The history of the Monumental Cemetery began in the 12th century, when Archbishop Ubaldo Lanfranchi (1108-78) brought back shiploads of holy dirt from Golgotha (where Christ was crucified) during the Crusades.
In 1278, Giovanni di Simone (architect of the Leaning Tower) designed a marble cloister to enclose the holy ground, which became the primary cemetery for Pisa’s upper class until 1779. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the walls of the Camposanto were decorated with frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi, Spinello Aretino, Benozzo Gozzoli, Andrea Bonaiuti, Antonio Veneziano, and Piero di Puccio.
Tragically, the extensive frescoes of the Camposanto were almost completely destroyed by a bombing raid during World War II. On July 27, 1944, American warplanes launched a major air attack against Pisa, which was still held by the Nazis. The wooden roof caught fire, its lead panels melted and the hot metal ran all over the frescoes. Many were completely destroyed and the few that remained were badly damaged.
The Camposanto has since been fully restored and most of the surviving frescoes, along with preparatory sketches (sinopie) found underneath, have been moved to the Museo delle Sinopie in Pisa.
What to See at the Camposanto
A long, rectangular stretch of well-tended grass surrounded by Gothic marble cloisters and topped with a dome at one end, the Camposanto is a unique and elegant space. The exterior marble walls facing the cathedral are solid and unadorned save for some simple blind arcading. The inner walls overlooking the long courtyard are made of delicate traceried windows, which were never filled with glass.
The cloisters are filled with funerary monuments, many of which reuse ancient Roman sarcophagi. Despite the loss of many tombs during the war, a remarkable 84 Roman sarcophagi, most from the 3rd century AD, still survive. Other funerary monuments are Neoclassical confections, floor tombstones with effigy reliefs, and smaller memorial plaques.
Roman sculptures were also brought to the Camposanto for decoration beginning in the 14th century. Together with the Roman sarcophagi, these ancient artworks formed one of the most important collections of Classical art in Europe, inspiring some of Pisa’s greatest medieval and early Renaissance sculptures.
Some original frescoes can still be seen in the Camposanto, the most notable of which are in a large room off the north gallery. Dating from the 14th century, these depict the Triumph of Death, a terrifying Last Judgment and Stories of the Anchorites. The artist is unknown, so he is known by the delightful name “Master of the Triumph of Death.” In 1839, Liszt was inspired by this fresco to write his famous Totentanz, “Dance of Death.”
The huge harbor chains of the port of Pisa can be seen hanging on the walls of the Camposanto. These were taken by the Genoese in 1342 and returned to Pisa in 1860. The crenellated walls outside the Camposanto to the west date from the 12th century. A Romanesque lion can be seen atop the wall near the 13th-century Porta del Leone, which is named for the sculpture.
- Address Piazza del Duomo, Pisa PI, Italy