Our Blog - Pisa and Florence, Italy - November, 2008

We took our fifth and final trip to Italy in November over the long Thanksgiving weekend. The weather during this time of the year in Italy can be either nice or cold and wet, we ended up getting a little bit of each during our trip. Italy is probably Tom's favorite country to visit in Europe as he loves both the food and the history so he was particularly looking forward to the trip.


We spent less than 24 hours in Pisa, taking the train in the mid afternoon to Florence. There are two major sites to see in Pisa, the famous leaning tower and the Cathedral, which stand right next to each other on the northern part of the city.

Not much needs to be said about the leaning tower as pretty much everyone would know it immediately. The tower's construction started in 1173 and by 1185 they had gotten as high as the 3rd level when they stopped as they noticed a small lean (1 1/2 inches) and were unsure on how to proceed. Work resumed in 1275, continued until 1284 and was completed in 1360 with the belfry at the top being the last part to be done. The total height of the tower is 167 feet.

We got to the tower first thing in the morning and while it was a nice sunny day, you can see that Tom is bundled up against the cold here.

For a hefty admission charge we were able to climb up to the top of the tower and see the sights of Pisa. At the top of the tower are seven large bells, the first having been cast in the 1400's and the largest weighing over 7000 pounds.

A nice picture of Susan at the top of the tower with one of the seven bells.

We had not really thought about it, but Pisa has a number of mountains nearby and from the top of the towel you have a great view of them. Even though it was only November these mountains already had snow on their peaks.

From the top of the tower we got a great view of the Baptistery and the Cathedral, which we will discuss more a bit later.

A close up view of the Baptistery from the top of the tower.

The Pisa Cathedral was started in 1063 which started off a new era in art by building what was to become the model for the Pisan Romanesque style. A disastrous 1595 fire destroyed most of the works inside the church, but the 16th century Pisans hired some of the best Renaissance artists for the restoration.

This is a view of the Cathedral from the back side, which is right next to the leaning tower.

Another view of the Cathedral, this time from the side with the leaning tower to the back and right.

After 100's of years it is amazing to see the level of detail that still remains on the carvings on the exterior of the Cathedral, this time on one of the pillars.

Above the doors to the Cathedral are beautiful mosaics of Mary and Mary surrounded by angels.

The main bronze doors to the Cathedral were cast after the huge fire of 1595 destroyed the originals.

The doors do not have a flat surface, but the carvings on them have quite a bit of depth which we tried to capture in this close up photo.

As we have come to expect in Europe the old churches are always beautiful and interesting and Pisa's Cathedral was no exception. One of the first things to strike upon entering the Cathedral are the beautiful paintings behind the altar, large and very colorful.

The Cathedral has a moorish influenced ceiling that you do not see in France. The rounded arches and the wood and brightly colored ceilings are similar to what we saw in Southern Spain and in Morocco.

The pulpit pictured here was built in the early 1300's. After the 1595 fire the pulpit was removed as the Gothic style did not fit in with the current taste of the 16th century. It was dismantled and put into a crate and it wasn't found and reassembled until 1926.

Hanging low near the pulpit is a large bronze lamp that, according to legend, a bored Galileo was staring at one day during Mass, watching it sway gently back and forth, when his law of the pendulum suddenly hit him. However, the lamp was cast in 1586, a few years after Galileo's discovery, but the legend still persists.

One of the few art works that survived the fire is the tomb of Emperor Henry VII, designed by Tino di Camaino (1315) surmounted by a pair of Ghirlandaio angels.

In the same general area as the Cathedral and the tower there is also the Baptistery. It is Italy's biggest Baptistery (341 ft. in circumference) and was begun in 1153 by Diotisalvi, who gave it its lower Romanesque drum. It was not completed until the dome was finished in the 1300's. It may not look it, but if you include the statue on top, this building is actually taller than the Leaning Tower across the square.

In the middle ages Pisa was surrounded by a thick wall, not too much of the wall remains but there is a good sized section of the 12th century wall near the Baptistery.

Another picture of the wall is here, this time from outside with the main gate and if you look closely you can see the tower and the Cathedral through the gate.


Florence was the primary destination of our trip to Italy as we spent three of the four nights in the city. Florence is the largest city in Tuscany and is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo both lived in the city. Normally Florence is packed with tourists but by going in late November we avoided the swarm and were able to get around the city pretty easily.

We arrived in Florence in the later afternoon, about one hour before sunset on what had been a bright and sunny day. As a result our first set of pictures were some of the best as the angle of the sun on the buildings brought out their best features. Our first stop was to go see the Duomo which is pretty much right in the middle of the city. Construction on the Duomo was begun in 1296 and completed in 1436.

To the back and right the red brick dome is visible, the dome was started in 1420 and was finished in 1436. The construction posed many technical problems as the use of concrete as done by the Romans was a forgotten skill so the dome required 4 million bricks and weighed 37,000 tons.

The white, green and marble facade is relatively new as it replaced the old facade and was finished in 1887. The colors are very unusual in European churches and not having seen pictures of the Duomo beforehand we were surprised by the boldness of the colors.

To the right of the dome is the bell tower, you can climb to the top of the tower for a nice view of the city but we did not make it up there.

There are three large bronze doors to the Duomo which date from 1899 to 1903. They are adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna.

The interior of the Cathedral is somewhat surprising when compared to the colorful facade. It is rather austere and lacking in brilliant paintings with the exception of the dome frescoes.

Above the main door is the large clock face with fresco portraits of four Prophets. This one-handed liturgical clock shows the 24 hours of the Italian time, a period of time ending with sunset at 24 hours. This timetable was used till the 18th century. This is one of the few clocks from that time that still exist and are in working order

The most memorable portion of the Duomo's interior are the dome frescoes. The frescoes represent The Last Judgment and are 38 750 ft² of painted surface, they were started in 1568 and would not be finished until 1579.

A closer view of the dome frescoes, in the middle the windows are visible as is the balcony for those people who climbed the 463 steps to the top of the dome.

As mentioned previously the frescoes represent the Last Judgement, with this closer view you can see Jesus in the middle. Right below Jesus you can see a child putting a stake into the earth, this is to stop time as the world as we know it would end.

As this is the Last Judgement the less fortunate are being tossed into Hell and being condemned for all time, not a happy time.

The floor of the Cathedral is made of marble from different regions of Italy, using different colors to create interesting geometric patterns.

Right across the street from the Duomo is the Baptistery, it is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, the work started in 1059 and was completed in 1128. This is where people would get baptized as it had to be separate from the Cathedral as unbaptized people could not enter the Duomo.

The most famous part of the Baptistery are the gilded bronze doors. The doors took twenty seven years to complete and were finished in the mid 1400's.

This close up view of the doors shows how they are not flat surfaces but have significant depth.

The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence. Work on the building started in 1299 and was eventually taken over like the rest of Florence by the Medici's.

To the right of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Loggia dei Lanzi, built in the late 1300's. It was originally built to house the assemblies of the people and hold public ceremonies, while today it is an open air gallery of Renaissance sculptures and are.

This bronze statue of Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini was completed in the mid 1500's. It shows Perseus holding his sword in his right hand and holding up triumphantly the Medusa's decapitated head in his left.

This marble statue call the Rape of the Sabine Women is by the Flemish artist Jean de Boulogne. This statue was made from one imperfect block of white marble, the largest block ever transported to Florence.

This is the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria. The Neptune figure, whose face resembles that of Cosimo I de' Medici, was meant to be an allusion to the dominion of the Florentines over the sea. The statue of Neptune is a 19th century copy.

The Palazzo Vecchio has a number of rooms you can tour, however due to lack of time we only spent our time in the courtyard. Every wall and ceiling in the courtyard is decorated with frescoes, statues and the columns are covered with gilt stuccoes.

The Basilica of Santa Croce was begun in 1294 and was finally consecrated in 1442. Due to some work being done at the time and it getting dark we did not get a picture of the church from the outside, however we did get this nice picture of the altar.

In the church there are beautiful frescoes both on the ceilings and on the walls. The frescoes on the walls are primarily situated in the small chapels that are spread throughout the church.

Over time it became customary for greatly honored Florentines to be buried or commemorated in the Basilica. Pictured here is the tomb of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Along with Leonardo Da Vinci the most famous Florentine artist was Michelangelo, whose tomb is pictured here.

Niccolo Machiavelli is also buried in the Santa Croce Basilica, Machiavelli is famous for his book The Prince and he is best known today as espousing a philosophy of the pursuit of power by any means necessary.

The Palazzo Pitti was the palace of the Medici's from the 1500's until their demise in the 1700's. As you would expect from a palace of the leading European family in the 1500's it is huge and elaborately decorated. The gardens are pictured here as seem from a window in the palace.

Obviously no expense was spared on the furniture in the palace, as can be seen from this table.

This is just one example of the type of paintings that were on the ceilings in the palace, they were either of a mythological or religious theme.

The Ponte Vecchio bridge is the oldest bridge in Florence, this version having been built in the 1300's. The bridge is the only one in Florence not destroyed by the Germans when they left the city near the end of WWII. It is noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common for bridges in the middle ages. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.

A view of the Arno river and the mountains surrounding Florence as seen from the Ponte Vecchio.

The Piazza della Republica (Republic Square) is the site of the city's first forum and then of the city's oldest ghetto. Pictured here is the Column of Abundance which dates from 1431.

Scattered throughout Florence are medieval buildings, this one being an excellent example. One sign of the fact that the building dates from the middle ages is the carving of the lamb on the wall, signifying an association with the wool guild. This building is also an example of the new and old blending together, as the ground floor houses a clothing store today.

The Orsanmichele is a medieval church constructed in 1337 that was unusual in that it was first a grain market before becoming a church. Late in the 14th century, the guilds were charged by the city to commission statues of their patron saints to embellish the facades of the church.

The statues and niches became more and more elaborate as each guild attempted to outshine the others and enhance their image.

This is inside the courtyard of one of the city's palaces, typical for one of the wealthier families in Florence.

This is an interesting fresco as it is in one of the medieval churches in the city and is older than most you would see. Restoration has been done on the work so that you can see how brilliant the colors were originally.

As mentioned previously there are medieval buildings scattered through the city. The square shape and very functional design without much regard to appearance is a dead giveaway that this building is not from the Renaissance but from an earlier period.

Although it was still almost a month before Christmas, a number of the streets were already decorated with lights for the holidays. On our way to dinner one night, we thought this was a particularly nice view of one of the streets.