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The marble surrounds of the Gothic Camposanto.

The Enthralling History of di Simone’s Camposanto of Pisa

The Camposanto or cemetery of Pisa was begun in 1278 by Giovanni di Simone and completed during the 15th century. It is located at the northern edge of the Cathedral Square which also includes the Leaning Tower in the historic city of Pisa.

It began when Archbishop of Pisa, Ubaldo de’ Lanfranchi, brought back five boatloads of sacred soil from the Holy Land during the 4th Crusade of the 12th century. The soil was from Golgotha, the site located outside the walls of Jerusalem where the Christ was crucified.

In 1278, Giovanni di Simone, architect of the Leaning Tower, designed a marble cloister to enclose the holy ground. It was to become the primary cemetery for Pisa’s upper class for the next 400 years. Legend claims that bodies buried in that ground will turn to dust in just 24 hours. The project for the building and its decoration was initiated by the magistrates of Pisa with significant input from local Dominican preachers.

Approaching the Camposanto you are faced with a long, rectangular stretch of well-tended grass, surrounded by Gothic marble cloisters and topped with a dome at one end. It is a unique and elegant space. The exterior marble walls facing the cathedral are solid and unadorned, except for some simple arcading. The inner walls overlooking the long courtyard are lined with delicate tracery windows.

The outer wall of the structure is composed of 43 blind arches. The main doorway is crowned by a gracious Gothic tabernacle. It contains the Virgin Mary with Child surrounded by four saints.

The cemetery has three chapels. The oldest is the Chapel Ammannati, dating from 1360. It takes its name from the tomb of Ligo Ammannati, who had been a teacher in the University of Pisa. In the Chapel Aulla there is an altar made by Giovanni della Robbia in 1518. It also houses the original incense lamp that Galileo Galilei used for his calculation of pendulum movements, when the lamp had hung in the cathedral.

The last chapel is Dal Pozzo, commissioned by Archbishop of Pisa Carlo Antonio Dal Pozzo in 1594; it has an altar dedicated to St. Jerome and is covered by a small dome. In 2009, Holy Relics of the Cathedral were moved to the Chapel. These included relics from eleven of the twelve Apostles, two fragments of the True Cross, a thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns and a small piece of material from the dress of the Virgin Mary.

The Campo Santo had contained a huge collection of Roman sarcophagi. Most were removed after the end of the Second World War, but 84 remain, most from the third century and are found inside the galleries, near the walls. Roman sculptures were also brought to the Camposanto for decoration beginning in the 14th century. Together with the Roman sarcophagi, these ancient artworks formed one of the most important collections of classical art in Europe, inspiring some of Pisa’s greatest medieval and early Renaissance sculptures. The huge harbor chains of the Port of Pisa can be seen hanging on the walls of the Camposanto. These were taken by the Genoese in 1342 and were finally returned to Pisa in 1860.

During the fourteenth century, as the construction took shape, the inner walls were embellished by incredible frescoes about Life and Death, created by the two great artists of the time, Francesco Traini and Bonamico Buffalmacco. The cycle of frescoes went on well into the 14th century with the “Stories of Pisan Saints” by Andrea Bonaiuti, Antonio Veneziano and Spinello Aretino and the “Stories of the Ancient Testament.” These frescoes along the northern wall were begun by Taddeo Gaddi and Piero di Puccio, but were finished in the mid-15th century by the Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli.

The Triumph of Death emerged as a major theme in late medieval culture for many reasons. There was the impact of recurrent plagues, which were widely interpreted as divine punishment for sin, this fear of sin increased individual penitent piety. In Pisa, the growth of the city and the emergence of a wealthy merchant class required a delicate balance with the tenets of the Church. The era also gave rise to new preaching orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, who brought monastic values directly to the doorstep of the city and its society. In 1839, Franz Liszt was so inspired by this fresco that he wrote his famous Totentanz, “Dance of Death,” here.

On July 27, 1944, a bomb fragment from an Allied air raid started a fire. This portion of Italy was still held by the Nazis. The fire spread across the ceilings wooden rafters, which in turn melted the lead of the roof. This severely damaged everything inside the cemetery, destroying most of the sculptures and sarcophagi and compromising all the frescoes. An initial effort to rescue the frescoes was organized by Deane Keller of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. Pieces of the frescoes were salvaged and a temporary roof was erected to prevent further damage.

After World War II, restoration work began. The roof was restored as closely as possible to its pre-war appearance and the frescoes were separated from the walls to be restored and displayed elsewhere. Once the frescoes had been removed, the preliminary drawings called sinopie were also removed. These under-drawings were separated using the same technique used on the frescoes and now they are in the Museum of the Sinopie on the opposite side of the square. The restored frescoes that still exist are gradually being transferred to their original locations in the cemetery, to restore the Camposanto’s pre-war appearance.

Since the 16th century, the cemetery has sheltered the sepulchers of the most prestigious lecturers of the University of Pisa, as well as members of the Medici family, who ruled over the city at that time. The monument was to become the Pantheon of local memories, not only of the families of Pisa, but also to the glorious classical and medieval past of the city. In the early 19th century, the cemetery became one of Europe’s first public museums.