January 14
We’ve spent a busy two days doing nothing. Yesterday we more or less wasted the day (with Mark Beesley, Michael Guravage (who came down from Holland), George Gaudio, and the Arnetts–whom we picked up along the way) going back and forth to Florence. We had intended to gaze lovingly at the Fra Angelico frescoes in San Marco, but after the traditional beef orgy at Mario’s, we arrived too late. To tell the painful truth, San Marco is closed the second Monday of the month.
Beesley ordered the bistecca for 5: himself, George, two Eastons, and Michael. One steak was 1.5 kilos, the other only one. That adds up to nearly five pounds. Here is Michael adoring the chianina.
We, on the other hand (joined by the sensible college boy Alex Easton) ordered coniglio fritto. We offered some to George but he declined to eat Bugs. We inevitably quoted the cartoon rabbit’s nemesis as the justification. “Wabbit, do I wuve rabbit.” I started with an excellent zuppa with white beans and greens that tasted like bietole, Swiss chard.
We got back in time for a nap and reading, a little wine with bread and salami, and a very good night’s sleep in our quiet apartment. We move to the hotel today for our Winter School, and not without regret.
The night before we were a party of 8 at Il Nuraghe, where we started with a mixed seafood antipasto, the remains of which you can see in the photo, followed by Sardinian lamb (for us) and veal chops for George. I think most of us had seafood pastas.
I and the student (Italian word order) were already stuffed from a surprise lunch. Marco Bassani, full professor of political thought at the University of Milan, noticed my photos on Facebook and sent a message. His father had been head of the Scuola Normale in Pisa (perhaps the most prestigious academic institution in Italy), and his mother still lives here in a beautiful book-lined apartment overlooking the Arno. I suggested that Marco kill birds with one stone–visit his mother and see us. His mother was kind enough to invite us to lunch, and we spent three hours, eating and talking about Italian history and politics, subjects the lady knows far better than I.
We were sad to leave but had promised a walk, which led to Santo Stefano–the church of a naval crusading order established by the Grand Duke to fight the Turks–where we attended an organ recital with fine performances of Bach and Vivaldi. Unfortunately, in the first two pieces the organist was joined by a bass tuba player with a tin ear and an uncertain grasp of rhythm. Luckily, I managed to nod off in each piece. Several of our “students” asked what the banners all over the church indicated. They are, of course, trophies from captured Ottoman ships, reminding everyone who enters the church of Pisa’s continuing role as defender of the Christian world from Islamic aggression.
The Pisan Reconquest
From their colonies on Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic isles, Muslims were constantly threatening the coastline. Sardinia had remained a part of the Empire (with a brief Gothic interlude) since the Punic Wars. Under Byzantine rule, the unified province of Sardinia, which had become de facto independent, disintegrated into four rival judgeships (judicatus) governed by rulers chosen from dominant families. In their constant bickering, divisions, and wars, the competing judges were extending an open invitation to any ambitious Muslim chief. In 1015 Mogahid, a Muslim war-leader in Spain, conquered the weak and divided island. This Mogahid is said to have been a Christian Slav who had worked his way up to a dominant position in Western Spain, from which he launched his invasions of the Balearic Islands and Sardinia. His initial conquest (and subsequent invasions) of the island was apparently brutal.
In retaliation for the Spanish Muslims’ attack on their city, the Pisan fleet, assisted by Genoese allies, sailed to Sardinia. In the face of the Christian counter-attack, Mogahid chose to withdraw and bide his time, but, upon the departure of the Pisan and Genoese fleets, he returned with a vengeance. When Pisa and Genoa returned, Mogahid made good his escape, but Pisa and Genoa defeated the Muslims and captured his brother.
Sardinia, though it remained independent and divided into the judgeships, was divided into fiefs, some of them given to the greatest families of Pisa and Genoa. Unfortunately, the rival Italians were soon at odds, and though Genova is said to have been first to attack, the superior Pisan strength expelled the Genoese from Sardinia. It was not the first clash between the rival maritime cities, and their conflict would damage both and eventually be fatal to Pisa.
In 1063, a Pisan fleet attacked Arab-held Palermo to support the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard, who with his brother Roger was retaking the island. By Medieval standards, Palermo—with a population exceeding 300,000–was a vast and well-fortified city. In a concerted effort, Pisan ships broke the harbor chains and hoisted their new flag: a Pisan cross on a field of red, which had been adopted after they had wrested Sardinia from the Muslims. Although they could not actually take the city, so long as its defenders remained within the walls, the Pisan adventurers took home so much booty they were able to begin construction of the new cathedral, S. Maria Assunta. The conquest of Sicily was left to the Normans, but the Pisan fleet had decidedly put the Muslims on the defensive.
Italian merchants—Pisans in particular–were not so much high-minded idealists as pragmatists, trading with the Muslims when it was possible, fighting and despoiling them when Muslim rulers felt strong enough to oppress the Christians. For the Italians, North Africa was the key place, both for trade and for potential loot. The Moroccan port-city of Mehdia (between Tangiers and Casablanca) was held by a Muslim Prince named Temim, who built it up into a thriving center of trade—and piracy. Thanks to its natural situation and the later fortifications, Mehdia had been made nearly impregnable. Inside its walls, thousands of Christian prisoners despaired of liberation.
Whether their motives were Christian charity or the more down-to-earth desire to protect their shipping from piracy, Pisa and Genova decided once again to combine forces. Their request for Norman support was turned down by Robert Guiscard, who probably had enough work to do pacifying Sicily and keeping his unruly Norman and Lombard vassals in order. The expedition set sail in 1087. Their first objective was the island of Pantelleria, a prison for high-ranking prisoners in Roman times and more recently a vacation resort. The crusaders took the island, though not before the defenders smuggled out warnings to Temim by means of carrier pigeons. The Visconte Ugo was killed in the fighting for Mehdia, but Temim was forced to capitulate: He surrendered his Christian captives—along with a great deal of his treasure—and granted Pisa trading privileges.
Enriched by the spoils of North Africa, the Pisans dedicated a huge amount of the loot to the further adornment of their cathedral. The entire Piazza dei Miracoli, in fact, was only made possible by the city’s aggressive maritime adventures, especially the constant conflicts with Muslim powers. There are more charming cities in Italy—Pisa suffered from centuries of neglect only to be bombed by both sides in WWII—but the cluster of religious monuments on Pisa’s great piazza is unparalleled: Taken separately, the cathedral, baptistery, Campo Santo, the Ospedale that houses the Museo delle Sinopie, and, of course, the famous Tower, constitute the most splendid collection of buildings in any one city, but taken as a whole, as one harmonious system of structures, the Piazza, as has been said truly, is the most beautiful religious site since the Athenians rebuilt their temples on the Acropolis in the fifth century.
Pisa’s wars with the Muslims were conducted by individual admirals and trading consortiums rather than by the city itself, but they were not haphazard expeditions in search of booty. The Pisans, though working as entrepreneurs, were single-mindedly working to drive the Muslims out of Christian Europe. In 1099, along with Genova and Venezia, Pisa sent 120 ships to support the first Crusade. Records are scanty, but Pisan importance can be measured by the fact that their Archbishop Daibert was made Bishop of Jerusalem.
On Easter 1113, Archbishop Piero Moriconi, called for a crusade in the Western Mediterranean and named 12 consuls from the ship-owning families to lead the expedition. With the Pope’s blessing and the support of French and Spanish allies, Pisa conquered the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Minorca off the coast of Spain) in 1113-15. It was a stunning victory and Pope Gelasius II rewarded his crusaders by granting the Pisan archbishop authority over the Church in Corsica, a move that enraged the Genoese.