A Brief History of Pisa

The history of Pisa is closely linked to water. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, thanks to its powerful fleet, the city was the most important port in the western Mediterranean. Hereafter, the city would slowly lose its power and eventually became part of the Republic of Florence.

History Pisa

Foundation till Roman times

History Pisa - Roman ship
One of the ancient Roman ships on display in the Arsenale Medicea.

It is thought that Pisa was originally founded by the Ligurians around the 7th century BC. A second theory holds that it was the Greeks who founded the city and that the Ligurians, who were the original inhabitants of the area, later took over.

In the 5th century BC, the area became part of the Etruscan kingdom. Pisa became the port of the then powerful city of Volterra.

When the Romans took over, Pisa became an even more important naval power. The emperor Augustus had a big port, called Portius Pisanus built. Several years ago a number of Roman ships from those days were found and can now be seen in a specially created museum.

Middle ages till Italian unification

Also during the reign of the Lombards, Pisa was the most important port on the western Mediterranean.

Between the 10th and 11th century the city flourishes. It grew into a Maritime Republic, which also included today’s Versilia, the Tuscan islands, Corsica and Sardinia.

During this period Pisa was often attacked by the Saracens, who contested the city’s Mediterranean dominion. The Saracens were based in Sicily, but after Pisa defeated them in 1063, the Pisans managed to increase their influence to a bigger part of the Mediterranean.

Some of the most important buildings (Duomo, Battisterio and the Campanile) owe their characteristic architecture partly to the impressions that Spanish and North African cities left behind.

The Pisan fleet participated in several crusades. This had the added advantage of opening up the eastern spice and silk market and Pisa became a competitor of Venice.

In the 12th century Pisa became an indepent city state with its own constitution. Two consuls, controlled by a Council of Elders, reigned over the city.

During the conflicts between the papal Guelphs and the Ghibellines, who fought on the side of the Emperor, Pisa chose the side of the latter.

A succession of wars a.o. Florence, Lucca and Genova weakened the city. The latter defeated Pisa during the battle of Meloria in 1284. This basically ended the city’s long period of prosperity, also because the Arno had started silting up.

In 1399 the then feudal lord of Pisa, Gherardo d’Appiano, gave the city to the Visconti. Gherardo and his family were later locked into a tower and left to die of hunger.

In 1406 Pisa became Florentine porperty, which meant the end of the Republic. The Medici had bridges, canals and prestigious palaces built. The city’s university became famous, with Galileo Galilei as one of its most important professors.

Hereafter, Pisa remained under Florentine dominion and slowly grew into a famous university city. Until the unification of Italy Florence would exercise power there.

Modern history Pisa

In 1944 the city was hit by bombardments. Though many people died, the most important buildings survived the onslaught.

Nowadays Pisa is separated from the sea by the salt marshes created in the Middle Ages.

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