1. Palazzo Blu
Palazzo Blu, formerly Palazzo Rosselmini Gualandi, is a centre for permanent and temporary exhibitions and cultural activities, located on the southern side of Lungarno (Lungarno Gambacorti) in the heart of the historic centre of the city, a few steps from Middle Bridge and Palazzo Gambacorti, the Town Hall.
The first settlements on the site of the building date from the 11th century, during the height of the maritime Republic of Pisa’s power; the stone element of “casatorre” dates from a later epoch (12th century), while the underlying road, still visible in the corridor on the ground floor that leads to the entrance of temporary exhibitions, dates from between the end of the 12th and the early 13th century.
Over the ages, the structure has been destroyed, rebuilt, modified, and embellished by numerous owners, many of whom were representatives of the city’s most important families.
The exterior colour of the building comes from the second half of the 18th century and was likely chosen to appeal to the tastes of Saint Petersburg visitors who began staying there in 1773.
The works of some of the world’s most famous painters, including Magritte, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol, and many others, have passed through the doors of this incredible cultural institution.
Admission fee: 3 € / 3.5 $.
From there, continue walking along Lungarno Gambacorti leaving Middle Bridge behind. You will find an incredibly cute tiny church on your right before encountering the next bridge, the Solferino Bridge.
2. Church of St Mary of the Thorn
The Church of St Mary of the Thorn (Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Spina) is a magnificent example of Pisan Gothic architecture and one of the most notable Gothic structures in Europe. It was built in 1230 as an oratory and named after a reliquary holding a thorn from Christ’s crown that the little church obtained in 1333, though the reliquary is now housed at the Church of Saint Chiara.
The church has undergone various renovations, particularly because of its proximity to the Arno, which poses a threat to its stability: the most dramatic was in 1871 when it was destroyed and rebuilt higher up the river. The church was raised about a meter, and numerous statues were replaced with replicas and the sacristy.
The church has just been renovated and is open to the public on a limited basis. Understanding when it is open is difficult so I guess you just have to take your chances. After nearly 15 years lived in Pisa, I was only able to get inside for the first time recently. But I can tell you that the inside is a letdown when compared to the outside. So don’t be concerned if you don’t succeed in getting inside!
Now, cross the Solferino Bridge, and turn left onto Lungarno Simonelli. You will find the Old Citadel on your right.
3. Old Citadel and the Guelph Tower
This area was once a Pisan Maritime Republic dockyard that was gradually expanded with towers until it was transformed into a full-fledged defensive citadel only a century later. The 18-meter (59-foot) tall red brick Guelph Tower was built at the beginning of the 1400s, in opposition to the existing Ghibellina Tower, which was completed in 1290 but no longer remains.
The term “Old Citadel” was coined subsequently to distinguish it from the “New Citadel”, today known as Giardino Scotto, which was built at the other end of town after 1440.
The Cittadella’s structures were used for storage, stabling, and military barracks in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Guelph Tower was razed to the ground and reconstructed in 1956 to its original design after being severely damaged by bombardments in 1944.
According to local authorities, the tower is now undergoing renovation and is not open to the public (last update: July 2021).
From there, get back to Lungarno Simonetti and walk past the Solferino Bridge, continuing onto Lungarno Pacinotti. Keep walking, and you will find Palazzo alla Giornata on your left side.
4. Palazzo Alla Giornata
The Palazzo Alla Giornata, officially known as Palazzo Lanfreducci after its first owner, Francesco Landucci, a Knight of the Malta Order, is a late-Mannerist or early Baroque-style palace built between 1594 and the early 17th century at number 43 of Lungarno Pacinotti. Its solemn exterior of verrucana stone and Carrara marble sets it apart from the other buildings on Lungarno Pacinotti.
Locals refer to it as “Palazzo Alla Giornata” because of the cryptic motto carved above the entrance portal, which reads “Alla Giornata” (meaning “to the day”) with three chain links. According to legend, this motto, a variation of the Latin “carpe diem”, was inspired by a pledge made by Francesco Landucci while imprisoned in Algiers to witness the precariousness of earthly existence. The presence of the chain directly above it seems to support this thesis. Another theory proposes that the motto should be translated as “on the day of the war”, as a challenge to an adversary who had unfairly beaten Lanfreducci in the power struggle and a reminder to his opponent that a man’s worth is judged in the face of danger, on the field of honour.
The Torre dei Lanfreducci, located at the back of the building, is one of the best-preserved medieval towers in the city, with a rectangular design and seven floors, and an older lower portion (12th century) made of verrucana stone and a later top part (14th century) made of terracotta. A beautiful fresco by Giovanni Battista Tempesti (Allegory of Spring, 1756) and a modest but valuable collection of scientific instruments, including four late-seventeenth-century terrestrial and celestial globes and a mid-century dial barometer XVIII, may be found inside.
There are various cracks and alterations visible on the four windowsills. According to the Nunciature Court of Florence, a descendant of the Lanfreducci family, a certain Francesco (the Younger), assassinated count Giorgio Bentivoglio, nephew of Bianca Cappello, on November 28, 1611, in Florence, out of jealously for a beautiful Portuguese woman. Francesco was condemned to defy his building’s façade by shattering the four ground floor windows as a punishment.
The palace now houses the Rectorate of the University of Pisa.
From there, continue down Lungarno Pacinotti, and at number 26 you will find Palazzo Agostini.
5. Palazzo Agostini
Palazzo Agostini is also known as the Palazzo Rosso (Red Palace) because of its exquisite terracotta Gothic exterior, which sets it apart from the other buildings on the Lungarno.
It has been owned by the Agostini family, who are still living there and specialize in the silk trade, since 1496. The coats of arms of the Agostini, Della Seta, Fantini, and Venerosi families may still be seen on the Gothic façade, distinguished by mullioned windows.
The upper floor used to have a loggia, but it was closed in the 19th century.
A private roof garden, which spans four levels, is located behind the building.
The Caffè dell’Ussero, the oldest coffee shop in Pisa and the third in Italy, after the Florian of Venice (1720) and the Greco of Rome (1760), is located on the ground level of the Palazzo, also known as Palazzo dell’Ussero. It was founded in 1775, and there are two main theories about its name: one refers to a group of hussars who were hosted in these premises in 1750, from which the Caffe got its name; the other refers to the fact that a French Hussar was imprisoned and walled alive on the premises of the Agostini palace, and his ghost wanders the ancient building, making his chains resonate eerily, hence the name. Be as it may, the coffee shop quickly became a gathering place for the entire Pisan university community, as well as a forge for Italian Enlightenment and Risorgimento ideas.
A cinema and theatre opened in the early 1900s under the name of the Cafe, and later, a cinema was born in the neighbouring rooms. It is the oldest Italian cinema still in existence, having opened in 1905 and now known as Cinema Lumière (it was closed in 2011 and converted into a concert and music venue).
From there, take Via Curtatone e Montanara, turn right into Piazza San Frediano, and continue onto Piazza Dante Alighieri.
6. Dante Alighieri Square
Dante Alighieri Square (Piazza Dante Alighieri) is one of the prettiest and most colourful squares in the city centre of Pisa. This rectangular Piazza has two large lawn areas at its centre while its edges are fringed by a series of historic grand palazzi, at the bottom of which are several eateries.
Along the south side of Piazza Dante is the north wall of the University Palazzo della Sapienza building, and the front of the 20th century Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa Bank head offices; on the corner that leads to Piazza Carrara is the Regio Teatro, later the Rossi theatre; and the church of S. Frediano to the north-east.
From there, go back to Piazza San Frediano, and turn left onto Via Curtatone e Montanara. Continue onto Via San Frediano, cross Knights’ Square, and take Via Consoli del Mare. Continue onto Via San Lorenzo, and you will find Piazza Martiri della Libertà on your left.
7. Martyrs of Liberty Square
Martyrs of Liberty Square (Piazza Martiri della Libertà), known by locals St Catherine Square (Piazza Santa Caterina), because of the presence of the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria in its premises, is one of the largest squares in the historic centre and was inaugurated in 1833.
Rich in greenery, it is dominated by the Monument to the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, one of the most shining examples of “Illuminated Sovereign” especially during his time as Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790 and subsequently as Emperor (1790-92) after his brother Giuseppe II died.
Along its flanks, there are several intriguing structures. The ex-S. Anna convent, now occupied by the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, is on the western side; to the west is the 13th-century church of St Caterina of Alexandria, in front of which is a square where several buildings were razed in the middle ages to make space for a cemetery. The little Compagnia del Crocioneoratory, which was suppressed in 1782 and is now an auditorium and theatre, is also on the eastern side.
From there, go back to Via San Lorenzo, and take Via Guglielmo Oberdan. Walk pass Borgo Stretto, and, once in Piazza Garibaldi, turn left onto Lungarno Mediceo. Pay attention to the beautiful palaces you will encounter along this Lungarno, such as Palazzo Lanfranchi, Palazzo Ronconi, and Palazzo Medici. Then, cross the Fortress Bridge, as back in time there used to be a fortress here. Then, turn left onto Lungarno Fibonacci, and you will find the entrance of the New Citadel on your right.
8. New Citadel
The New Citadel (Cittadella Nuova), also known as Giardino Scotto (Scotto’s Garden) by locals, is an old stronghold that was given the name “Nuova” (new) to distinguish it from the older Old Citadel (Cittadella Vecchia) on the city’s seaward side, as we already saw.
Construction began in 1440, but the bastion had to be reconstructed due to damage caused by the reconquest of the city by the Pisans from the hands of the Florentines. This modern restoration was built to withstand cannon fire, making it one of Italy’s first fortifications to do so.
Inside the walls, there is a magnificent garden designed for the Livornese shipping tycoon Domenico Scotto, who bought the fortress from Grand-Duke Leopold I of Tuscany in 1798 and constructed his mansion here (which was largely destroyed during WWII), hence the name Scotto’s Garden.
The area became a public garden in the 1930s, and it was used for shows, theatrical performances, concerts, and as an open-air cinema in the summer, a role it still plays today.
9. Viale delle Piagge and Bell Tower of San Michele degli Scalzi
The Viale delle Piagge is a tree-lined path is a sort of linear park, stretching along the riverfront for about 2 km between Vittoria and Bocchette bridges. This is a popular spot for locals who enjoy running or just having a stroll with a beautiful view over the river.
While walking along the Viale, you will notice at a certain point a church on your left side, that is the Church of San Michele degli Scalzi and bell tower. The term “Scalzi” refers to the barefoot monks who used to live in the adjacent convent of Benedictines (now the SMS cultural centre). Dating back to the 11th century, it has been restored several times in the original Romanesque style.
This church is fascinating and distinctive for two reasons: its incomplete facade, which is covered in marble on the bottom half and bricks on the top half (as is the case with its bell tower); and its bell tower, which leans more than the most famous Leaning Tower in the Square of Miracles. So, do not miss it!
As previously mentioned, I became so accustomed to all of this splendour during the year that I nearly could not see it anymore. After several years away, though, I cannot help but realize that Pisa is an attractive city full of charms and beauty. I hope that this article will help you in discovering this city and show why you should not miss the opportunity to visit it.
If you missed the first part of this article, click here to check it out!
P. S. Subscribe to my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss any of my next travel posts.