Pisa cathedral ★★

The gorgeous Cathedral of Pisa (and its famously tipsy bell tower in the background), Duomo of Pisa, Pisa, Italy (Photo by Vitbaisa)
The gorgeous Cathedral of Pisa (and its famously tipsy bell tower in the background)

The glorious Gothic cathedral of Pisa

Buscheto, the architect who laid the cathedral’s first stone in 1063, kicking off a new era in art by building what was to become the model for the Pisan Romanesque style, is buried in the last blind arch on the left of the facade.

All the elements of the nascent Romanesque style are here on the facade, designed and built by Buscheto’s successor, Rainaldo: alternating light and dark banding, rounded blind arches with Moorish-inspired lozenges at the top and colored marble inlay designs, and Lombard-style open galleries of tiny mismatched columns stacked to make the facade much higher than the church roof. 

The reddish, fourth column from the right in the second arcade is a porphyry cylinder from Majorca, and the superstitious can protect their day from love betrayals with just a glance at it.

The bronze doors

In summer you sometimes enter through the main door, one of three cast by students of Giambologna after a 1595 fire destroyed the originals.

These mannerist sculptors had a good handle on giving deep space to very low relief, but the panels aren't particularly arresting except to see the newly born Virgin Mary rubbed to gleaming featurelessness by thousands of caressing fingers (an attendant dog and a few reptiles in the decorations shine as well).

Quotidian entrance to the church is usually on the back of the right transept, across from the bell tower, where the fourth original bronze Door of St. Ranieri still survives.

Cast (along with the now-lost facade doors) by Bonnano Pisano in 1180 while he was working on the soon-to-be listing bell tower, the panels have a poetic simplicity in their Byzantine-influenced medieval lines and economy of figures.

Palm trees swaying in the wind, whole temples suggested by a few columns and a tiny dome, and humbly rustic details help lend scenes like the Nativity and Massacre of the Innocents a figurative grace. Especially nice are the wavy water covering Jesus like a blanket in his Baptism and the tiny Adam and Eve cycle stenciled in under the traveling Magi.

Inside Pisa's cathedral

A disastrous 1595 fire destroyed most of the works inside the church, but luckily the 16th-century Pisans recognized and hired some of the better late- and post-Renaissance artists like Sodoma, Andrea del Sarto, and Beccafumi for the refurbishing.

Inside the right transept (which you enter through this door), you’ll find another work that survived the fire, the tomb of Emperor Henry VII by Tino da Camaino (1315) surmounted by a pair of (painted) Ghirlandaio angels. Henry VII was a hero to the Ghibelline Pisans, who supported his successful bid for Holy Roman Emperor and whose body they mournfully bore back from Buonconvento when he died just a few months into his tenure, supposedly the victim of a poisoned communion wafer.

Turning to go left down the nave you'll pass large, well-labeled baroque canvases, including a Disputation of the Sacrament by Francesco Vanni and the Madonna delle Grazie by the excellent Andrea del Sarto. 

Giovanni Pisano's Pulpit

On the north side of the nave, Giovanni Pisano’s masterpiece pulpit (1302–11) has regained its rightful place. After the fire, the baroquies decided the nasty old Gothic pulpit was an eyesore, so they dismantled it and crated it up; it wasn’t found and reassembled until 1926. 

The last of the great Pisano pulpits, and arguably the greatest, Giovanni's curving panels are Gothic casts of thousands, densely packed with expressive action, terse narrative, and an emotional naturalism that almost belongs in the Renaissance.

The stories here begin with the Annunciation, with the birth of St. John the Baptist thrown in as an extra at the top.

In the Nativity of Christ we can see evidence of the strong humanism of Giovanni Pisano, who imbued many of his Madonnas with a very mortal motherly love, as here where she lifts her baby's blanket to smile down at the sleeping Jesus. It's up to the shepherds in the scene to provide the requisite reverence to the newborn Savior; Mary's just a proud mommy.

The Magi do their adoration bit in the third panel, and the fourth scene hurriedly rounds out Jesus' infancy with a compacted Presentation at the Temple and Flight into Egypt. 

The Massacre of the Innocents is a masterful confusion of action, motion, and the mothers' expressive sorrow.

Jesus is betrayed, arrested, brought before Pilate, flagellated, and ecce homo displayed all in panel six before completing the Passion in panel seven with a Crucifixion that competes with the version by Giovannni's father Nicola on the Baptistery pulpit for gaunt, human suffering.

The final two panels, hard to see around the nave column blocking them, are a typical Tuscan Last Judgment, a miasma of damned and blessed souls being adjudicated by a stern Christ.

The supporting caryatids and figures of the pulpit are almost as famous as the panels.

Giovanni makes use of the family's traditional column-supporting lions, but also adds complicated theological groups such as the caryatid with a female representation of Mother Church breast feeding the two infants of the Old and New Testaments and supported by personifications of the four cardinal virtues.

The lamp

Hanging low near the pulpit is a large bronze lamp that, according to legend, a bored Galileo was staring at one day during Mass, watching it sway gently back and forth, when his law of the pendulum suddenly hit him.

Spoilsports like to point out the lamp was cast in 1586, a few years after Galileo’s discovery, but the legend may still be salvaged: Another lamp probably hung here before this one.

The rest of the church

Beneath the frescoed oval dome is what remains of the Cosmatesque pavement of parti-colored marble designs.

The bronze angels (1602) flanking the choir entrance and the crucified Christ over the altar are by the baroque master of bronze Giambologna, and on the entrance pier to the choir is Andrea del Sarto’s almost Leonardesque St. Agnes with her Lamb, painted in High Renaissance style followed by several saints (under the cantoria) by the same artist.

Across the way is a more mannerist Madonna with Child by Antonio Soglioni, while around the apse's drum are large 16th-century paintings by Sodoma, Beccafumi, and others.

In the apse is the last of the major survivors of the fire, an enormous 13th-century mosaic Christ Pancrator, completed in 1302 by Cimabue, who added the St. John the Evangelist on the right.

Photo gallery
  • The gorgeous Cathedral of Pisa (and its famously tipsy bell tower in the background), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Vitbaisa)
  • The facade, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by  Stefan Lew)
  • The arcades on the main facade, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Joanbanjo)
  • The Porta di San Ranieri (1180) by Bonnano Pisano, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Detail showing the Baptism of Christ on the Porta di San Ranieri (1180) by Bonnano Pisano, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The apse (with some really nice light), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Goldmund100)
  • One of the late 17C bronze doors, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by GFDL)
  • The nave, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Tomb of Emperor Henry VII (1315) by Tino da Camaino with Ghirlandaio
  • The swinging bronze lamp that supposedly inspired Galileo, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Ardfern)
  • Santa Margherita of Antioch (1524) by Andrea del Sarto, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Disputation of the Sacrament (1610) by Francesco Vanni, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Madonna delle Grazie e Santi by Andrea del Sarto (or maybe Giovanni Antonio Sogliani), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • St. John (1539) by Domenico Beccafumi, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Moses receives the tablets (1537) by Domenico Beccafumi, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • St. Agnes of Rome (1527–28) by Andrea del Sarto, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Tangopaso)
  • The 13C mosaic in the apse, finished by Cimabue, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Carlo Pelagalli)
  • The Ambo (pulpit) (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Tetraktys)
  • The Nativity (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Adoration of the Magi (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • Presentation at the Temple and Flight into Egypt (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Massacre of the Innocents (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Last Judgement (1302–11) by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by ho visto nina volare)
  • Heracles (Hercules) (1302–11) as a column support by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • Statues and caryatids (1302–11) as column supports by Giovanni Pisano on the ambo (pulpit), Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • Beauty shot of the Cathedral, Duomo of Pisa, Italy (Photo by GFDL)
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How long should I spend at the Pisa Duomo?

The cathedral only takes about 15–30 minutes.

How to get to the Pisa Duomo

Unfortunately, the Campo dei Miracoli and Leaning Tower are a stiff 20– to 30-minute walk north of the main Pisa-Centrale train station.

To get to the Duomo from the main Pisa train station (Pisa-Centrale), first buy two bus tickets—due biglietti autobus—from a newsstand inside the station (one for each way).

Exit the station, cross the little piazza out front, and cross the street to stand on the far side, a bit to the right of center—you need to do this because the city bus (www.cpt.pisa.it) you are catching goes both ways, and you want the one headed to the left (west)—otherwise, you're on your way to the airport!

The bus you want is called LAM Rosso (the high speed red line, also abbreviated L/R). This will take you to the "Torre 1" stop at Pizza Daniele Manin (whicuh is along Via Bonanno Pisano) just beyond the western edge of Piazza del Duomo (a.k.a. Campo dei Miracoli).

Follow the crowds through the thicket of souvenir stands and the Porta Santa Maria gate in the city walls and you're on Campo dei Miracoli. The Duomo is about halfway down the square on your left.

If you happen to get off a train at the secondary Pisa-San Rossore station, you're in luck: it's just a five-minute stroll west of the Field of Miracles. Exit using the underpass of Piazza Fancelli. Walk straight ahead to Via Andrea Pisano and turn left. Walk three blocks. You can't miss it.

If you arrive in Pisa by car, there's an amazingly convenient public parking lot just a block up from the western edge of the Campo dei Miracoli on Via Cammeo Carlo Salomone, on your left just past the Vecchia di Barbaricina.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).