The Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa is also known as a primatial church (the word used to describe a cathedral whose bishop is also a primate – that is, in the Church, the archbishop of a major city – a purely formal honour today). The church is a Romanesque masterpiece and represents the prestige and wealth achieved by the Maritime Republic of Pisa at the height of its splendour.
Began in 1063 by the architect Buscheto, the Cathedral embodies a diversity of styles: classical, Lombard-Emilian, Byzantine and Islamic, testimony of the internationality of the city’s merchants at the time.
The church was erected in an area outside the city walls to demonstrate that Pisa’s power did not necessitate any special protection. The cathedral, consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II, was extended in the first half of the 12th century under the direction of architect Rainaldo, who devised the current facade in grey and white marble, decorated with coloured inserts. The three doorways are found beneath four orders of loggias divided by cornices with marble inlay, behind which single, double and tri-mullioned windows open out. The door of San Ranieri is decorated with 24 panels depicting stories from the New Testament.
The building’s style is a result of repeated restoration campaigns at various moments in history. The earliest measures followed the terrible fire of 1595, after which the roof was redone and the three bronze doors were made for the facade. Other work includes the dismantling of the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, reassembled as late as in 1926 in a different position to its original and with various parts missing, including the steps. Later restoration work took place in the 19th century, involving internal and external decorations, often replaced by copies. The building – like the tower – has clearly sunken into the ground and instability is apparent.
The plan, originally a Greek cross with a large dome where the cross meets, is now a Latin cross, divided into five naves with apse and transept with aisles. The striking effect of the architectural spaces is reminiscent of the great mosques thanks to the use of raised round arches alternating with bands in black and white marble and the unusual Moorish-style elliptical cupola. The presence of the two raised matronea in the naves clearly have Byzantine influences. The pointed arches allude to Muslim influences in Southern Italy. The blind arches with lozenges are similar to Armenian churches. The interior is covered in white and black marble with monolithic columns in grey marble and Corinthian capitals.
The 17th-century coffered ceiling is by Florentines Domenico and Bartolomeo Atticciati. At the point where the transepts and central part of the building meet the dome rises up, frescoed with the Virgin Mary amid Glory and Pisan Saints Orazio and Girolamo Riminaldi (1627-31). The Corinthian-style granite columns between the nave and the apse come from the Palermo Mosque, the spoils of the battle in the Cala dai Pisani in 1063. The great apsidal mosaic of Christ on the throne between the Virgin Mary and Saint Giovanni is famous thanks to the face of Saint Giovanni designed by Cimabue in 1302, and which miraculously survived the 1595 fire. Also a survivor of the fire is the medieval Cosmatesque floor (12th century) beneath the triumphal arch, a rare gem outside Lazio. It was made in marble inlay with “opus alexandrinum” geometric motifs.
The pulpit by Giovanni Pisano (1302-10) is, due to its complex architectural and sculptural decoration, one of the largest narrations in 14th-century imagery. Its curved panels tell stories from Christ’s life. It is widely regarded as the artist’s masterpiece as well as in the whole of Italian Gothic sculpture. The 27 paintings that cover the tribune behind the main altar – depicting episodes from the Old Testament and stories of Christ – were created from the 16th and 17th centuries by some of the foremost Tuscan artists, including Andrea del Sarto, il Sodoma and Domenico Beccafumi.
Cover image credit: Nicola Gronchi