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The City of the Ivory Tower

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

Everything about Pisa is gentle, even her name. Here the slow Arno, feeling itself near the sea, already knows the peace that Francesca, born to immortal unrest near the mouth of a sister stream, dreamed and would have beseeched for Dante. It flows, in the noble unhurried curve of an old river, between smooth walls, as smooth and quiet as they. Even at midnight one cannot hear its flow.

All of the surfaces of street and facade along it are plane. The ample dignity of the long sweeping curve to which it bends them serves only to unfold their planeness. And nowhere are plane surfaces so beautiful as here,— as natural to the calm alluvial sea-coast which they pave and from which they rise as is the Arno which helped to make it.

Pisa’s life is inner and these untroubled surfaces are the expression of that life. Unlike Rome, Pisa does not care about externals. As from an intimate sensitiveness, the houses of Lungarno retreat within themselves timidly, and shrink even from window mouldings that might intrude them upon the world. The bridges are content to be bridges, as level—above wide low arches—as the water that they span, and indulge in no decoration. The river-walls attain a beauty in being simply, what they are, walls for Arno; the heavy slab that rests on the top of their broad masonry, broader still, is unadorned: it runs off in an uninterrupted strip far down the Arno curve.

All the houses are the same in design for the same reason: they seek to conceal their personalities and to be unobserved by being alike. Even the palazzo that once held the storm spirit of Byron gives no sign of what it has known. Whatever variations there may have been in style have been overspread by a uniform coating of intonaco, that smooth standardizing stucco ordinarily so exasperating—in Leghorn, for instance, unbearably monotonous— but in Pisa strangely pleasing, perhaps because the houses themselves have welcomed it as a refuge.

The intonaco is tinted in pastel shadings, brown, rose, and much yellow, all slightly neutralized as though the sunlight that falls upon them were a little dusty. With their rows of plain oblong windows, each folded within light green shutters (for the shutters of this most New England of Italian towns are usually closed), the houses are reflected and their tintings subtly, altered in the still, lucent olive-green of Arno. The effect of such a line of square buildings with flat roofs, scarcely varying in height, would be uninterestingly box-like, were they not here so natural, and therefore satisfying. One likes Pisa as one sometimes likes much and inexplicably some very plain people.

And like very plain people Pisa does not show her age: the intonaco has obliterated all the ruggedness and weariness in the marble that might have told of the centuries. Of just what period would Pisa be? On Lungarno Medi-ceo one could not say; here the atmosphere is most suggestive of the early nineteenth century, as though Shelley and Byron were the last to leave it. And yet Pisa is older than Rome.

But Pisa has let the intonaco be put over her memory as well as over her stones. She has forgotten her battled past, and she wants you to forget. Is it legend or not that her founders were Greeks? Pisa is no longer sure. And her early Etruscan and Roman days are dimmer to her now than they are to the historians. The thought of Palermo thrills her no longer. She has forgotten that her cathedral was built to commemorate her defeat there of the Saracens and that the temple columns supporting its nave and aisles are trophies of her conquests in the Mediterranean. No longer does the thought of the Moors stir her blood, and her memory of the early Crusades and the ships that she sent for the taking of Jerusalem has dissolved into nebula. Did a hundred and fifty thousand ever really throng her streets? She is glad that now at least they are not here, and that Leghorn has all her trade. And just what was it that happened at the Council of Pisa, and why was it held? Pisa has forgotten. Even the meaning of Ghibelline she has forgotten, forgotten the Genoa and Lucca and Florence who destroyed her. Her victories of Reggio, Carthage, Corsica, Sardinia, Tunis, the Balearic Isles, Amalfi, Mon-taperti, Montecatini; and Frederick II and those others on whom she founded her hopes, Alphonse of Aragon, Guido da Montefeltro, Boniface VIII, Henry VII, Uguccione della Faggiola, the Gherardesca, Charles IV, Pietro Gambacorti—what do they matter to her now? Pisa is older, she is wiser, and she drowses near the sea on whose coast she once crouched dominating it from Genoa to Rome, and mistress of the Mediterranean and its Orient shores before Genoa or Venice.

There is nothing tired in Pisa now. The houses know that all the work was done long, long ago, and that nothing remains but to doze in the sun. They are effortless, desiring nothing—like very simple Buddhas feeling that there is nothing to desire. And this same belief creeps somnolently over one who loiters among them.

Yet it is not always sleep that is behind their closed eyelids. Sometimes they are thinking. But one feels that they are meditating the same thought over and over again. It may be profundity—or vacuity giving the illusion of profundity.

I know that some of them study me furtively while I am not looking. But whenever I turn, no matter how suddenly, the eyes are cast down again, and the gaze within. In Pisa one never sees anything face to face.

Though these houses do not invite the visitor, they are too well-bred to repulse him as those of the arrogant Siena do at first—or they are too indifferent. The houses of Pisa are sufficient to themselves and, keeping to themselves, they allow the spirit to breathe and to be quiet. Pisa holds, because she leaves one free. One can be alone in Pisa. It was perhaps because of this spiritual spaciousness that Shelley returned here and remained so long.

The houses themselves like to be alone. Twilight is their hour and solitude their happiness. Yet one knows that even when they are left alone in the dusk, they do not talk to one another as do the houses of Assisi; they have learned and prefer to be silent together like old friends.

And they are alone, usually. The few persons that pass down Lungarno appear fewer than they actually are, because the houses inwardly withdraw from them. They seem to be mostly soldiers, in their familiar clumsy, drab-green uniforms. And what is more solitary than a group of two or three of these privates whose leisure hours weigh upon them, who have nothing to do, who wander about un-congenially—each not thinking, or thinking alone?

Uncomfortably i become aware that I am an intruder. I turn off Lungarno at the nearest corner and find myself in a narrow street that abruptly curves to run parallel. It is Via delle Belle Tom, “Way of the Beautiful Towers.” Yet towers only in name, for no house in Pisa today wishes to call attention to itself by mounting above another. Except for a few inconspicuous ones, whatever towers Pisa had in the past she no longer allows. Ruined is the famous Ugolino Tower of Famine and she has forgotten the story that was dread enough for even the lowest circle of the Inferno. Towers mean individuality and aggressiveness. And today Pisa is all peace.

It is in its confused mediaeval sense that “tower” persists in the name of this street, a synonym for “dwelling-place,” probably arising from the effect of great height given by the closely ranged pilasters of brick inset in the brick walls and extending upward the whole length of the several stories to terminate there far above in acute arches. In this popular quarter there is no aristocratic intonaco: the veteran scars in the swarthy blocks are naked. Here one sees that Pisa is old.

The people that overflow from the tenements now piled in these “towers” that once were fair, are quiet in the streets. The laughter of the playing children is hushed. Lungarno, a step away, has cast its spell over this corner of the past that it has forgotten.

The “Way of the Beautiful Towers” is a brief one and, leading unexpectedly from the Middle Ages into the Twentieth Century, opens into the Piazza Garibaldi, the lively square between the Ponte di Mezzo and the shop-lined Via del Borgo. But ours is a century with which the real Pisa will have nothing to do. For all their slim, dark attractiveness (every Italian town has its type and the Pisan is among the handsomest in Italy, which means among the handsomest in the world), Pisa ignores these upstart giovanotti of today, who pace through her streets in flaming ties. Less astute than the Sienese, less madonna-mild than the Umbrians, less shooting-fire intelligent than the Florentines, less plebeian than the Romans, these youths are well-mannered, self-eliminative and thoughtful like the houses in which they live. Another town would exhibit them proudly, but for Pisa they do not exist. They are young—and Pisa would be still.

She has taught them much of her calm. Last evening when there wrere only two things in Italy, the people’s united heart and il Duce to whom it anew dedicated allegiance, these boys and men, even in their terror and fierce resentment that the life of their leader had been attempted, even in exultant thankfulness that the life of their leader had been spared, were controlled in the swinging rhythm of their marching, in the chanting of their youth-hymn, “Gio-vinezza.” The reason for the calm was not nervelessness, for their eyes were fire. The antique Pisan valiance bums still in her youths, but Pisa, who has grown too wise for passion, has taught the Pisans of today to contain theirs.

They were quiet as they thronged Piazza Garibaldi with their banners; the bugle that called attention broke the silence instead of making it. After the speeches they dispersed noiselessly. Their singing could be heard until they had crossed the Arno, and then their voices were lost in this town whose stillness seems to deaden the sound within it—so different from echoing Siena where the rollicking tune of the marching bersaglieri will crash from one street to another and seem always just about to burst around the nearest corner.

Here in the bright sunlight is the same statue of Garibaldi around which they rallied last evening. In Pisa even Garibaldi becomes peaceful and stands in an attitude of meditative repose—different indeed from his condottiere equestrianism familiar in other cities—mate to the even more tranquil Dantesquely robed statue which he faces across the Arno. Hung between them, midway on the bridge, dependent crossways from a suspended bar like one of the Renaissance banners of the rival Pisan factions that used to contest this same bridge in the splendidly costumed combat-games of the Middle Ages, is the tricolor, a symbol of the city’s continued celebration—its red, white, and green doubly brilliant by contrast with this low-toned setting—lifting and stirring gently in the warm lazy air.

On the bridge a row of men are lounging, leaning over, intently watching the fishing. For in provincial Pisa where few things happen, this fishing with nets so primitive in construction that they must have been watched by the great-great-grandfathers of these boys who now are men, can still be interesting. I draw near the parapet. One of the boats so familiar to its banks lies at rest in the polished green of Arno. The fisherman at his crackling pulley slowly lowers the great basket-net, mammoth beside the tiny boat from which it hangs at the end of a tall tilted rod. The net is held extended squarely by a quadrangular tentlike frame made by binding crossways twro very long bows of slender supple wood, which are curved until the frame arches above as far as the net hangs, hammocklike, below. Often the net rises with no fish, but the fisherman continues patiently at his pulley, lowering the net, waiting, raising the net clear of the water, then lowering it again. From the banks always the activity is justified, for every delicate strand of the dripping snare glistens in the sunlight as though spun of rainbow and fairy jewels.

I turn from the bridge, leaving the watchers in unchanged attitudes and walk along the busy Via del Borgo. But I have soon passed the shops and feel in Pisa again; again the facades are the same as in Lungarno, all flat and still. What repose after the noisy baroque of Rome!

The curving streets are broad and crowdless. Loneliness exudes from them and from the houses like a heavy narcotic perfume. Their desire for solitude has made a solitude impossible to disturb. Nor is there any evading of it. It waits at every corner—whoever may have been there has always just vanished; lurks within every courtyard. It does not hold back to be sought, but like some slow and engulfing sea, deeper than the soul, it flows around and over one, elemental, resistless and beyond resistance. No friend can enter it—the solitude of Pisa cannot be divided like that of Venice—it creeps closer to one’s heart than any friend can be.

I wind through a sunny street for some distance. Once the quiet of the air is startled by a whistle—the whistle of a train—for Pisa is on the direct line between Rome and Paris, Florence and the sea—but it is of a train that is going by.

And then suddenly in mute surprise the street opens on a piazza greater than any of the rest. Upon the wide, level, airy expanse of grass stand three gleaming buildings, master-works of Pisa, which the city has characteristically placed at her farthest corner, just within the venerable masses of the city wall. Behind them, shielding from the northern winds, in their modulation upward to a dominating summit seeming higher than they are because of rising from a plain, are the near, blue, and very beautiful Pisan hills.

Here is the placid Buomo, beyond it the round Baptistry, and nearest, the famous white tower, the only thing that the world knows of Pisa. These buildings do not meet one and rejoice with one in their own beauty as does the architecture of Venice. Each stands apart, musing closed and content within itself, separated from the others more than the dividing space alone would mean. After almost a decade of centuries, they are like a group of very gentle old philosophers, who have forgotten the world, and perhaps also their philosophy.

Besides being a curiosity, the Campanile is very fair. It leans, not from audacity, but because it is resting. The bell-tower is childlike—these buildings are the youngest of the Renaissance—in its regular placement of one gallery above another until it has six, each circled regularly by slender columns and narrow round arches, which all completely incase the great central column that is the tower itself. And there above the crowning turret is the tricolor again, blazing against the brilliant sky.

The whiteness of the Duomo is relieved by bands of dark green marble; horizontal, they serve to depress it for the eye and to increase the feeling of rest. I go over the grass toward the nearest entrance at the apse end. In the several low steps that extend completely surrounding the Latin cross of the church is seen again the long flat line that Pisa loves. With the top one broadened to form an encircling walk, they lie, so many additional planes of white above the ample green plane of the lawn—lie, instead of rise, for here there is no sense of lifting. The steps are not great and the church is not vast, yet the persons using the steps as benches seem to diminish and not to count any more, because the church itself disregards them. Here the thing created has taken on an independence and asserted dominance over its puny creator.

Within this Duomo, whose superposed rows of delicate Pisan pillars and arches cling close to its facades, where the low relief of the gentle Donatello would have been completely in tone, there is instead an art in which the figures start out from their background with a drama and turbulence that almost releases them from the stone. It is the pulpit of Giovanni Pisano, reassembled from gallery and cloister after three centuries and newly replaced—adding an impressive Fascist ceremony to the many magnificences of the Duomo*s past—which with the pulpit of Niccola, Giovanni’s father, treasure of the Baptistry, is the birthstone of modern sculpture. This pulpit, the only, thing in Pisa today that is not restrained, is necessary here—how much more meaningful in the Pisa that produced it than the similar one of Niccola transplanted to Siena!—as a sort of bold keynote from which the present completely different harmony with its dying fall was modulated. It stands unchanged in a city that has grown old around it.

When Giovanni carved this pulpit, the last work of his life, Pisa’s material glory was dying, but a greater life was being born. Flame of the new life kindling within Giovanni and with him, kindled this stone. The joyousness and vigor of the springtime of the human spirit have made the figures in the tablets that picture the life of Christ move and speak and sing, and the foliage of the capitals of the supporting columns to blossom with little birds. The lions that cowered in the earlier pulpit at Volterra, and stood at rest in Niccola’s pulpit in the Baptistry, here proudly advance. Small, sleek with caresses, they step out magnificently, threatening at any moment to slip out from under the bases on which the columns that support the pulpit have been rested in naive defiance of good sense, to run through the cool shady, cathedral, creep under the heavy curtain that hangs over the door and scamper white and leaping across the grass, blinkingly joyous to be out in the sunlight again after six centuries.

Lest, lingering long under their fascination, I too should become stone with gazing, I leave them and pass down the long column-lined nave—those classic columns of Pisan victory—and lift the curtain at its end. Bewildered for an instant by the sunlight, and then physically rejoicing in it—the sunlight of Italy makes everyone a pagan—I pause on the top step, here a very porch.

There before is the bell-shaped Baptistry. To enter is to know the reason for its existence: it sprang to close upon the echo from some saintly choir, strayed wistfully to the green of earth and unwarily hesitant here too long — an echo that renews itself whenever it seeks a way out of its prison.

And there at last is the Campo Santo, hidden before by the Duomo. As I cross the lawn toward its entrance at one end, the whole expanse of the long blank wall reveals itself, dazzling indeed with each particle of the white marble glistening in the sun.

Beyond the small door is beauty, airy spaciousness, and silence. White Gothic arches, chaste as though the work of yesterday, lift above tall pillars, sensitive and attenuated like lily-stalks, to inclose the cloister shadows. I wander about the high broad passages and across the walks that divide the simple grassplots. Subdued by the round arches that Pisanly clasp the Gothic, the soul hovers above this earth from Palestine together with the stillness that has been there—how long? On the cloister walls there are great tormented mediaeval frescoes of a hell that the rest within denies; fragments of early Pisan sculpture; sarcophagi, relics of Pisa’s brilliant Roman period, which inspired Niccola for some of his figures for the pulpit. But it is not objects that hold one here, nor personalities. Even Giovanni, who designed them, is gone and has left only the arches, the cloister, and the walls, with a feeling that no human hand has ever touched them. It is the place itself that will not let one go.

For the Campo Santo is the sacred heart of Pisa. Sitting alone beneath an arch under the cloistered sky and looking upon the grass-blades, one will slip into a musing, a sort of meditation without thought, of the spirit rather than the mind. How long does one stay here motionless, a part of Pisa? There is no knowing: the Campo Santo is timeless.

When i come out to the green plain, and the Baptistry, and the Duomo and the white tower, the sun has set, the sky is pallid, and there is a faint new crescent. The light of the full moon haloing those arches, what must it be?

Perhaps then within there is a Presence and a holy step upon the grass once more, to bless the place again and to renew its heavenly peace.


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