January 10
Last night we had a good seafood dinner at La Buca. This was our second seafood dinner, since the night before we had gone to my old favorite, Il Nuraghe, and dined well on fish–in defiance of the Trip Advisor food mavens, who are forever complaining about how stodgy and 1970’s the place remains. The chef may be aging and content to repeat himself, but the Sardinian dishes are still good, and there is a quiet maturity about the place I find consoling. I ordered spaghetti al riccio di mare, which I remembered liking, though I often try to avoid dried pasta in a restaurant. Easton got a quite wonderful risotto di mare, with all the seafood more or less minced into the rice. The student got seafood ravioli. We then shared some triglie (mullet) and some San Pietro (a fish I don’t know in English.) A fine dinner, and the polite and rather old-fashioned chef remembered us from two years ago, when we brought our own chef with us.
La Buca is quite different, lively, a bit hip, run by young people, The young man who seemed to be at least partly in charge, after paying the obligatory compliments to my Italian, observed my fondness for fish. My student wife, defying sense and order, got fresh pasta alla cinghiale (wild boar), which she can and does order everywhere. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the very best and more delicate than most versions.
Easton ordered a zuppa di mare, with perfectly done mussels, squids, and who knows what else. Excellent choice, though I blame him for not supping up all the broth! I had ordered a riso ai neri seppi–rice with cuttlefish with ink–and we shared some fried anchovies and grilled swordfish. We actually had dessert–the student had a delicious sorbetto with lemon and blackberry, while Easton hit the homerun with his sorbetto of pear and ginger. We are taking the group here next Tuesday, and the young man wisely surmised I was checking them out. “But, you did not order seafood for the group.” No, I replied, “To speak frankly, I don’t have much faith in Tuscan seafood, even in Pisa.”
Naturally, he gave the Pisan reply that Pisa is a maritime city still. I agreed but still demurred, noting that not all seafood here is as good as he served us. He than paid the outrageous compliment of saying that I had more of a South Italian appreciation of fish, not typical of visitors to Tuscany. He himself was from Puglia–I suspected him of being Meridionale, from the rapidity with which he spoke perfect non-dialect Italian–and said in general Southerners better understood fish. I jokingly said, “Like Comissario Montalbano” and got a laugh. It was a pleasant evening, all in all, and I am beginning to suspect that it will not be difficult to eat well every night.
Yesterday afternoon we made a second trip to the Piazza dei Miracoli. A day earlier we had gone to get our free coupons for the duomo of Santa Maria Assunta, where spent an hour gawking. Remarkably, both Piazza and cathedral were nearly deserted. An occasional tour group of 20 people would march in behind the umbrella, plant themselves in front of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit, listen attentively to the baseball card statistics with a few words like precious and magnificent thrown in, make the circuit of the church, and march dutifully out. This was only disturbing if you were sitting in front of the pulpit, as I was, trying to read the art-historical jargon of “Le Chiese di Pisa,” a book I had just bought at the delightfully named bookstore, La Ghibellina.
Perhaps I’ll find occasion to talk about the duomo later–by the way the word has nothing to do with our word “dome”: but comes from Latin Domus, as in Domus Dei, house of God–but at this point let us be content with the bold statement that since the Fall of Western Empire, this was the most ambitious–and beautiful–church to be constructed. The Pisans seem to have begun planning it in 1063, the year they sailed off to support the Normans, who were reconquering Sicily from the Saracens. Herewith a paragraph from my potted history:
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.
This was not the first Pisan encounter with Islamic enemies. More from the history:
The Muslim Threat
Throughout the early Middle Ages, Muslim Arabs were a constant threat to Rome and Italy for several centuries. Like his grandfather Charles Martel, Charlemagne, after being crowned Roman emperor, was eager to resist Islamic aggression in Italy. In 827, Arabs invaded Sicily and occupied Palermo in 830. By 890 they were in possession of the last great Christian stronghold, Syracuse.
The Christians did not wait supinely for the attacks. In 828 a small Italian fleet under the Tuscan Count Boniface, acting for Louis the Pious, raided the North African coast, and we are told that most of the sailors were from Pisa. Tuscan sailors and soldiers went south to Salerno (to the north of Naples) to defend it against the Muslims.
Under Charlemagne’s weak successors, the Muslims returned to Italy. In 846 a Saracen fleet sailed up the Tiber to attack Rome, and there was no army of Franks to defend the city. The period is murky, and while we lack specific details about the raid we do know that it devastated several important churches. The parts of the old city that were protected by walls (including the Capitol) were defended, but in the Vatican, which lay across the Tiber and was unprotected by any fortifications, altars and icons were stripped and destroyed by the Muslim attackers. Even the tomb of St. Peter was looted. The Church of St. Paul “outside the walls” was also looted. Although the Emperor Louis II did not relieve Rome, the attackers were driven off by Guido (or Guy), Marquis of Spoleto.
In the midst of this crisis, Pope Sergius died. His successor Leo IV (847-55) set about the task of reorganizing Rome’s defenses–repairing walls, constructing towers, putting barriers into the Tiber. Meanwhile the North African Muslims were organizing a second more massive invasion, but the Pope proved to be an able diplomat and he formed an alliance with the prosperous maritime cities of the South: Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi. In the great sea battle off Ostia (849), the Muslim fleet was destroyed. In 852, Leo IV founded the “Leonine City,” that is, the Vatican, by fortifying what is known as the Borgo Pio (the pious city) and hedging in the entire area with walls that would provide refuge to Popes down to Pius IX.
By the early 10th century Saracens were raiding the Ligurian coast all the way to Nice. Genova was sacked in 935, and the Islamic terrorists slaughtered the people mercilessly. The Arab raid on Genova had two major effects: First, in the long run, Ligurian towns had to subject themselves to Genova for protection, and this explains Genoa’s rapid rise to power; second, and more immediately, Pisa was able to make herself mistress of the Ligurian coast for 100 years. Her importance was so great that she was even spoken of as the capital of Tuscany, though such a term probably only indicated her size and importance and not any official position.
All of Italy was under threat, but the south was hit particularly hard. Amalfi, though a powerful maritime power, was not sufficient to defeat the Muslim pirates, and Pisa, for motives of charity and profit, came to the rescue of the maritime cities in Southern Italy. From the late 9th century, Pisan vessels had been raiding North Africa and defending the South. Her ships fought the Saracens in Calabria (the toe of Italy) in the 10th century and drove the infidels out of Reggio. Early in the 11th century, while the Pisan fleet was away defending Southern Italy from Muslim attacks, Saracen pirates from Spain sailed up the Arno and burnt part of Pisa (in 1004). Eight years later, they laid siege to the city. It was on this occasion that Kinzica de’ Sismondi is said to have rallied the men and saved the city.
It is hard to say how much truth there is in the legend. The pirates were certainly successful in looting and burning Pisa and in slaughtering the women and children who were left in the city. Then there is her name, Kinzica, an Arab word apparently, and the name of the mercantile part of the city across the Arno, the very place where Arab merchants would have come to do business, set up shops, and even establish residences. (This is the pleasant neighborhood of San Martino: Walk across the Ponte di Mezzo, near the palazzo where Byron lived at the Palazzo Lanfranchi and go East down to the ruins of the Palazzo Scotto, a good mile from the Tower.) Some of the Muslim immigrants may well have welcomed a piratical raid staged by their co-religionists.