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History of Pisa

The origin of this town sitting where the Arno and the Serchio meet in the Ligurian sea was attributed by different authors to different groups. Some thought the founders were the Pelasgi, others the Greeks. The Etruscans and the Ligurians were also mentioned. Some 5th century archaeological vestiges are proof of the existence of a city here whose inhabitants had economic relations with the Greeks and Gaul. However, the finding of an Etruscan necropolis in the Arena Garibaldi in the 90s made historians believe the Etruscans founded it.

Roman men of letters wrote about Pisa as a town with many centuries of history by then already. Servius affirmed that the Teuti, or Pelopes, the king of the Pisei, had established the town centuries earlier. Strabo attributed its origin to Nestor, king of Pylos, after the Trojans defeat. Pisa was a prosperous town in the Aeneid by Virgil. It is also believed that people from the Alpheus coast founded Pisa.

Centuries ago the fact of being the only port on the coast on the stretch from Genoa (at the time a small village) to Ostia helped Pisa’s growth. From Pisa departed armies against the Ligurians, Gaul and Carthage. It became a Roman colony called Portus Pisanus in 180BC and about 100 years later it was a municipium. Pisa was walled in the times of Emperor Augustus who changed its name to Colonia Iulia obsequens. Pisa was established as bishopric seat in the 4th century.


Pisa could resist the ruin that other towns suffered in the twilight of the Roman Empire. Its river and how uncomplicated it was to defend it may have helped it.


Pisa gave Pope Gregory I support by providing him with ships to fight the Byzantines of Ravenna. Pisa, which had remained in the Byzantine’s power, surrendered to the Lombards without resistance. Trade was an major activity in its life and it became the most important port of the upper Tyrrhenian Sea which had trade relations with Corsica, Sardinia and the southern French and Spanish coasts.


Thanks to the contact between Pisa and Orient, this Tuscan town served as a bridge to bring innovations in art, architecture and science to the peninsula.


The Lombards led by Desiderius against Charlemagne lost the region in the 8th century. Pisa had its hard times then but could soon overcome then. Its political status changed when it was engulfed by the Duchy of Lucca.


In 930 it was established as the main town of the county and remained so until Otto I engulfed it in the Mark of Tuscia. Although Lucca was the official capital, Pisa was considered more important than it as even the marquis of Tuscia was called in fact marquis of Pisa.


The first years of the 11th century saw Pisa in war as a commune against Lucca. Due to the Saracen pirates permanently raiding the coast Pisa had to increase its fleet in the 9th century, which enabled Pisa to grow and participate in many important events of the history of the peninsula. In the 9th century its fleet attacked the northern African coast and protected Salerno from the Saracens. The following century it helped Otto I to beat back the Byzantines in the sea of Calabria.


The 11th century was the most flourishing period of this maritime republic. By then Pisa had a powerful fleet and was a thriving trade centre. By attacking and looting Reggio Calabria at the beginning of the 11th century it increased its influence. The rivalry between the Tuscan town and the Saracens, whose navy was permanently in Sardinia and Corsica, made them powerful enemies who vied for dominating the Mediterranean Sea. Together with Genoa, Pisa took Sardinia in 1017 making this town the most influential one in the Tyrrhenian Sea. On expelling the Genoese from Sardinia, the Pisans gained a new enemy. Between 1030 and 1035, Pisa managed to take different towns in Sicily and Carthage. In the mid-11th century Corsica was taken by Jacopo Ciurini earning the Genoeses’ enmity. When the Pisans helping Roger I led by admiral Giovanni Orlando managed to control Palermo which was in Saracens hands the loot captured in Palermo was destined for their cathedral and Piazza del Duomo. This period saw the Romanesque style with its Arab air typical of Pisa flourishing.


In 1060 Pisa fought a war against Genoa for the first time. Defeating the Genoese made them the most powerful in the Mediterranean Sea and its laws and customs of the sea were used as the rule for sailing in 1077. Then Pisa was allowed to also nominate its consuls by Henry IV. 15 years later Urban II gave Pisa a more influential position than Corsica and Sardinia’s and transformed it into an archbishopric.


Pisa’s influence grew and grew as years went pass. It first looted the Tunisian Mahdia in 1088. In 1092 the Pisan and Genoese ships supported Alfonso VI of Castilla to resist and eject El Cid from Valencia. 120 ships participated in the First Crusade and on arrival Pisans played a key role in managing to control Jerusalem in 1099. Along their journey to Jerusalem the ships looted Byzantine islands. Their leader was Daibert, who would become later on patriarch of Jerusalem. This period was beneficial for the Repubbliche Marinare as they were able to settle trading points and colonies in the eastern coastal towns of the Levant. The Pisans established colonies in Antiochia, Acre, Jaffa, Tripoli, Tyre, Joppa, Latakia and Accone. The Pisans possessed other colonies in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Cairo Alexandria and Constantinople with more or less independence.


In towns with colonies the Pisans were exempted from taxes but had to help to defend them from attacks. In the 11th century the Pisan quarter in the Eastern side part of Constantinople had a population of 1,000 people. The Pisans were in that century the most important trader and military support of Byzance, even more powerful than Venice.


In 1113 the count of Barcelona, the pope, some support from Provenze and Italian forces allied to liberate the Balearic Islands which were then in the Moors rule. On taking them, the allied forces took its king and queen chained to Tuscan land. The islands did not remain for long in the allied hands; anyway its treasures were the means to erect its cathedral. These events made Pisa get a position of supremacy on the Mediterranean western coasts.


Archbishop Pietro Moriconi, leading the Pisan fleet in bloody battles, expelled the Saracens on the island and deepened Pisa’s enmities with the Genoese even further, as Pisans had their deals with the Languedoc and Provence (Noli, Savona, Fréjus and Montpellier) and they made a drawback for Genoa’s targets in Hyères, Fos, Antibes and Marseille.


From 1119 to 1133 Genoa and Pisa raided each other on land and sea, a struggle triggered by the destruction of Pisan galleys as they were heading to Tuscany.


Thanks to Bernard of Bernard of Clairvaux’s participation in the council of Pisa (by supporting Innocent II against Anacletus II backed by the Normans), Innocent II intervened in the Genoese-Pisan rivalry by dividing areas of control. Therefore Pisa took part in the struggle between the pope and Roger II of Sicily. The Maritime Republic of Amalfi which having lost strength in the Norman power surrendered in 1136. Pisa defeated Roger’s army and destructed ships and looted its castles. This period was Pisa’s heyday and reached the same level of influence as Venice. In 1138 the Pisans looted Salerno.


Pisa then took the Ghibellines’ sides. Frederick I gave it privileges such as a street for trading in the Sicilian towns and free trade in many areas, which the next emperors kept. It made the rivalry and jealousy of Lucca, Massa, Volterra and Florence grow, for they constrained their expansion policy. Pisa and Lucca began to claim for the castle of Montignoso and more importantly the control of the Via Francigena. The privileges also brought about a new conflict with Genoa.

Because of an attack on a Pisan convoy going to trading posts along the river Rhone in southern France, where Genoa had established its supremacy, and due to the struggle for privileges on Sicilian towns the war started. Pisa later took Mesina and Genoa, Syracuse. But when the pope took the Guelphs’ sides, Pisa lost its privileges in Sicily.


Because of the supremacy of the Genoese in the Tyrrhenian Sea the Pisans enhanced their relations with Spanish and French trade points and challenged the supremacy of Venice in the Adriatic Sea. When Emperor Manuel Comnenus died the atmosphere for the non aggression treaty Pisa and Venice had concluded was different. The attacks on Venetian convoys and the pacts with towns of Venetian scope began war between both again.


Both towns went to war because the Pisans broke a treaty they had signed. Pisa finally lost its possibility of controlling the Adriatic though it kept its trade centres. Both town joined power sometimes later on against Genoa’s growing influence.

In the first decade of the 13th century a treaty was signed to end up the conflict between Genoa. Nevertheless, it was useless when Frederick II gave Pisa more power some years later. It caused the confrontation against Genoa and Tuscany, a battle with Lucca and Florence. To top it off, the Ghibelline support of Pisa turned it against the pope and in favour of the emperor.

From 1238 on the events were as follows: the pope Gregory IX allied with the Venetian and the Genoese, excommunicated the emperor, Pisa and Sicilian ships attacked the Genoese, Pisa was excommunicated, but some years later it laid siege on Genoa.


In town its growth called for changes in institutions and brought about conflicts between two families the Gherardesca and the Visconti. The consuls there had been were at first replaced by a Capitano del Popolo who was civil and military head. Later on because of the Popolo’s itself pressure, a new institution of people’s elders was established and the representatives of guilds worked together with the nobility representatives and could approve or not the laws of the Senate and the Major General Council.

The battle of Meloria marked (1284) the beginning of a decline. Unluckily, Pisa could never rally. because of the destruction of its port by the Genoese and fleet and the death of its sailors. The coup de grace were the Arno altering its course, the malaria spreading in the area and the lost of Sardinia.


Pisa remained a Ghibelline town which due to internal conflicts was devitalised and was finally taken by Florence in 1406. At the end of the 15th century it tried to gain independence again which they could enjoy for a short while. It was the time of the Second Pisan Republic.


Florence took Pisa again 15 years later and Livorno became the main port while Pisa turned a into a university town losing its role as a port town as the Arno had altered its course. The Medici brought to Pisa a blooming period in arts and science. During their rule the university was opened again. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany had new boulevards constructed to avoid congestion typical of the structure of the town. They also embellished it with new buildings.


Unluckily half of the ancient section of Pisa was destroyed in the World War II in the 20th century.