History of Pisa

The story of the city of Pisa in Tuscany, Italy


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History of Pisa

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The origins of Pisa and Etruscan Pisa

Neolithic remains indicate that the mouth of the Arno was settled in very early times and most likely Ligurian colonists of Celtic origin settled here. We know that Pisa was a port of call for the Greeks and the legend of Pelops, who left the banks of the Alpheo, a river in the Peloponnese, for those of the Arno to found a new Pisa is possibly supported by Virgil in the 10th book of the Aeneid.

In the Etruscan period between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C., Pisa, situated near the extreme northern border of Etruria, was influenced by Volterra but never became more than a modest village of fishermen and boat builders, probably limited by the instability of the coastline and the periodic floods of the Arno.

Roman Pisa

As Etruria was romanised, Pisa grew in importance and was an ally of Rome in the long wars against the Ligurians and the Carthaginians. The port (Portus Pisanus), situated between the mouth of the river (at that time near where San Piero a Grado stands today) and that portion of the coast now occupied by Livorno, constituted an ideal naval base for the Roman fleet in its expeditions against the Ligurians and the Gauls, and in the operations aimed at subjugating Corsica, Sardinia and various coastal zones of Spain. Pisa, as an ally of Rome, then became a colonia, a municipium and in the time of Octavianus Augustus (1st cent. B.C.) was known as Colonia Julia Pisana Obsequens. In the meanwhile the growth in population, the development of shipbuilding and trade - fostered by the establishment of the Via Aurelia and the Via Aemilia Scaurii as well as by the harbour - resulted in an expansion of the inhabited area which was soon surrounded by walls.

Pisa Roman Ship Museum

In 1998, during preparatory work on the new railway station in Pisa, the remains of the urban harbour of Pisae were discovered, the ancient Etruscan and Roman harbour. In it were found several ancient ships, perfectly preserved. Further excavations yielded over 15 vessels dating from the first century BC to  sixth century AD. Most of the ships found in the old Pisa port were in good condition, and contained sealed clay amphorae filled with items such as olives, walnuts and wine. These and other items such as sailor's personal possessions are on display along with some of the ships.

Museum of the Ancient Ships of Pisa Artefacts from the Ancient Ships of Pisa

The Pisa Roman ship museum, officially known as the Museum of the Ancient Ships of Pisa, will be one of the most important in the world. At the moment, there is an interesting "Exhibition in Progress" at the Arsenali Medicei on the Lungarno Simonelli.

The Ancient Ships of Pisa and the Restoration Centre for the Wet Wood

Via Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (former Via Andrea Pisano) near the railway station Pisa S. Rossore.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday - no reservation needed, with guided tours at:
A.M. 10.00, 11.00 and 12.00
P.M. 2.30 and 3.30

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - with a reservation only

Monday - closed.

It is not possible to visit the shipyard without a guide.
For the information, please call +39 055 5121919 / +39 05503215446 every day 9.00 am – 1.00 pm; 2.00 pm – 5.00 pm

The imperial period was noted for the magnificence of its public and private buildings. Although now traces of Roman life in Pisa are scarce (Baths of Hadrian, improperly called the 'Baths of Nero', capitals from the age of Severus, 3rd century A.D.), there were probably a forum and a palatium as well as an amphitheatre, public baths, a naval base and numerous temple structures, replaced by churches in Christian times. In 1991, excavations carried out near the Arena Garibaldi revealed the presence of an Etruscan necropolis on which a domus augustea was laid out in Roman times.

Mediaeval Pisa and the rise of the Maritime Republic

Legend has it that the first Christian influences were introduced into the area of Pisa by Saint Peter himself, who landed 'ad Gradus' in 47 A.D. and a basilica was subsequently built there. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Pisa passed first under the Lombards and then under the Franks. In the early Middle Ages, the city's maritime ambitions burgeoned and Pisa soon came into conflict with the Saracens, who were aiming at full supremacy of the Mediterranean. With bases in Corsica and Sardinia, they frequently threatened the lands controlled by the Church itself. The story of Kinzica de' Sismondi is set in this period. This young Pisan heroine is said to have saved the city from a Saracen incursion while most of the Pisan army and fleet were out driving the moslem infidels from Reggio Calabria (1005).

Between 1016 and 1046, the Pisans conquered Sardinia and finally also Corsica (1052), thus laying the foundations for effective control of the Tyrrhenian Sea. After these successes, the city, with Papal consent, sent the fleet to Sicily to support the struggle of the Norman Roger I and Robert against the Saracens. After breaking the chains of the harbour of Palermo, the ships hoisted their standard - the Pisan Cross in a field of red (the city's standard since the exploit of Sardinia) - and defeated the enemy (1062), returning home with such rich booty that they were able to begin the construction of the Cathedral.

In the meantime, rivalry with Genoa let to a naval conflict, in which the Pisans were victorious, opposite the mouth of the Arno (6 September 1060), while in a larger Mediterranean theatre the Pisan fleet successfully took part in the first Crusade. These positive results helped the Maritime Republic consolidate its position in the Near Eastern ports of call and in particular in Constantinople. The subsequent conquest of the Balearic Isles, completed in 1115, and the victory over Amalfi (1136), coincided with the peak of the city's maritime and military power. 

But the 13 C was to be disastrous for Pisa, whose standing in the Western Mediterranean had in the meanwhile equalled that of Venice in the Adriatic and the Eastern Mediterranean. The continuous rivalry on the seas with Genoa and fierce conflicts with the Guelph cities of Tuscany (headed by Florence and Lucca) led to an inexorable downfall. As a result of its unconditioned support of Imperial policies, but above all because of the seizing of a group of ecclesiastic dignitaries who were on their way to Rome to take part in a council which could have ended in the removal of Frederick II of Swabia (1241), Pisa was excommunicated by the Pope, and had to wage a bitter struggle on two fronts - against Genoa (which also declared Guelph sympathies) and against the Tuscan cities which had by then become members of the Guelph League.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

The disastrous consequences of the war on land against the Guelphs and the burdensome conditions consequently imposed by the Florentines (1254), and in particular the collapse of the Ghibelline ideal, were paralleled by events on sea: in the fateful waters of the Meloria on August 6, 1284, the day of St. Sixtus, a date up to then propitious for the Republic, an astute naval manoeuvre of the preponderant Genoese fleet, commanded by Oberto Doria, wiped out the Pisan galleys, under the command of the Venetian Alberto Morosini and Andreotto Saracini. It was absolutely impossible for Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was defending the port of Pisa, to come to the aid of the fleet, which suffered heavy losses, and at least 10,000 prisoners were taken. The subsequent attempt of Ugolino (who in the meanwhile had become podestà) to impose a neo-Guelph restoration in Pisa, ceding possession and castles to the eternal Florentine, Luccan and Genoese rivals, earned him the undisguised hostility of the Ghibelline faction, and this together with what had happened at Meloria, led to new accusations of betrayal. In March of 1289 the Ghibelline faction, with Archbishop Ruggeri degli Ubaldini at its head, prevailed, and Ugolino, with his children and grandchildren, was sentenced to die of starvation in the Torre dei Gualandi. In the meanwhile the peace of Fucecchio (12 July 1293) imposed new and onerous conditions in favor of the Florentines, and the hopes aroused in Ghibelline Pisa by the ephemeral episode of Henry VII of Luxenbourg was to no avail. With the advent of the podestà Uguccione della Faggiola, a valorous Ghibelline condottiere, Pisa took its revenge, conquering Lucca (1314) and dramatically defeating the Florentines and their Siennese and Pistoiese allies at Montecatini (29 August 1315). Subsequently, the prevailing party struggles in the city (in which the philo-Florentine merchant faction headed by Gambacorti was long opposed to the anti-Florentine faction comprised of nobles and entrepreneurs, headed by the Gherardesca) led the Genoese to force the harbour and carry off the chains, which they showed off as a trophy for many years (at present they are once again in Pisa, in the Camposanto). On the land front, the Florentines were once more victorious at Cascina (28 July 1364).

More about the Guelphs and Ghibellines.

The fall of the Maritime Republic of Pisa and the rise of Medici suzerainty

The signoria of Piero Gambacorti seemed to inaugurate a period of relative peace and prosperity but his treacherous assassination (21 October 1392) by hired killers instigated by the Visconti, delivered Pisa into the hands of the lords of Milan. In 1405, they traded Pisa off to the Florentines for money. The indignation and fierce resistance of the Pisans was weakened by a series of negative events and in the end the city had to surrender after a siege. This episode (9 October 1406) marked the irreversible fall of the glorious Maritime Republic. The subsequent advent of the French king Charles VIII aroused new hopes of independence in the city but the Florentines hastened to gather under the walls of their once invincible rival and again besieged it together with their allies. The indomitable resistance of the Pisans was so strong the Florentines even though of deviating the course of the Arno and called in Leonardo da Vinci  for this purpose, but the idea remained on paper, for Pisa, exhausted by famine, had to accept the Florentine signoria (20 October 1509). The Medici government of Cosimo I resulted in a renaissance in the city: university activity was rationalised and augmented, various public offices were organised, and, most important, the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen was instituted (1561), bringing new lymph to the Pisan maritime traditions, and taking part in the epic naval encounter of Lepanto (7 October 1571). In that circumstance the Christian fleet, the expression of a coalition of European powers (the papacy and Spain, Venice and the House of Savoy and still others), under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria, assisted by Gian Andrea Doria, Marcantonio Colonna, Ettore Spinola and Sebastiano Veniero, wiped out the maritime power of the Ottoman Turks captained by Mehemet Ali.

Subsequent Medici rulers achieved important public works, such as the Aqueduct of Asciano (1601) and the Canal of the Navicelli - between Pisa and Livorno (1603). In the early 1630s, a fierce plague raged through the city. With the advent of the Lorraine government which obtained the sovereignty of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1738, as established by the treaty of Vienna, the rationalisation of the cultural institutions began (the Scuola Normale was once more opened, 1847).

Modern Pisa

The re-unification of Italy also involved the citizens of Pisa: on the unforgettable day of Curtatone and Montanara (28 May 1848), the volunteers and the university students, who had cut off the tips of their university caps in order to aim their guns better, wrote one of the most glowing pages of the first war of independence. The year 1860 marked the plebiscite adhesion to the Kingdom of Italy: two years later Pisa bestowed a warm welcome on Garibaldi who had been wounded on the Aspromonte. The most recent history of the city includes the devastating destruction of World War II and in 1966 the disastrous flood of the Arno resulted in the collapse of the Ponte Solferino and the partial destruction of the Lungarno Pacinotti.


Main sights of Pisa

History of Pisa

Pisa Accommodations

Pisa and the Church

Pisa Bibliography

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