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Italy 2012: Pisa

For most tourists, Pisa is a one-day stopover to see the leaning tower. But since I'd be going there anyway for the Medical Informatics Europe conference, it seemed like a good place to spend a few days enjoying the Italian wine and food, reading a book, and enjoying the sunshine.

Pisa's wall

Pisa is bisected by the Arno river. Pisa is a relatively quiet town, especially in the summer when the University is not in session. The local kids seem to spend most evenings hanging out on the walls on either side of the river. Some things, I suppose, transcend nationality.

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fish in the Arno river

For me, the coolest thing about the river was the fish. Lots and lots of fish. As far as the eye could see. And, these are pretty big fish. Your shadow, cast by the sun, is about life size (it can be elongated when the sun is low, but the width will be about right). You can see the size of the fish relative to my and Eric's shadows.

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fish in the Arno river

Closer view of the fishes. Best guess is that they are some sort of carp, based on their large size, large numbers, large scales, large mouths, and the fact that no one seemed too excited about eating them. They look more streamlined than I'd expect from a common European carp, but there are several types of carp that live in the Arno river, so these are probably one (or more) of them.

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fides - spes means faith - hope

Like much of Italy, Pisa has a wealth of art, from ancient to modern. This panel had me puzzled for a while...

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temperance

It had to represent a virtue, given that it is the company of a very recognizable Temperance...

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Prudence

... and Prudence, although I have to say that playing with a snake with a forked tail does not strike me as especially prudent...

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Charity

... and Charity is also easily recognizable, even if the creatures peeking out from the robes on her right look like some half-human creature from the edges of HP Lovecraft's world.

I eventually sorted out that the text of the first image, fides spes, means Faith, Hope. So it is not one virtue, but two, imagined in stone.

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sheet music

Sheet music. The photo is too dark to make out the year on the sign, but it is probably from the 13th-15th century, since the square notation seen here was not commonly in use until the 1200's, and the printing press was in use by the 1500's.

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floating heads

There's a room full of heads from columns. Again, the artwork somehow brings thoughts of strange Lovecraftian tales to mind.

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floating heads

In case you were thinking the previous one might've been due to misjudged perspective. The inscription clarifies that it depicts the head of Saint Christopher, a martyr from the 3rd century. The legends agree that he was a giant. Some versions of the story say that he fought and died in battle (and that his real name was not known, so he was called simply the Christian). In the most common version, he asked a hermit how he could serve Christ, and the hermit directed him to a dangerous river crossing where his large size would allow him to ferry people across. One day he carried a small child across, and as he crossed the child grew so heavy that he could barely carry him. Upon reaching the other side he complained that it felt as if he were carrying the world, and the child replied that he had been carrying the world, as well as he that created it.

Christianity was not legal in the Roman empire of the time, and in this version of the story, Saint Christopher was martyered in a wave of Roman persecution of Christians.

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woman and grumpy cherub

Somehow, this woman does not look especially happy either. Perhaps because she is accompanied by the world's grumpiest cherub.

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screaming column

Also in keeping with the theme. Of course, the guy to his left has ram's horns, and the guy to his right is being gagged by homicidal greenery. Perhaps screaming is quite reasonable under the circumstances.

All of these are from the 14th century.

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pig with white stripe

This is a detail from a painting from the 15th century. What's odd about it is not so much that they have a pet pig, or that the pet pig has large tusks, but that it's black with a distinct white band. The breed I know with a white stripe is a 20th-century breed from the UK, but apparently it's a fairly common color pattern, cropping up in some Asian breeds as well. I don't know which kind this little medieval Italian piggy was - possibly a Cinta Senese, a white-belted breed known to exist in Italy from at least the 1300's.

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art room

One of the neat things about this museum is that their work room has a glass wall. Here they're clearly working on a restoration of a religious painting.

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woodcut bath

I'm not sure where or when this piece was from, but it's a wooden engraving of a Roman marble pool (probably a fountain) with villas in the background. The tall buildings in the distance might imply that this is a more modern work... but the famous Leaning Tower was constructed in 1382... so presumably they were also, by then, constructing tall buildings that did not lean.

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relic

One of the things I like about visiting European churches is that as often as not, you find something genuinely creepy. Here we have the mummified remains of Saint Ranieri, the patron saint of the city of Pisa. He was born into a wealthy merchant family, but after raising money to visit the Holy Land, renounced all wealth and became a beggar. He lived for seven years in the Holy Land, then returned to Pisa, and reportedly performed exorcisms and miracles. After his death (around 1160) he was interred in the Duomo of Pisa, but relics from his body became scattered around various Pisan churches. In 1632 he was declared the patron saint of the city, and in 1686 the bits were gathered up and placed at the altar in the Duomo.

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pulpit

The pulpit of the Duomo, the cathedral for which the Leaning Tower is the belltower. It was carved in the early 1300's by Giovanni Pisano.

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Hercules in the pulpit

Descriptions of the piece always comment on the nude Hercules. Although the Catholic churches often seem to make reference to the ancient Roman empire (see, for example, the interior paint in Herculaneum compared to the Vatican), I think this was an early example of neoclassicism rather than a late example of hearkening to Roman authority. Giovanni Pisano is recognized as one of the first artists to use elements both from Roman classical and (then) modern Gothic style.

The cats, visible in the right-hand view, are typical symbols of Dionysus, not Hercules. Hercules himself looks rather older than he is usually depicted.

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sneaky lion in pulpit

I like this shot, with Eric in his tie dye in the background, and the lion peeking out from between the guys in robes. I think the guys in robes are meant to symbolize some of the Liberal Arts, but I can't find a list of which Liberal Arts are supposed to be in this sculpture.

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scene from the pulpit

The panels on pulpits were pretty formulaic in Giovanni's time, and the eight panels on this pulpit are pretty much as expected: Annunciation, Massacre of the Innocents, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt, Crucifixion, and two panels of the Last Judgement. Presumably this is the Nativity. The donkey peeking out of the shadows is particularly well done.

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lion and prey

The lions with prey were also traditional symbols on the pulpit, though this lion looks more mournful than fierce. Usually they are regarded as symbolizing the conquest of Christ over the Antichrist, although in an early version the lions are devouring lambs, implying a less noble vision of what a lion represents.

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lioness and prey

Apparently, though, the sculptor had never seen actual lions. The lioness with a dead hare is also a traditional symbol on pulpits. The hermaphroditic lioness, though, is not.

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adam and eve

This sculpture of Adam and Eve is by Francesco Mosca, the son of a better-known sculptor, Simone Mosca. I find his choice to depict Eve as a modest Aphrodite to be interesting. I also like the snake with a human face in the tree... I find it more compelling than an ordinary reptile.

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ancestral papillon

Warming laps since 1500. Probably this is an ancestral Papillion. The breed was known to exist in Italy at that time. Then, the drop-eared variety (known today as the Phalène) was popular; the erect-eared type became popular in the 19th century.

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goat boy

I very much like this... were-goat? satyr? Pan? Whatever it is, it's neat.

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capitals

My favorite part was the baptistry. The baptistry was built in 1153, and as is often the case with buildings from this time, they made it nice by tucking scenes from everyday life in the little nooks and crannies... like, for example, when your burro-dog gets carried away by a gryphon, and you are comforted by disembodied six-fingered arms. For those of you who like this sort of thing, there's a page of them.

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baptistry

The baptistry is said to be acoustically perfect. I'm not sure who gets to define perfect, but I did note that someone speaking in a normal tone from the center could be heard clearly throughout the building. It also leans a bit, but much less than the tower.

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leaning tower

Definitely leaning.

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pisa cathedral

Looking down over the duomo, the cathedral of Pisa, from the leaning tower.

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bell in Leaning Tower

The leaning tower was built to be the bell tower for the cathedral of Pisa. Eric inspects a bell.

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moon by Leaning Tower

The moon illuminating the wedding-cake profile of the leaning tower.

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Eric by Leaning Tower

Eric enjoying a respite from the heat at the foot of the leaning tower.

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another lion, another horse

Another lion, another horse. This pair guards the sides of a sarcophagus.

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dragon gryphons

On the other hand, you could have your mortal remains guarded by these guys, who would not be remotely out of place on a fantasy book cover.

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My Little Alien

And then there's this, which looks like a My Little NightMare.

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hoods and crosses

And this... everything in this area is far too old to have any connection with the KKK, which started in the US in the 1800's. In Spain the hoods were associated with religious penance, and perhaps they had a similar connotation in Italy. The same white hoods showed up in a few other places in Pisa, in artwork from the late middle ages.

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ancestral labrador

Waiting under the table is a very old trick.

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baby got book

A beautiful woman... with books. For a lot of guys I know, this is an ideal captured in stone.

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bat-eared dog

The spots might be an artifact of time, but the medium-long coat and bat ears are certainly intentional. I have never seen anything remotely like this in a real dog. (There are modern breeds with large upright ears, but not quite this large...) Assuming the artist did his job well, the build looks like a large breed (heavy limbs and large feet compared to the rest of the dog), which is weirder still, since modern bat-eared breeds are generally on the small side.

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demons in the warm room

This is a small section of a giant mural by Martino da Firenze, painted in 1336-1341. The painting is called The Triumph of Death, but was intended to convey redemption. Here, demons and angels struggle for the souls of the dead.

Somewhat ironically, the room that the painting was in was stiflingly hot, even late at night when we were there.

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never mix drugs and religion

The same room also contains The Last Judgement and Hell, from the same artist. The image suggests a double exposure, 600 years before such a thing existed. Perhaps the artist meant to convey the subtle nature of evil, a shadow superimposed over the horrific scenes behind.

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inside the Camposanto Monumentale

The courtyard of the Camposanto Monumentale, where the above pieces are housed. There are also a lot of neat carved skulls and bones.

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Pisa baptistry by moonlight

The Baptistry by moonlight.

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Chiesa San Michele degli Scalzi

Given that the geology of the land is what caused the leaning tower to lean, it isn't too surprising that there are other leaning towers in Pisa. This is the Chiesa San Michele degli Scalzi, the bell tower of a church dating from 1025, although parts of the building were rebuilt in the 12th century and after WWII.

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bats in the monestary

For the conference I stayed in a monestary converted to a hotel. Turns out the monestary came with free bats. Some people might consider this a bug, but I consider it a feature... that helps reduce the number of bugs, no less.

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lizard

Lizard!

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