Leaving Liguria behind, I follow the ancient Roman road to Tuscany. This is a road paved with marble, quite literally, for some of the kerbs are made from it and there is a stunning, ornamental, marble fountain-roundabout in the town of Massa.Neighbouring Carrara has been providing luminous white marble since Roman times. Blocks and slabs still line the route, waiting to be transported and transformed into buildings or bathrooms or kitchen counter tops. At one point, I pass a field of huge sculptures. Perhaps by a budding Michelangelo or Henry Moore, both of whom visited Carrara in their time, in search of the perfect pure stone. The quarries themselves are in a valley to the east of the town. Today the white rocks are almost indistinguishable from the snow-capped peaks of the mountains.
It’s not long before I arrive at the city of Pisa. I’m here to see some more of the famous white marble in the Campo dei Miracoli. It truly is a miraculous place where 6 million tourists arrive each year to gasp in awe at the Leaning Tower, wondering if, or when it might topple. £25 million and 10 years of careful scientific study and careful construction work have now ensured that it is safe, at least for the present. I’m not sure that I feel comfortable climbing the 294 steps to the top of the bell tower which still leans and alarming 5m, and the €18 ticket price is not appealing. Instead I admire it from a distance, amused by the tourists trying to get that clichéd photo, holding it up.
But the 55m high leaning tower is not the only attraction in the Campo dei Miracoli. A €9 ticket gives me access to all the other sites and I start with the Baptistry, a huge circular building that faces the Cathedral. It is far more decorative on the outside than on the inside, but it does boast a beautifully carved, marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano from 1260. His son, Giovani is responsible for the equally stunning pulpit in the Cathedral. It is possible to venture to the upper gallery of the Baptistry and, while I am up there, a melodic voice starts singing. The acoustics of the building are incredible.
The 12th century Cathedral is huge and I enter through the equally intimidating bronze doors with scenes depicting the life of Christ. Tall granite columns line the aisles and behind them are many gloomy paintings. But I’m drawn to the 14th century Byzantine mosaic in the dome above the apse where a benevolent Christ looks down, flanked by his mother the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
Running the length of the north side of the Campo dei Miracoli is the Camposanto. It was built on earth from the Holy Land, transported by ships in the 13th century, to house the mortal remains of noble Pisans. As I walk around the large, light interior corridors, I realise that they lie directly beneath my feet. Marble tombstones for the floors, some ornately carved with cloaked figure, skulls or other more unusual decoration. However, it is the partially restored frescos on the walls which really grab my attention, illustrating biblical stories and the tale of Saint Ranieri, whose relics lie in the Cathedral. It was allied bombing during World War II that almost destroyed the beautiful frescoes after an incendiary device fell on the Camposanto, resulting in molten lead from the roof fusing with the walls, floors and the statues and sarcophagi inside. During the restoration work a series of preparatory drawings hidden beneath the frescos was revealed. These are now displayed in the Sinopias Museum but, despite being the actual works of the master, for me they are not as interesting. The Museum of the Sinopias does have one redeeming feature and that is a video about the torturous building of the Leaning Tower and the subsequent work carried out to ensure that this iconic monument did not collapse into a heap of rubble.
I find that I’m left with only 20 mins to visit the Museum Dell’Opera Del Duomo, which I initially thought was going to be a museum about Opera. Silly me! It is actually a very interesting museum with a wide variety of historical artefacts including Roman statues, Islamic bronzes, religious icons, and illuminated manuscripts. I particularly enjoyed the wooden marquetry and the paintings of the Camposanto frescos by Carlo Lasinio which really allowed me to appreciate how wonderful the originals would have been.