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3 churches to visit in Pisa, San Miniato and Volterra

Suggestions for visiting some of the most beautiful churches in Tuscany

Tuscany boasts numerous areas that prove just how much the historic, cultural and architectural wealth of this territory made its mark, leaving behind majestic, secret traces. In this itinerary, we suggest three religious buildings worth visiting in the dioceses of Pisa, San Miniato and Volterra.

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisa - Credit: Nicola Gronchi

We start in Pisa, where we visit a one-of-a-kind place: the “Primatial”Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a building rich in history and strong Byzantine features. The church is a masterpiece of the Romanesque style, and is evidence of the prestige and wealth achieved by the Maritime Republic of Pisa at the height of its power.

Begun in 1063 using a design by Buscheto, many styles can be seen in the church, including Classical, Lombard-Emilian, Byzantine and Islamic, a testament to the international presence of Pisan merchants in those days. The cathedral was built outside the city walls to symbolize that the power of Pisa needed no protection. Consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II, by the mid-1100s it was enlarged by the architect Rainaldo, who is attributed with designing the façade. Inside, the appearance is the result of repeated restorations. The earliest interventions came after a disastrous fire in 1595, with the roof being redone and three bronze doorways being installed in the façade. Amongst the various changes, there was also the removal of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit, which was only reinstalled in 1926, though in a different position. Later restorations were made in the 1800s that focused on the interior and exterior decorations.

Just like the tower, the basilica is also noticeably sinking into the soil. Before leaving, we suggest admiring the 27 paintings in the gallery behind the main altar, made in the 16th and 17th centuries by some of the greatest Tuscan painters of the era, including Andrea del Sarto, il Sodoma and Domenico Beccafumi.

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Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio in San Miniato
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio in San Miniato
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio in San Miniato - Credit: TOB

Next we move to the diocese of San Miniato, along the via Francigena, home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio, sadly well-known because an Allied bombing on July 22, 1944 that killed 55 people that were crowded into the church by the Germans. The brick façade is gabled and has 26 ceramic decorations coming from Tunisian kilns, impressive for their elegance and originality. In the lower part, there are three portals dating to the 1500s, each one topped with an architrave and lesene. The interior, however, showcases a Neo-Renaissance style of architecture, the result of the 18th-century work by Pietro Bernardini, with Baroque-style decorations. The church as a Latin-cross shape and is divided into three naves which are separated by two series of pointed arches that rest atop ionic columns made of false polychrome marble and covered by an engraved and gilded coffered ceiling from the 17th century.

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Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Volterra
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Volterra
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Volterra

The final stop on our excursion brings us to Volterra. Also in this case, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is home to all the elements of redemption that interest the faithful, pilgrims and tourists, which we will see during our pleasant visit to this beautiful church recorded as early as the 9th century. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1117, the cathedral was enlarged in the second half of the 1200s. The basilica has classical decorations in its transept, including the lunettes. The Latin-cross shaped interior is characterized by the late-Renaissance style. The space is divided into 22 columns covered in plaster simulating pink granite, while the capitals were made in the 1500s. The central nave and transept are covered by a majestic coffered ceiling, a stunning collection of geometrical, decorate and floral elements, figures of saints and two large ovals of the Assumption and the Holy Spirit designed by Francesco Capriani, carved by Jacopo Paolini and gilded by Fulvio Tucci between 1580 and 1584. The nave is flanked by six chapels, each home to works by painters from the second half of the 1500s.

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