Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Buildings that Lean in Pisa

 Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Florence.

One day we took the fast train to Pisa and saw the Leaning Tower.   Arriving at the Pisa Centrale Train Station, we stopped at the ticket counter to ask what bus we ought to take out to the Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles).  The lady behind the counter looked up from her book of crossword puzzles with a distracted sort of air.
            “You want a what?”
             “A bus, please.  To the Piazza dei Miracoli–“
             “No buses.  Not today.  They’re all on strike.”
She shrugged one shoulder in a half-apology, and turned back to her crossword puzzle.

Bus strikes were one of the great certainties of the time I spent in Tuscany.  Timing for maximum chaos, striking without warning, bus drivers will stay off the road during the morning rush hour, then come back on duty for the rest of the day, or they will knock off early, just in time to gum up the evening commute –

At least once a month I’d come out of an evening class and discover that the bus home wasn’t happening.  If I were lucky, there’d be a paper notice taped to a post at the school bus stop. If not, I’d stand with the other stranded students, waiting for forty-five minutes or an hour - until it became clear that even the erratic Florentine bus fairy (the magic schedule fairy that pops busses out at supremely irregular intervals) had exceeded her mandate, and then I’d walk home.
In clear weather, it was a lovely walk, particularly in the spring: an hour of soft skies along the river, and quiet quattrocento back streets.  In winter, in the wet, with a howling storm blowing umbrellas inside out and driving you down the sidewalk ahead of bursts of hail and sleet, it was not so nice.  Not even a little bit.

A spring day like that would be lovely for walking through a new town, but on a late-summer day with a sky like a flat blue oven, and the world stretched thin and pegged out flat, and quivering under the weight of a sun like a great glaring brass disk,  hot riveted to the flat center of it –
Not a day for walking.

We mooched out of the train station and stood in the shade of the arcade and looked around us for a taxi.  Under the weight of that awful burning blue sky, nothing moved.  There were no taxis, no cars, no bicycles, no people–
We sighed, and slunk deeper under the awning, and a municipal bus sailed grandly into the turning circle before the station, and stopped only a few dozen yards from where we stood.
           “Strike?” The driver looked at us, puzzled.  “Not today.  NOT a day for strikes, a day like this.”
We asked again for the Piazza dei Miracoli -
           “You bet.”  He said.  “That’s my route. Hop on, and I’ll let you know when to get off.”
He grinned at us, and we saw that the bus had air-conditioning, and we decided that we loved him.

The bus ran a twisting route through the old stone city, across the river and into a suburban Pisa where the old stone buildings had front and back gardens, and stopped before a high stone wall, and here - here there was movement in the world.  Through a pair of tall gates we saw a long stretch of green grass. White buildings glittered in the sun and around them moved a twisting, churning, seething mass of humanity – none of it Italian.  And all of it carrying cameras.

The Piazza dei Miracoli is lovely– even on a burning blue summer day. Tall white walls surround a wide green field, and buildings grow out of the grass, here and there – a duomo, the infamous bell tower, and a high, round baptistery.  They are built of white marble, and they glare under the sun, and all of them lean sideways.

The foundations were built shallow, and the buildings have had more than a thousand years to settle into a soft, unstable soil.  The cathedral complex was begun in the tenth century CE, and is mostly built in the style of that time – a style that is today known as the Romanesque.  Tenth century engineers hadn’t yet discovered the load-bearing potential of the pointed arch (the spectacular extent of which was what allowed the towers of the Gothic to soar so high) and they built with hefty stone walls, and rounded arches and fat stone columns to support the walls' weight.  It is a stately style – solid, substantial, and comfortable looking.

All along one side of the precinct is a paved road set up as a very long souvenir shop.  There must be half a hundred little stands and wagons, all of them hawking little copies of the leaning tower - as t-shirts, as fridge magnets, as postcards, posters, kitchen aprons, hats, paperweights, little resin paperweights, middle-size resin paperweights,  and gigantic fiberglass paperweights more than two feet high.  They are all of them irredeemably awful.  Nobody sells replicas, or even posters, of the duomo and the baptistery, which is an oversight and a meditation on the shallowness of fame.  Because the Duomo and the Baptistry are lovely buildings, each entirely unique and special in their own right.

The Pisa Duomo is quite possibly my favorite church.  The Florence Duomo is marzipan-exquisite on the outside, but inside is more or less like a barn.  Baroque churches tend to suffer from interior -decorator-itis, San Marco in Venice was dim and dark and dusty (or as dusty as a church can become when it stands ankle deep in water!) but the Duomo in Pisa is just RIGHT.  The Pisan Romanesque is vaguely Venetian, faintly Moorish, with touches of Gothic in the Arches, Byzantine Glamour in the mosaics, Baroque in the paintings – and all of it in entirely charming balance.  Begun in 1063 and a work in progress (like all good churches) ever since, it has grown up elegantly, and with a certain style-  gently proportioned to itself and entirely suited – inside and out – to the site and the celestial majesty of the baptistery next door.

The thick stone walls of the Romanesque baptistery keep out the summer heat.  Inside, we sat on a ledge and   listened to the half-hourly demonstration of the echo.  The acoustics in the Baptistry are unusual.  The Baptistry is one single circular room, almost fifty meters tall, and an accident of construction, a double-shell roof,   has turned it into a resonance chamber fit for a choir of Catholic angels.  Every half-hour the ticket guard closes and locks the doors and walks into the very centre of the space and sings. Three simple notes fall upward into the empty space, cascading into complex cascades and harmonies of that were never actually sung. 

We climbed up to the high gallery and sat in the cool of the lovely building and waited until the next performance, and heard it again.  Sometimes the gatekeeper was a whole choir and sometimes his voice becomes an instrument – a clarinet, occasionally, and an oboe, often.  Mr Tabubil turned to me and his face was wide, full of happiness.

We were filled up.  

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