By:Thomas Fleming | December 31, 2013
January is not the best time of year to live in Tuscany--though August, with its swarms of tourists, may be worse. Pisa is hardly any warmer than Florence, but to me it seems warmer, perhaps because of the proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is also true that when I got up this morning, the thermometer read -4. In Pisa it was 54, though a fairer comparison would be between the two highs--+14 and 54. It is not Summer in Tuscany, but fine weather for walking.
I am going to be posting comments and photos over the next month, and when I have nothing to say--as I do today, the day before we are leaving--I can insert some paragraphs from the little history of Pisa I prepared for our fellow-travelers.
If the most popular legend is correct, Pisa would have been originally a Greek colony, founded by people from Elis (in the Peloponnesus), who named it after their own Pisa, the nearest village to the site of the Olympic Games. The ancient home to the games, Pisa (along with the games) were taken over by the more powerful Dorian city of Elis. Italian Pisa, located on the right bank of the Arno River, lay only about two miles from the sea and was really a harbor town well into the Middle Ages, though the silting of the river has now put the city an inconvenient seven miles from the beach resort of Marina di Pisa. To get your bearings, consider that Pisa is roughly 50 miles west of Florence and 230 miles northwest of Rome.
Modern historians of the ancient world naturally deny that Tuscan Pisa was founded by its Greek namesake, but a Greek trading post at the mouth of the Arno is far from impossible to imagine, though Italian neighbors would soon have absorbed such a settlement. Vergil alludes to a story that a Greek settlement known as Alphea (after the river that runs past the Greek town) was conquered by Etruscans who changed the name to Pisa. There was, in fact, an Etruscan settlement by the sixth century BC, though Ligurians and/or Celts had probably arrived earlier.
Modern Tuscany was once the ancient land of Etruria, the home of the Etruscans (Tyrrhenoi in Greek, hence the Tyrrhenian Sea). Though Etruscans pushed into the Po Valley and South to Salerno, their heartland encompassed the regions of modern Italy now known as Lazio, Umbria, and of course, Toscana. Some of the most famous ancient Etruscan settlements dwindled to nothing in Roman times--Vulci, Veii, Cerveteri, Tarquinia—while others have remained significant towns: Chiusi, Volterra, Lucca, Arezzo, and Rome itself, which came under Etruscan domination under the monarchy. Etruscan villages stood within the boundaries of Florence, Siena, and Pisa, though none of these towns were important until Roman times. In Roman times Lucca, which became the capital of Lombard Tuscany, belonged to Liguria, though the Etruscans had absorbed the town.
Etruscans were great seamen, and they were known early on to the Greeks who described these competitors as pirates. They allied themselves with Carthage in a common struggle against the Greeks, and Aristotle says that a citizen of an Etruscan town had citizenship rights in Carthage.
By the 7th Century B.C., a distinctive Etruscan culture had emerged, one that can best be understood by looking at the vase paintings and funeral monuments that give indication of a death obsession that finds echoes in Medieval Tuscan painting. They also celebrated funeral games at which men were forced to hack each other to death--the origin of Roman gladiatorial games. Despite or because of the obsession with death, Etruscans were a fun loving people: funeral monuments typically display the deceased as a pot-bellied man with wine cup in hand reclining at banquet with a woman presumably his wife. They loved easy living, and despite their conflict with Greece, they absorbed much of Greek civilization, especially the arts of luxury. Luxuries require money, and these people were great merchants who created a commercial empire by trading and conquest. Like most commercial peoples, they were city and village dwellers rather than scattered farmers, and instead of building one dominant city (like Rome or Carthage), Etruscans mostly lived in free cities that were in league with each other.
Many of their qualities are absorbed into the Tuscan character. Modern Tuscans are proverbial for their good food and wine—as well as for a somewhat cruel sense of humor. They have been good businessmen for the most part, especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, famous for taking risks and for engaging in rivalries and feuds. The Etruscans were brave soldiers, but their failure to form a larger commonwealth may have made them easy pickings for the more disciplined Romans. Their enjoyment of luxury may also have been a contributing factor to their decline. In any event, by the 4th century, Etruria fell under Roman domination and was absorbed into their realm. Nonetheless, Tuscany was still a distinctive place in the Age of Augustus, who relied on the Etruscan Knight, Maecenas as his political advisor.
Never a major Etruscan power, Pisa was perhaps a fishing and trading village dominated by Volterra to the south. About 193 the town was attacked and seized by Ligurians, who lived in the northwestern coast of Italy (roughly between modern Genoa and Marseilles). Shortly thereafter, however, Pisa was liberated by Rome in the course of the Roman conquest of the Ligurians. The conquest had been facilitated by the construction of the Roman Via Aurelia in 241. The road was eventually extended, as the Via Emilia, all the way to Gaul.
Pisa was well located in a sort of island created by the Arno and the Serchio rivers, and it achieved status as a Roman colony in 180 BC., and it was then it began to grow in importance. The harbor, then at the mouth of the Arno River, was an ideal base for the Roman fleet in operations against the Ligurians (up the coast toward Genoa), Gauls (across the Po), Sardinia, and the West Coast of Spain. In Augustus' time, the town was known as Colonia Julia Pisana Obsequens. Like other Roman towns, Pisa was a self-governing corporation that elected its own magistrates (not always without strife) and managed its own affairs.
As the population increased, the city was walled. Pisa flourished on trade in lumber and marble, both of which were available in the mountains. As late as 398 A.D. we hear of a Roman fleet setting out for North Africa from the port of Pisa. The Roman poet Rutilius Namatianus described his trip to Pisa around 416 A.D. where he mentions a great villa on a peninsula jutting out into the harbor. After that silence descends.