With extraordinary effectiveness, the phrase «Piazza dei Miracoli» (the Miracle Square), coined by Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), epitomises the amazement and admiration that for centuries have seized those who, upon passing through the gateway of the circle of walls or emerging sideways from Via S. Maria, embrace in one single glance the pure whiteness of the monuments rising over the lush green of the turf.
One is also amazed by the unique isolation of this group of monuments: the large area where the sacred buildings rise is actually on the edges of town, in the north-western corner, looking almost proud and distant from the daily bustle of the town. But a careful historical interpretation and the contribution of some recent archaeological findings give back to the Cathedral all its centrality, based on the original choice of the site and preserved through the centuries as the heart of the religious and civil life of Pisa. In order to fully understand it, one must place oneself in the maritime dimension that since Etruscan times has made the town great, located as it was in a favourable geographical site that placed it at the centre of a network of maritime, river and road routes, with a hinterland that offered a wide range of produce as well as wood and stone for its buildings, thus boosting the settlement of some important manufacturing facilities.
The Auser River that no longer exists - used to flow close to the Square, first along the northern edge, then bending south into the Arno River. The Auser, a few hundred metres from here, near today's railway station of Pisa-San Rossore, hosted a river port which worked for one thousand years, from the Etruscan to the late Roman age, and which has come back to light after an extremely long period of oblivion, by the late XX century. It is just by rediscovering this older structure that the location of the Cathedral loses its seeming marginality to take on a new, fuller meaning: in the light of the process of Christianisation of Pisa that according to some recent studies seemed to come from the sea, the site takes an unusual centrality, which is no longer perceivable, if related to the nearby river port facility that kept working through to the V century AD.
So, this was the place chosen for the Church of Pisa since its origins, which are unanimously considered to date from before Constantine's peace pact of 313. But the oldest sacred buildings were pulled down with time and the monuments we can admire today date back to the mid-centuries of the Middle Ages, when at the peak of its glory after its triumphs at sea Pisa asserted its supremacy over the region and all over the world, going so far as to claim for itself the role of a 'new Rome'. Such boundless pride and awareness gave birth to the plan to rebuild, near an earlier cathedral that has been rediscovered during recent archaeological excavations, the new church of Saint Mary founded in 1064, the year of the triumph of Pisa against the Saracens in Palermo, whose spoils were partly invested in building the church. The «temple of snow-white marble» this is how it was called by the author of the funereal inscription for its architect, Buschetto represented the whole civil and religious community; and it had to reflect its fame and power to the eyes of the world: epigraphs were placed on the façade to celebrate the main maritime victories; reused pieces of Roman monuments were fitted on the sides to highlight the greatness of Pisa as the 'other Rome'; the façade was richly decorated with ornamental features, such as the outstanding Arab-inspired polychrome lozenges; finally, the rooftop was adorned with the magnificent Islam-made bronze griffon which is now on display at the Museo dell'Opera (the original one has been replaced by a copy), coming perhaps from Spain and most likely arrived in Pisa with the spoils of some military expedition.
The Baptistery, founded in 1152 on a design by Diotisalvi, was built in front of the Cathedral, lined up with its façade: a building that according to the latest studies is deeply imbued with the memories of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a fact that goes back to the issue of the influences and relations between the architecture of Pisa and the East. The whole town was involved in the construction of the building which had been designed to host the font where the people of Pisa were consecrated Christians: the contemporary chronicler Bernardo Maragone narrates that one of the eight pillars coming from the Isle of Elba and from Sardinia, placed inside the Baptistery in 1163, was lifted and set in its place by the inhabitants of Porta Aurea.
The round plan of the Baptistery was taken up again in 1173 by the anonymous designer of the Bell Tower (Bonanno Pisano? or still yet once again magister Diotisalvi? ). A unique work in its roundness which recalls the curves of the nearby apses of the Cathedral, sharing with the other monuments of the Square the recurring motif of the pillars and small arches. Just after its completion the most famous monument in town was affected by that 'mysterious disease', which has made it famous all over the world and at the same time gave it the serious static problems that have been solved after over eight hundred years of trepidation by the strengthening work carried out in the 1990s.
With the Bell Tower, the group of monuments of the Cathedral seemed to be complete; but in the thirteenth century, while the works went on and the buildings were enriched with wonderful works of art, two new buildings were added to the site of the Square as it looks today, both born on the decision of the great archbishop of Pisa, Federico Visconti. The New Hospital, was built south, imposed on the township in 1257 by Pope Alexander IV as a token of the reconciliation with the Apostolic See after over fifteen years of a crisis, designed to help pilgrims, the poor and the sick: it is the big building that today hosts the Museo delle Sinopie, where we are now. In front of this building, in 1277, a new cemetery began to be built for grouping the tombs which until then had been left scattered all around the Cathedral. This plan led to the building of the Cemetery, an extraordinary four-sided cloister which with its marble façade closes, on the north side, the «Piazza dei Miracoli» (Miracle Square) which had been conceived for the burial of the dead and instruction of the living, who were asked to ponder on life on earth and the eternal one through the magnificent series of frescos whose preparatory sketches the so called “sinopie” are now kept in this Museum.
(Source: Opera della Primaziale Pisana)