I Spy Pisa

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It took seven of us to keep the tower from falling over!


I spy with my little eyes a fluted column.

I spy with my little eyes a red marble column.

I spy with my little eyes a group of University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture students.


The city of Pisa is a wonderful place to play one of my favorite childhood games, I spy.  This version of I Spy focused on the city of Pisa, famously known for it’s leaning tower, and was played with six other UDM SOA students as we explored and learned about the history of Pisa and The Piazza del Duomo.

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Pisa’s colorful waterfront

We left in the morning after a few of us went to the Saturday market for some fresh produce and snacks for the bus ride.  We took a bus from Volterra to Pontederra  and from Pontederra we arrived in the city of Pisa.  We quickly approached something we all recognized as the Leaning Tower of Pisa located in the Piazza Del Duomo, where class was to be held for the day.  On arrival we realized that there is really more to Pisa than just the leaning tower, such as; the city’s colorful riverfront, the local bakeries, and shops.

kohl_history_10397653611350712075513In fact, the leaning tower is just a single piece of a larger complex called the Piazza del Duomo and even a smaller part of the Pisa’s rich history.  Also, the leaning tower of Pisa is actually called the Campanile, and is the bell tower to the cathedral located next to it!  Looking at the site plan you can see the footprints of four artistically and architecturally significant medieval monuments, constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries.  The monuments include: the cathedral dedicated it Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption); the baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist; the campanile, also known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa; and the Camposanto Monumentale, the Monumental Cemetery.

So, what made Eye Spy so much fun at the Piazza del Duomo?  I think that it was the fact that each of these significant buildings were built during a span of 300 years but managed to be so cohesive in the little details that walking through and around seemed seamless and as if they were all built during the same period of time.  As we look closer though we spy different styles, motifs, and stories emerging from one building to the next building that begin to tell Pisa’s history to the viewer.

Looking towards the cathedral and campanile from the baptistry.

Looking towards the cathedral and campanile from the baptistry.

Take a look at the picture to the right.  Do you spy a column or a few that do not match the others?  I do! Check it out, there are a few columns that are different than the others.  Do you give up?  Well, the one that is the easiest to see is in the second from the bottom blind arcade, and is the fourth column from the right most side.  So why is this significant or what does this mean?  Is it a flaw or poor design?  Nope, it actually is Spolia.  Spolia is the repurposing or a building or parts of a building for new construction.  Similar to adaptive reuse of its time.  Spolia is quite common during the time of the construction of these buildings in Pisa and around Europe.  Usually spolia is spoil of war, it is loot taken from an enemy during war and used on public buildings, such as the cathedral in Pisa.  During the time period it way a way to symbolize superiority over another city or religion.

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Detail from the cathedral

Not only was spolia a common practice but borrowing stylistic elements from other cities or religions was also a common.  For example, all the buildings in the Piazza del Duomo have a similar mosaic motif.  The motif being geometrical and seems to have been influenced by Byzantine and Islamic art and architecture where it is forbidden to use iconography.  We can also stat to notice a similar white and grey striped facade that runs from the top to bottom on each building.  This style of white stone and grey marble is typical of buildings being constructed in Tuscany during this time period.

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The Baptistry, dedicated to St. John the Baptist

I spy a little bit of a gothic influence in the baptistery.  Do you see the transition from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style?  On the upper portion of the baptistery we notice a switch from the Romanesque round arches found also on the cathedral to pointed Gothic arches decorating the exterior. The Pisa Baptistery of St. John was the second building constructed in the Piazza del Duomo.  I believe that this, the transition of styles and influence, begins to speak to the amount of time it took for each of these buildings to be constructed and how monumental these buildings were to the city and the people living within the city limits.

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The Campanile or The Leaning Tower of Pisa

I spy a leaning tower… The campanile or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa’s most famous attraction. The piece of architecture and part of the Piazza del Duomo that brings people from all over the world to try and keep it from falling over with a selfie stick in hand.  The campanile was the last of the three major buildings that made up the church complex.  After its construction the building began to lean due to the weak subsoil and poor foundation.  Third is why it is so famous!  I have to say, that I didn’t realize of tilted the tower was until we arrived in Pisa!!!  We can see again how the building seems to reflect elements of the other buildings it sits next to.  Elements like the mosaic tiles and the blind Romanesque arcade, the white stone and grey marble.

In conclusion, I believe that Pisa is a great place to play I Spy! I had such a great time exploring the Piazza del Duomo, finding the little details that linked each building with the next, and the little details that made each building unique from the one before it.


More photos from the trip: