The cathedral, the baptistery, and the famous tower remind tourists of the times when Pisa’s power, wealth, and pomp were concentrated in Piazza Dei Miracoli (also known as the Square of Miracles). But few know that the fourth and last grandiose building of that time was the majestic and pretentious Campo Santo cemetery.
However, it would be wrong to call it just a cemetery. Instead, it is a unique and mysterious museum. No wonder this place is called the Fourth Wonder of Pisa.
The famous cemetery, which keeps the memory of the heyday of the Pisa Maritime Republic, is a wide rectangular corridor along the perimeter of galleries with graceful windows and narrow columns. Along the walls of the galleries, you can see the ancient Roman sarcophagi, of which there are several dozen. And on the walls themselves, there are many ancient frescoes with fascinating subjects that you can look at for hours.
The cemetery arose spontaneously
Interestingly, the cemetery appeared here almost by accident. After the construction of the Pisa Cathedral, free space remained in the inner territory and around it, which gradually began to be filled with tombstones and sarcophagi of eminent inhabitants of Pisa.
As a result, the place itself turned into a cemetery. The local Archbishop Frederico Visconti had no choice but to officially allocate the territory on the northern side of Cathedral Square for burials.
Interestingly, the architect Giovanni di Simone, who in 1277 was entrusted with leading the construction of the memorial cemetery, did not live to see the completion of the work: seven years later, he died, and this coincided with the decline of Pisa, defeated by the troops of Genoa. In connection with these two events, work on the cemetery was stopped for almost two hundred years, and it was completed only in the second half of the 15th century.
By the way, during the construction of the cemetery, sacred land was brought here from Golgotha. Part of it was scattered throughout the territory, and another part is still stored in a unique capsule. This is why Campo Santo is called the “holy field”.
During the heyday of Pisa, the most famous inhabitants were buried here, and when the city fell under the rule of the Florentines, members of the Medici family, and later renowned scientists and other prominent people found their rest here. For example, the remains of the mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, physicists Carlo Matteucci and Ottaviano Fabrizio Mossotti are buried here.
For a long time in Pisa, there was a history that thanks to the miraculous properties of the land of the “holy field”, the bodies buried here turned into skeletons in 24 hours.
Citizens of a lower rank were buried under stone slabs, and sometimes Roman sarcophagi were also taken for their burial, only previously used.
In July 1944, the cemetery was damaged by a severe fire. During the air raid, one of the bombs (according to other sources – an artillery shell) fell on the territory of Piazza Dei Miracoli, breaking through the wooden floors of the Campo Santo cemetery. The fire was extinguished for several days.
When it was stopped, a deplorable picture opened up in front of the employees: it turned out that almost all the wall frescoes made by Benozzo Gazzoli and other talented artisans were crumbling. It took more than one year to collect all the pieces and, like a puzzle, to restore the paintings.
By the way, the Sinopie – the original drawings – helped to restore the plots of the frescoes. The fact is that the production of the gallery frescoes proceeded as follows: the masters first made graphic images on the surface, and already on them, either the artist himself or his apprentices painted wall masterpieces.
After the fire, this was carefully entirely removed Sinopie from the walls and taken to the workshop. By the way, now on the territory of Piazza Dei Miracoli, there is also the Museum of Sinopie where you can see the original wall paintings by the artists of the Proto-Renaissance era.
The most famous murals
One of the most extensive fresco cycles of the Middle Ages is located in Campo Santo. Almost all plots are devoted to the vital theme of life and death – heaven and hell, as well as critical biblical events – for example, the Ascension or stories about the Unbelief of Thomas.
Many talented masters worked on the frescoes, including Antonio Veneziano, Andrea Bonaiuti, Pietro di Pucho, and finished them by the Florentine master Benozzo Gozzoli.
The most famous of the cemetery’s frescoes are “The Triumph of Death” and “The Last Judgment”, which very eloquently show the torment of sinners and the frailty of life. For example, in one of the scenes, representatives of the nobility who went hunting see three coffins with the dead on their way. The old hermit depicted on the fresco points to the horsemen and their entourage at the dead as if hinting that nothing lasts forever – neither wealth, nor amusement, nor youth.
How the cemetery became a museum
At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte signed an official order to close many churches in Italy. He ordered the numerous works of art and Christian relics that were in them to be delivered to France.
At that time, the curator of the Pisa cemetery was the famous Italian painter Carlo Lasinio, teacher of the art of engraving at the Florentine Academy and founder of the Academy in Pisa. Lasinio ordered to urgently deliver sculptures and paintings from the surrounding churches to Campo Santo to prevent the loss of national artistic values. Those tombstones and sarcophagi stood in the courtyard of the cemetery to be transferred to the galleries.
Thus, the Pisa cemetery became a real art museum filled with masterpieces of Italian masters. Exhibits are everywhere – from slabs on the marble floor to majestic masterpiece sculptures.
By the way, Carlo Lasinio’s descendants also owe the preservation of the engravings: in 1812 (again fearing that the most valuable works of art would be lost in connection with the hostilities), he began his career on a book of engravings dedicated to the frescoes of Campo Santo. More than a century later, Lasinio’s prints also helped restore frescoes damaged by fire during World War II.