While most people visit Pisa to admire the unique Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Cathedral – of which the Leaning Tower is the actual bell tower – certainly is a masterpiece that should not be overlooked. Indeed, Pisa Cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in Italy, one that you will likely have seen in photos and documentaries.
Visiting Pisa Cathedral – or the Duomo of Pisa, as you may also call it – is a must when in Pisa. In this post, I will share everything you need to know about this gorgeous church, with information about its history, its most prominent features, and a useful guide that will help you plan your visit and make the most of it.
You should also read my post 11 Best Things To Do In Pisa In One Day Or More.
The History Of Pisa Cathedral
Pisa Cathedral began life in 1063. Its design and construction were funded by the spoils of war, a successful conflict waged by the Republic of Pisa against Saracen (i.e. Muslim) marauders in Sicily. The Pisan architect Buscheto was tasked with the design of the cathedral, employing a distinct Pisan Romanesque style that extended to the piazza in which the cathedral would sit.
Buscheto encompassed a range of different design elements in his architectural feat. For one thing, he drew upon the international community that passed through Pisa at the time and incorporated Byzantine, Islamic, and Lombard-Emilian, as well as Classical, details into the overall structure.
But it wasn’t just the republic’s recent windfall that prompted the creation of a new cathedral. At its commissioning, St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice had also begun construction. There was a strong rivalry between the maritime republics of Italy at the time, with each competing to create the most lavish church possible.
The area chosen for Pisa’s cathedral — namely, outside of the city’s early Medieval walls — was significant. It was a blatant show of power, suggesting that the city-state had no concerns about being attacked by outside forces. The land, this cathedral said, was firmly under Pisa’s control. Interestingly, the chosen site was once a necropolis of the Lombard Kingdom, which ruled over the area during the 6th century.
In 1092, before the actual church was finished, it had already been granted its own archbishop in the form of Dagobert of Pisa. Finally, the church was consecrated by Pope Gelasius II in 1118. Gelasius was actually a member of the powerful Caetani family, a noble family with a strong influence in not only Rome but also Pisa.
The cathedral underwent further construction work at the beginning of the 12th century. This occurred in the form of the elongation of the nave and the addition of three bays, under the direction of architect Reinaldo. Sculptors Guglielmo and Biduino were tasked with creating a new facade; this started sometime in the 12th century but was not finished until the 13th.
Over the centuries there have been a number of restoration campaigns carried out, each one reflecting the different eras in which they took place. The most influential of these structural developments took place out of necessity following a destructive fire in 1595: The entire cathedral roof had to be replaced.
As part of this project, Giambologna, often cited as the “last” significant Renaissance sculptor, put his workshop to task with the creation of three enormous bronze doors.
The interior of Pisa Cathedral has also undergone much change through the years. The early 18th century saw a litany of artists enlisted to create masterpieces that would hang on the walls of the cathedral. Specifically, these depicted tales of the saints of Pisa and were funded by a group of citizens from the city.
The interior was originally laid out in the plan of a Greek cross, with an enormous cupola sitting at the center of the cross. This plan later changed to the layout of a Latin cross, with a central nave and aisles on either side.
The international influences at work on the church during its construction didn’t stop at the facade. Inside, visitors may notice elements directly inspired by grand mosques, such as its elliptical dome and alternative black-and-white marble and arches, all making the space look much larger inside. There’s also a clear Byzantine influence, namely in the form of the monolithic granite columns and the raised interior galleries.
In the 19th century, more structural restoration work and modification took place, including the removal of original statues from the outside of the cathedral (these were replaced with copies). And finally, 1926 saw the reassembly and return of Giovanni Pisano’s marble pulpit — removed after the fire in 1595 — albeit with a few pieces missing.
What To See When Visiting Pisa Cathedral
Before you even step foot inside this landmark cathedral, be sure to take some time to soak up the design of its magnificent facade. Here, four impressive tiers of columns reach towards the heavens, creating the effect of porticoes with intricately carved lintels and high arches, showing Islamic and southern Italian influence. Other shapes, such as lozenge-shaped arches, are directly influenced by structures in Armenia.
One of the main features of the facade is the ornate multicolored marble used in its construction. Grey and white marble forms the backdrop to patterns and detailing formed by marble inlays, all in a range of colors.
The fire that took place in 1595 led to the creation of heavy bronze doors — three pairs of them, in fact. These late 16th-century doors replaced the wooden doors that were lost to the fire (as was much of the inside of the cathedral). The doors themselves, completed in 1602, are a fascinating display and were funded by Ferdinando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the time.
The wings of the doors, i.e. what attaches them to walls, were cast in 1180 and actually survived the fire. On these, you can see 24 bronze reliefs that detail significant events in the New Testament. It’s one of the first bronze entranceways to be produced in the country during the Middle Ages and is a pioneer in the world of such entranceways (for example, the Baptistry in Florence).
Take some time to look at the three sets of intricately cast doors and you’ll spot some beautiful detailing. The central door depicts the immaculate conception and the birth of Jesus Christ, while another pair of doors illustrates the road to Calvary and the Crucifixion, and the third door depicts the Ministry of Christ. The tomb of the original architect, Buscheto, is located just to the left of the north door. There are also a few hidden details to spot, including a rhino.
People wouldn’t have entered the church through these doors, however. Instead, citizens of Pisa would have passed through the Gate of St Rainarus in the south transept of the cathedral.
The ceiling, the columns, and the dome
As soon as you enter Pisa Cathedral, look up. You’ll see an exquisite coffered ceiling that dates back to the 17th century; it’s decorated with gold leaf, and carvings and painted in a palette of regal colors. It was the work of Domenico and Bartolomeo Atticciati. You can spot the coat of arms of the Medici family at the center of the ceiling — a symbol of those who funded the restoration of the church.
Granite Corinthian columns hold this wooden ceiling up, while higher up a second story of shorter columns, signifying the raised galleries, created from black-and-white marble, allow an illusion of height and space. The huge granite columns themselves are in fact spoils of war. They were taken from the Mosque of Palermo in 1063, following a successful joint campaign between the Pisans and Normans against the Muslim Emirate of Sicily.
The elliptical dome of Pisa Cathedral was inspired by Islamic architecture and features rich decoration thanks to the work of Pisan artists (and brothers) Orasio and Girolamo Riminaldi. They employed the rare encaustic technique, which uses hot wax and colored pigments for a dramatic, eye-popping effect that remains striking to this day. A recent restoration of the dome took place between 2015 and 2018.
The marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano
The once long-lost marble pulpit by Giovanni Pisano should not be overlooked. This pulpit actually survived the disastrous fire that ripped through the cathedral in 1595 but was dismantled during the process of restoration, and wouldn’t be returned until 431 years later.
The masterpiece was sculpted by Pisano out of Carrara marble between 1302 and 1310 and uses striking details to showcase nude and heroic figures. It’s an interesting example of adding layers of emotion and expression to otherwise often severe Gothic sculpture, a forerunner of Renaissance styles to come.
It projects a sweeping narrative of the events and religious imagination of Medieval Italy, with seemingly unchangeable ideals undergoing a reexamination in the popular (or at least artistic) consciousness of the time.
It’s not just about the tales being depicted, however. The octagonal shape of the pulpit, which also features slightly curved panels on each of its eight faces, as well as complex sculptural work, was the first of its kind. In short, the pulpit is considered a masterpiece, particularly in terms of Italian Gothic sculpture. It’s impossible to not be wowed by it, with every inch of the space covered in jostling figures in dramatic poses, and get swept up in the narrative of the scenes depicted.
Due to it being removed for over four centuries, before being returned, it’s unknown whether the pulpit is in its original form; for example, people are unsure whether or not there would have always been a marble staircase spiraling to the top, or if the scenes have been mixed up.
Mosaic in the apse of Christ enthroned
Another element of the Duomo of Pisa’s interior that somehow survived the late 16th-century fire is the enormous mosaic that decorates the apse of the church. Illustrating Christ sitting on a throne between Mary and Saint John, the mosaic is particularly noteworthy because of the face of Saint John; this was painted by Cimabue in 1302.
Cimabue was an early pioneer of the Italian Renaissance, believed to be one of the first great artists to break from current Byzantine-influenced tradition. It’s not just because Cimabue is famous that this masterpiece is notable.
It’s also because this was the last piece painted by the great artist, who died shortly after it was completed. Adding to the importance of this painting is the fact that it’s the only one that has been recognized, with official documentation of the time, to be the actual work of Cimabue himself.
The whole mosaic itself evokes mosaics of Byzantine and Norman churches in Sicily. After Cimabue, the mosaic was mainly the work of Francesco da Pisa, but was completed by Vincino da Pistoia in 1320.
As if the interiors of Pisa Cathedral weren’t impressive enough, the church also houses numerous freestanding artworks, as well as tombs and funerary sculptures.
Notable pieces of artwork to look out for include the tomb of Henry VII, the Holy Roman Emperor, who died in 1312 in Buonconvento during an unsuccessful siege of Florence. His tomb, situated at the right transept, was sculpted between 1313 and 1315 by Tino da Camaino.
There are also a total of 27 paintings that hang on the walls behind the main altar. These masterpieces tell the stories of the Old Testament, as well as the stories of the Life of Christ. They were completed by a selection of Tuscan artists between the 16th and 17th centuries, including Andrea del Sarto and Domenico Beccafumi.
Perin del Vaga, a student of none other than Raphael, painted a number of the 16th and 17th-century paintings that hang in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Among his works is Madonna Enthroned with Saints. Here also hangs Our Lady of Graces with Saints by Florentine artist Andrea del Sarto, and Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Sienese painter Francesco Vanni.
Pisa Cathedral Opening Hours
Pisa Cathedral is open every day between 10:00 am and 7:00 pm. Visiting times are affected by religious holidays and vary on Sundays, too. Make sure to check the official website for any changes to opening hours before you visit, as services and times are posted on there.
Best time to visit
You can visit Pisa Cathedral the same day you planning to climb Pisa’s Leaning Tower and explore Piazza dei Miracoli, as they are all in the same place. If you want to enjoy it with fewer crowds, it’s best to go earlier in the day, though in the high season (summer) it will most likely be fairly busy all the time. Another idea is to head there towards its closing time when most daytrippers would have gone home.
Pisa Cathedral tickets
Admission to Pisa Cathedral is actually free and you can get your free pass in person at the site. However, the official website of the Duomo Complex is clear in stating that availability is subjected to the actual availability of time slots and therefore limited – so you may be better off actually purchasing tickets to the other attractions in Piazza dei Miracoli which will also include tickets to the Duomo of Pisa that are not subjected to a fixed time.
You have several options:
Leaning Tower + Pisa Cathedral – €20.
Combination ticket for all the sites in Piazza dei Miracoli – €27.
Combination ticket for all sites in Plazza dei Miracoli, minus the Leaning Tower – €10.
Combination ticket for the Duomo of Pisa and the Baptistery – €7.
Combination ticket for the Duomo of Pisa and the Camposanto – €7.
Combination ticket for the Duomo of Pisa and Opera Museum – €7.
If you have a specific date in mind for visiting Pisa Cathedral, it’s a good idea to purchase your tickets as far in advance as possible. Tickets are also available from the ticket office (behind the Leaning Tower or inside the Museo del Sinopie), but only in limited amounts.
Ensure that you arrive at the Duomo of Pisa for your time slot on time or early, not afterward, otherwise, you may (probably) be refused entry.
Make sure to also read my post How To Get Tickets To Pisa Tower.
Should you get a guided tour?
There are no official tours on offer that exclusively cover Pisa Cathedral. But there is an audio guide available that can be rented from the ticket office. This is offered in five languages and provides a good insight into the history and artwork of the cathedral.
There’s also the option to join a general tour of Pisa that includes a visit to the cathedral. You could also consider a tour that also includes the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the visit. Finally, many day trip tours to Pisa include the cathedral on their list of attractions.
If you only want a guide to visit the Cathedral, I recommend this guided tour of the Cathedral as one of the best options you can book online.
Although it’s a popular tourist site, Pisa Cathedral is still a place of worship. Because of this visitors are asked to dress in an appropriate manner. This means covering shoulders, upper legs, and knees, as well as midriffs. If you’re visiting during summer, then consider either wearing loose, long-sleeved tops and trousers, or take along a shawl or light scarf to cover up before you enter.
Is Photography Allowed?
Photography is allowed inside Pisa Cathedral, but only during normal visiting hours. If you visit during the time of a mass or ceremony, cameras are not allowed to be used.
There are very few public bathrooms in the vicinity of the Duomo of Pisa, for which you’ll have to pay – access is only allowed to visitors who have already purchased tickets.
There is a public bathroom available close to the church, however, depending on the time and day you visit, you may have to wait in a long line in order to use the facilities (this happens mainly in high season). Note also that many tourists end up using the bathrooms in the nearby McDonald’s, but you’ll need to purchase something, i.e. a soft drink, and possibly still have to wait in line.
Though almost a thousand years old, Pisa Cathedral has been made semi-accessible for those who use wheelchairs or people with mobility issues. Those with disabilities can also enter free of charge.
How to get there
Pisa Cathedral is located 1.7 kilometers (1.05 miles) from Pisa Central Station. It’s possible to walk between the two along the Via Roma – it takes around 20 minutes.
Alternatively, a number of buses connect the train station with the cathedral, including the 875 and 070. Make sure to get off at Torre 1 bus stop. They run regularly, take 10-15 minutes to reach the cathedral, and cost €1.30: you will need to validate your ticket once on board the bus, and tickets are valid for 1 hour).
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