From "Slowtuscany": Stories about Tuscany by Damiano Andrei
Translation by: Andrea Brown, Giovanna Novelli, Munmun Gosh
The history of Pisa between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries was intense and loaded with economic, social and artistic acquisitions. All of this contributed to Pisa's role of fundamental importance in the history of the Middle-Eastern Mediterranean. Thanks to the development of overseas business and to the Crusades, Pisa quickly accrued enormous capital which the noble families invested partly for themselves, and partly for construction of new religious buildings as a symbol of their prestige. The many churches of Pisa and the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) served as eloquent evidence of the prominence and power of these noble families which can still be witnessed today. I would like to paint you a picture of a city that took extensive planning and was of an exceptional dimension for the time period.
The marvellous stone towers on the noble families' homes were the "skyscrapers" of the time. From a cultural perspective, the development was also unprecedented. Attracted to the many commercial and economic opportunities, numerous social groups began to form and meet on a regular basis, contributing to the cosmopolitan growth of the city. A city of Etruscan origin, Pisa was allied with the Roman Empire from the third century B.C., but remained a city of modest size until the year 1000. During the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, Pisa took on its present form, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea and divided in two by the river Arno. The city walls even to this day are made with the local stone, Verrucano. This same stone was also used to construct Pisa's homes and churches. When visiting Pisa, don't limit yourselves to the Piazza dei Miracoli - the Square of Miracles, which is so often the starting and ending point for visitors to Pisa.
Go beyond the tourist attractions, and walk the streets of Pisa and see the stones that are the framework of the old noble family homes, which are known as case-torri or tower houses. Enter into the 1000-year-old churches that reek of incense that has been absorbed into the stone walls and wooden pews over the centuries. Discover the artistic and architectural jewels unique to Italy which are unfortunately at risk of going unseen due to the over-powering attraction of the Leaning Tower. The Case Torri are towers that were built during the Middle Ages by the more powerful families of Pisa. The necessity to build inside the city walls for defensive purposes, and the impossibility to develop the vacant land outside the city walls, provoked a vertical development of the city’s structures much like that of today's modern cities. The towers were as high and ambitious as the families that erected them and began to inscribe the Tuscan skies with their outlines.
The towers were not only a feature of Pisa, but also Florence, which possessed more than 200, Siena, Lucca and San Gimignano these structures attempted to touch the heavens. San Gimignano is probably the most well-known for its towers today because it has done the best job of conserving them and still boasts of total of seven perfectly intact towers today. But probably the towers in Pisa are by far the most exceptional and original. The irregular curve towards the base due to the weight of the stone created the need for special arches which instead of being curved in shape, are pointed. The pointed form provides greater support for the weight of the structure. The arches were built with a wooden frame, the same that was used to build ships at the time of the Crusades. If the Pisan ships were able to support the strong friction of the sea, they realized the same structural basis and material would also be able to support the enormous weight of the stone towers. And in fact with a bit of imagination the tower-houses of Pisa do resemble ships in a sea of stone.