Italy for shipyards. The "Darsena Pisana", the Pisan Dock, still represents a very lively pole for the local economy and it is visible from the highway 1km from Pisa's Galileo Galilei International Airport.

In the Early Middle Ages, Pisa was a very lively port and a rich commercial centre. Moreover, it was one of the four Maritime Republics (the other three were Genoa, Venice and Amalfi), which fought each other for control of the Mediterranean Sea. This was a period of victories and wealth for the city, which had colonies and commercial basis all over the Mediterranean coasts and was feared and respected.

This period of the city's history (11th and 12th century) is celebrated every year with a Regatta, a strongly felt competition between teams from the four cities, which practice all year round in preparation for this important day. The Regatta (Regata delle Repubbliche Marinare, usually associated with a national lottery) is held in Pisa every four years: each year, in turn, it is hosted in one of the four Maritime Republics. It takes place in June, which is the liveliest month of the year and the one in which all the major events are concentrated.

After several glorious centuries, Pisa started to decline in power and wealth in the 13th century. The conflicts with another Maritime Republic, Genoa, resulted in a very bad defeat in the battle of the Meloria (1268), which signaled the beginning of the loss of influence as a maritime power. In the same period, the conflicts with the Guelph cities in Tuscany began, along with serious internal struggles for the control of the city.

One of the most famous and hated characters in the history of Pisa is Count Ugolino della Gerardesca, whose story is told in Dante's Divina Commedia. He was accused of treachery at the Meloria battle, but few years later he became Lord of Pisa. In 1289, the Archbishop ordered his imprisonment. He was locked up in the Gualandi Tower with his children and grandchildren and left there to starve. The legend says that he ate his children and grandchildren.

This is what Dante writes in Inferno (Inf. XXXII, 133; Inf. XXXIII,1):

"O tu che mostri per sì bestial segno
odio sovra colui che tu ti mangi,
dimmi 'l perché", diss'io, "per tal convegno,
che se tu a ragion di lui ti piangi,
sappiendo chi voi siete e la sua pecca,
nel mondo suso ancora io te ne cangi,
se quella con ch'io parlo non si secca".

"La bocca sollevò dal fiero pasto
quel peccator, forbendola a'capelli
del capo ch'elli avea di retro guasto."

Actually, this is an allegory... or so we hope! Today, where the old Guaraldi tower used to stand, there is the beautiful library of the Scuola Normale Superiore and a plaque commemorates this sad story.

During the 14th century, Pisa continued to suffer battles and revolts. The date that all Pisans remember is the October 9th 1406, when the hated Florentine army entered the city and Pisa was placed under the rule of Florence where it remained until the creation of the Italian state in 1861.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th century Pisa continued to grow with its University, which is one of the most prestigious in Italy and in Europe.

The city was badly damaged by bombing during the 2nd World War, but it is nowadays being totally restored and brought back to its ancient splendor.