Pisa history 101

A brief summary of the history of Pisa

Although the silting up of the Arno mouth starting in the 12th century has moved the shore more than 5 miles away, Pisa was a seaside settlement around 1000 BC.

The Romans first established it as a naval trading port in the 2nd century BC, and it grew to become one of the peninsula’s most powerful maritime republics, along with Venice, Amalfi, and nearby Genoa, by the 11th century.

Pisa's extensive trading in the Middle East helped import advanced Arabic ideas (decorative and scientific), and its wars with the Saracens led it to create an offshore empire of Corsica, Sardegna, and the Balearic islands.

Pisa lay waste to rival Amalfi in 1135, and riding a high wave of wealth in the late middle ages, created its monumental buildings on what is now called the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles—most famous for its cathedral belltower that, well, that leans.

Then, in 1284, Pisa’s battle fleet was destroyed by Genoa at Meloria (off the Livorno coast), a staggering defeat that allowed the Genoese to take control of the Tyrrhenian Sea and forced Pisa’s long slide into twilight.

Pisa's Ghibelline leanings gave Florence the excuse it needed to take control in 1406. Despite a few small rebellions, Florence retained control until Italian unification in the 1860s. 

Pisa’s main claim to fame since the end of its naval power has been its university, established in 1343 and still one of Italy’s top schools. Among its alumni is the Nobel prize—winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who went on to split the atom.

Pisa was also the birthplace of one of western history’s greatest physicists and astronomers, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a man prone to dropping uneven weights from buildings to prove they fell at the same rate and making crazy statements about the Earth revolving around the Sun (he was excommunicated and exiled by the Inquisition for that until he recanted the theory).

Pisa also adapted northern models to come up with the late medieval Pisan Romanesque style of architecture, which spread throughout northern Tuscany and Sardegna.

This artistic era was superseded by another Pisan-born movement in architecture and sculpture, the 13th-century International Gothic style popularized by various sometimes-related artists all surnamed Pisano—Nicola, the earliest, was probably an immigrant from Puglia in the south, although he and his son Giovanni worked in Tuscany all their careers.

Nino Pisano and his son Andrea Pisano were 14th-century Gothic masters.

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