Secret Messages in Pisa

Maybe it’s all the cameos in spaghetti sauce commercials and movies  (was it Superman II where he straightens it?) but Pisa’s famous tower struck me as surreal, like we’d stepped into a fantasy world. The white stone buildings of the piazza, which we’re guessing had been cleaned recently, really glowed on the day we visited.

The kids called it the “Bendy Tower,” which is actually pretty accurate, since during its construction, the builders tried to correct for the leaning (already apparent) by centering the higher layers on top of the original foundation. Sounds like something I would do with one of my craft projects. So it really does bend. I kept thinking of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

No kids under 8 are allowed to go inside the staircase, which disappointed the kids but was fine by me. I often enjoy the outsides of buildings more than the insides anyway.

It’s a little surprising there’s a rule—-most sights in Europe have no restrictions about children, leaving you to make up your own mind. I understand this and appreciate it, but coming from  the super-litigious culture of the U.S., I’ve gotten used to someone else making those decisions for me. At times we’ve been a little confused as to what was really appropriate for the kids.

While the tower was mesmerizing, my favorite thing in Pisa was the exterior of the cathedral next door. The tower is the bell tower for this cathedral. The stones that make up the cathedral are all different sizes and materials, which I found kind of crazy and awesome. Some of them are recycled from other buildings. You can see writing and designs that are now upside down and cut off:

From my reading, I understand the upside-down stuff to be recycled Roman stonework.

Here’s some other writing that must’ve been added after construction, but its placement seems kind of random:

And then there’s the graffiti (another word in my oh-so-extensive Italian vocabulary) scattered around. I guess in the olden days if you wanted to be a graffiti artist, you had to carry around a knife or a chisel or something. If you really wanted to have a lasting impact:

It seemed like these were little hidden messages waiting to be discovered. For someone interested in recycling, patchwork, writing, and printing, it was really cool.

I haven’t had a chance to do much research on the writing and recycled stone, so if you know of articles about it, let me know.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to take a look at my posts about Volterra and two about Siena: here and here.

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88 thoughts on “Secret Messages in Pisa

  1. I can only imagine how “surreal” that must have felt — what an amazing experience!

    Are the stairs too dangerous (?) for kids, or just too much for them to tackle? Interesting…

    Thank you for sharing!

    🙂

    • I imagine the climbing is a safety issues. Even in the “safer” towers we have taken our kids into, sometimes there aren’t very good railings and it would be really easy to have a bad fall.

  2. What’s fascinating to me about the leaning tower of Pisa is the storeys which were build taller on the shorter side so as to prevent it from collapsing. Very cool!

  3. It’s Superman III 😉

    Love the photos and am intrigued about what that bottom piece of graffiti actually says. Then again, I’m not sure I want to know; the mystery is more interesting than learning it says “Bob loves Tracy” or something…

  4. I didn’t get to go to Pisa when I went to Italy but gosh I loved the rest of the country and now your post is making me want to revisit Italy and go see the leaning tower!

  5. Really interesting; went there myself a number of years ago and helped me to recall some mislaid memories.

  6. Loved this post. I can’t wait to see Pisa. I’m taking my kids too, good to know there are some restrictions in terms of viewing certain areas. I went to Spain 4 years ago and I loved it.

  7. Ha ha ha! All this makes me realize the importance of stopping, and correcting, mistakes as you go so your impatience and insufficient quality control are not memorialized for every generation to laugh at you for. And, to check the quality of your contracted workforce before you hire so you don’t get caught shortchanging the budget and pocketing the extra (those stones could have been stacked with the carvings facing inward). I feel bad for the architects who drew up lovely (if perhaps not terribly original) designs which were completely overshadowed by the monuments to human error. Ha ha ha!

    • Actually, I love all the errors. It wouldn’t be nearly so interesting to me if it were perfect, and I think most people actually don’t notice the stonework because of all the other beautiful things going on. Not to mention, there wouldn’t be nearly the tourists if the tower were straight.

  8. How interesting about the recycled stonework, I didn’t know that. I’ll be in Pisa in Sept and I can’t wait. Italy is so much fun!

  9. That is so cool! I love a patchwork cathedral. The old Roman writing is my favorite. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  10. On the wall of the cathedral in front of the cemetery is a stone with many little holes. Legend has it that those are the footprints that he left the Devil in an attempt to halt the construction of the Cathedral. Still the legend says that the number of tracks, or nails, counted several times, never the same; devilishly count never returns! Only the Devil could affect those with “many” nails the hard stone.
    Counting nails Devil..

  11. Love the post. Thanks for it. I lived nearby at 3-4 years old. I have no memories and only a few old photos as mementos, so it was wonderful to read these descriptions and see the photos.

  12. I went last year, just for a few days and would totally recommend it too. Florence was amazing also and now I’m keen to see Rome.

    This blog was brilliant. I never noticed the writing on the stonework at all. I saw a bit from a distance but never gave it any thought. I now feel that I must have stood there with my eyes closed.

  13. I like the idea that recycling goes so far back in time! Its so interesting to discover little messages written from way back graffiti artists! So interesting!

  14. Fascinating! Have you tried to translate any of the graffiti? I’d be really interested in finding out what it says.. for anyone to devote so much time to a message, it’s got to carry some meaning!

  15. Beautiful picture of the tower! Thank you for sharing and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Re: safety. I remember climbing the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain as a teenager and then running down from the top. There were no stairs but ramps.

  16. WOW. Amazing.
    I’m from Italy and I learned so much from this. Thank you for sharing!
    Take a look at my blog if you get the chance, i’m new to this!
    Keep up the good work!

  17. That’s really awesome! I’ve always had a fascination with things of ‘old’ so to speak and if I myself had been there I would’ve probably been so wrapped up in finding these ‘hidden messages’ that people would think I’d have lost myself in another world! It’s so mysterious and the mysterious always (for some reason) transports me back to the days of the Romans and Greeks and the myths and legends that surround them. Thanks for sharing this – I hope one day I too get to go there and experience the magic 🙂

  18. Ah, memories! We visited Pisa in 2009. We were with our best friends and 12-year-old son, who was ecstatic to climb the tower! At the first opening though, before reaching the very top, the fence seems way shorter than it should be. A little scary. Our son did not like that at all. There are a lot of areas that would be a bit frightening to small children, and it’s a difficult climb, so I can see why they have the age minimum posted. We walked right by the duomo and baptristry, not even paying attention to the details there! I blogged about our trip under the “travel” category. We loved Venice, and our son rated that as his favorite, too. Lots of alleyways to explore.

  19. You’re post here is very interesting. I never knew those structures were made out of recycled Roman stones. VERY VERY INTERESTING. WOW!!! Makes me want to travel right now!!! Thank you for posting about this! It would’ve been nice if some expert or local translated those etchings on stone.

  20. I climbed the tower with my parents a few years back and it was quite a scary experience, especially when we reached the top of the tower. The tilt may seem quite minor from outside but when inside, you really feel like you’ll slide off the building if you don’t grab on the railings!

  21. I’ve never thought that some parts of the tower seems made of scraps (from other structures). That’s a new info to me. I find it cool though. BTW, I love your snaps. Really hope you enjoyed the trip. 🙂

  22. Hi Emily, I actually live & work here – in Pisa, I mean (my animation & cartoon studio is not so far from Piazza dei Miracoli, indeed). About stone-recycling in buildings (churches and civil palaces as well), it has been very common, back in the old middle-ages days, and you can find a bunch of that everywhere in the city. Next time you come, try and spot them out!
    Have a nice day & arrivederci
    mb

  23. The 3 photos of those ‘patchwork’ stones of ancient print and graffiti are incredible. I just love things like that. I only wish I could translate what it all says! Probably ‘Joe Bloggus was ‘ere’ or ‘Maximus 4 Jennifa 4 eva’.

    Thank you for sharing!

  24. Actually, the cathedral beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa was the first thing that struck me when we visited it last year. It just got me intrigued, but of course, the beauty of the “Bendy Tower” cannot be missed nor questioned.

    Oh, by the way, good observation on the recycled stones in the cathedral. I never got to notice that. Aww… man!

  25. It really does just sort of pop out of nowhere, doesn’t it? I was especially blown away because it is so magnificent and surrounding area is so cheesy (not that I blame them for working the tourist $). Great post!

  26. Pingback: Secret Messages in Pisa (via Emily Smith Pearce) « LOMO Space

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