Centro Risorse Territoriale di Pesaro e Urbino

Pisa, a 1769 Guide

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Descrizione della citta di Pisa, dalla traduzione pirata di una guida scritta da un francese, M. Grosley, nel 1769.
Description of the city of Pisa, from a pirated translation of a guide written by M. Grosley, a Frenchman, in 1769.

Observations On ITALY and its inhabitants
Written in French by two Swedish Gentlemen
Translated into English by Thomas Nugent, L.L.D.
And Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries

Vol. II

London :

printed for L. Davis and C. Reymers,

printers to the Royal Society



Though we were in the middle of December, the sky was so clear, and the air so mild, that we hired a boat, which carried us from Florence to Pisa down the Arno; as pleasant, and nearly as short a way, as by land, and without any thing of the fatigue of the other.

Pisa, though much handsomer, is as thinly inhabited as Ferrara; and it is only in its bridges and public edifices, that it retains any appearance of its splendor in the twelfth century. The Arno, which is at least as broad as the Seine, running through the middle of this place, gives its situation pretty much the air of that of Paris.

Its northern part, like that of Paris, has been built on a marsh, the laxity of which is the only cause of the phaenomenom of the leaning tower so much talked of in all travels. Nicolas de Pisa, an architect of the thirteenth century, to whom Pisa owes many of the most stately edifices with which it is still adorned, having, by the miscarriages of his predecessors, perceived the badness of the ground on which he was to build, made, says Vasari in his panegyric on him, the foundations of his buildings the chief object of his attention: besides, causing piles to be driven, and carefully inspecting the masonry work in its daily progress, he counterabutted it, on the Arno side, by spurs, and such other armatures as have secured its stability.

These precautions have unhappily been overlooked in the building erected for the university by Cosmo III. and of which a tower for astronomical observations is a part. M. Purelli, who is at the head of these observations, assured me, that the tower's progressive divergency towards the Arno was become an article in his calculations, after leading him into misreckonings, which at first he could by no means account for; but that now the real cause was clear to him beyond all doubt.

The damp, heavy, and sickly air at Pisa, is doubtless owing both to this quaggy soil, and to a hill, which, covering Pisa towards the north in a circular form, reverberates, down into the bottom, where this city stands, all the vapours wafted against it by the southerly winds: the want of inhabitants, likewise, has no small share in this inconveniency. The chamber in which I lay at the post-house, was lofty, in the Italian manner; that is, walled and arched. Awakening in the night, I found myself as in a bath, owing to the moisture transpiring from the walls and the arch. On this I rose, and spent the remainder of the night by the fire side, in the common hall. The unwholesomeness of baths exuding from walls, built of a light and very porous stone, which pumps up the water from the foundations, is easily conceived.

The ancient Pisans, both from a principle of magnificence, and that their stately structures might not be injured by this pernicious humidity, made use of marble only, for which the neighbourhood of Carrara was a great conveniency. But ancient Greece afforded them still a greater advantage, in marble ready wrought to their hands. Their continual voyages and expeditions to the Levant, where their imports greatly exceeded their exports, gave them an opportunity of bringing home pieces of the ruins of all those wonderful edifices, which were the admiration of antiquity, and the untimely demolition of which this commerce greatly hastened.

From Greece came those seventy majestic columns, which support the nave of the cathedral; thence that multitude of columns of every module, distributed in the many peristyles of the leaning tower, of the baptistery, of the Augustins steeple, &c. thence was brought that grand antique vase in the cathedral's south porch; thence all those stones lining its outside in unequal courses, and of which many still shew fragments of ancient inscriptions: thence those exquisite basso relievos on the tomb of Beatrix, mother to the famous countess Matilda, among which a most beautiful Meleager's hunt, and which were the first models for Nicholas de Pisa, an artist to whom Italy partly owes the restoration of sculpture: lastly, from Greece came one of the porphyry columns which adorn the great altar in St. Stephen's church; a piece the more inestimable, as the original artist of it has, on the shaft where it joins the base, engraven in Greek characters, that is nine feet in length. Before the pillar was set up in the place where it now stands, this inscription was observed by Mr. Nelli, who on examination concludes the Greek foot to have been a little under what Bosius makes it in 1561, and a little above Scamozzi's estimate of it in his Treatise of Architecture.

Among the monuments of the former magnificence of the Pisans, and their elegant taste in the midst of barbarian rudeness, the greatest of their three bridges is not to be omitted, being intirely of marble.

This magnificence influenced even such religious observances, which seemed the most alien from it. Such is the famous burial-place, likewise built of marble, on the plan of that which I since saw in France at Orleans. The ground in the open part of this church-yard, is intirely of earth brought by the Pisans, in 1224, from the valley of Jehoshaphat, near Jerusalem, in the fleet which they had fitted out for Frederic Barbarossa's expedition. This earth still retains the virtue of totally consuming a corpse in the space of twenty-four hours. The grave-digger affirmed, that this he very well knew from repeated instances on multitudes of Germans, who died at Pisa in the war in 1733. La terra , said he to me, logoravagli con le loro grosse pancie, in termine di duoi giorni , i.e. "The ground within two days made an end of them and their tun bellies."

Among the near and remote causes of the depopulation of Pisa, may be reckoned the vicinity of Florence and Leghorn:

Mantua vae miserae nimium vicina Cremonae!

In order to remedy this evil as far as possibile, the great dukes have continued its university, and made it the stated residence of the Knights of the order of St. Stephen, instituted by Cosmo I. In 1561, in imitation of those of Malta.

Among the university professors are M. Parelli, who fills Galileo's rostrum with the most eminent distinction; and the fathers, Berti, Frisi and Corsini. This suffices to give an idea of its prosperity. I was present at father Berti's lectures on ecclesiastical history. These lectures (and it is the same all over Italy) are not taken up with dictating, writing, and frivolous argumentations; but form connected discourses on points of history, divinity, mathematics, &c. the series of which makes the professor's annual course. They are in Latin, and last an hour. The professor afterwards takes a walk for half an hour under the colonnade round the college-court, when the students lay before him in Italian any doubts and difficulties they may have, which he resolves in the same language.

It was not without some difficulty that I could keep up with the Latin of the Tuscan professors. In all the words ending in consonants , as dominum, amant, gloriantur, ut, they double the final consonant, and add to it an open E, pronouncing the words above, dominummé, amantté, glorianturré, utté : yet is not this pronunciation to be declared faulty, till we precisely know how the ancient Romans pronounced their language. Our northern pronunciation of the final us in masculine substantives is contradicted by all Italy, Spain, and the southern parts of France, where this syllable is sounded ous : the Italians even assert that, agreeably to the energy of this articulation, um , the last syllable of the accusative singular of those very substantives, should not in our mouths have the sound which we give it, like that of the word homme, but that of the third person singular of the present tense of the verb humer.

The chief of the order of St. Stephen, in spirituals, is Monsignor Cerati; and as such he is invested with part of the episcopal prerogatives. I had recommendations to him from France, Rome, and Florence; and never had I any of greater use: they procured me the friendship and intimacy of an aged gentleman, equally respectable for his station, his extensive and well-digested erudition, and the most amiable temper, with all the Lombard frankness and Florentine amenity.

Animam qualem neque candidiorem

Terra tulit.

In him I met with all the care, all the attention, all the readiness, and all the anticipations which politeness enjoins towards those to whom we are under obligations; but which , from him to me, were purely effusions of an ingenuous mind and a good heart. He entertained me with a leisurely view of whatever was curious in Pisa, and procured me every acquaintance which he thought would suit me; but none suited me so much as his: after my first acquaintance with this worthy prelate, I never thought Pisa lonely.

He had with him his brother, who, like many Lombards in easy circumstances, used to come and spend the winter at Pisa, as being more temperate than in Lombardy. By this inviting mildness, Pisa gets some addition of inhabitants, and lets houses, which otherwise would stand empty.

The baths, which are but a quarter of a league off, between the city and the hill which incloses it towards the north, will likewise bring some inhabitants when the great buildings just finished, and all the elegant conveniences making for the bathers, shall have brought them again into vogue.

Beyond the great bridge, and on the left bank of the Arno, I saw, with some astonishment, a large inscription on marble, in golden letters, containing an extract of the emperor's edict as great duke of Florence, ordering, that in 1746, as well as I can recollect, the year should begin in Tuscany on the first of January, and so to continue. By way of explanation I was informed, that till then the civil year of the Tuscans did not begin till the 25 th of March, not so much by reason of the equinox, as of the festival of the Annunciation, which they celebrate under the name of the Conception of our Lord . The knowledge of this ancient custom is necessary for tracing down to 1746 the dates of the histories and chronicles of Florence, in which the three first months in each year, computed according to the Roman style, belong to the preceding year.

At the foot of the said bridge is a vast mansion-house, built in the finest taste of architecture by Cosmo I. Another story has been raised on it, but little agreeing with the original building.

Along the same bank is a small church, or old chapel, intirely of marble; the ornaments and pillars finely executed, but the inside far beneath such a beautiful appearance. I went in: it was mass time; and there I saw a young person in the flower of her age, and of such beauty that I do not remember to have seen her equal in all Italy: she was escorted by an old man in a very odd garb from head to foot, her father or guardian; not her husband I hope.

In the square before St. Stephen's church stands a very fine statue of Cosmo I.

On the quays along the Arno are several palaces, which do great honour to Florentine architecture: that of Lanfranchi is accounted the finest.

The bronze doors of the cathedral, embellished or rather loaded with basso relievos, were one of the first essays of this kind. They are of the twelfth century, and raise advantageous ideas of the efforts which the arts were even then making in Italy, to emerge from barbarism.

In the same point of view may be considered the paintings on the inside of the large and splendid burial-place above mentioned. The Last Judgment, by Andrew Orgagna, fixes the eye, and exhibits the ideas which prevailed in Dante's time. The painter, not presuming to determine Solomon's fate, has represented him between the elect and the damned, up to the middle in hell; whilst the fate of all the others is severally ascertained.

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