“Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa…”

Pisa is a Tuscan city located on the River Arno, close to the Ligurian Sea. The city was one of the many stopping points on the Grand Tour. The tour was seen as the practical part of a young gentleman’s education, to visit various locations to experience the architecture and art at first hand. Pisa became home for Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, “Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa...”. It was here that Shelley gathered his Utopian Circle of friends. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning left Pisa to return to Florence, her regret was that she had not climbed the Leaning Tower.


Battistero and Duomo 

The beautiful buildings of the Piazza Dei Miracoli are testament to a time when Pisa was an important maritime republic, and a commercial centre with trading links to the entire Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Pisa had been an important naval base from Roman times until the fleet was eventually defeated by the Genoese at the Battle of Meloria and the port was destroyed.


Duomo and Campanile

The Duomo was begun in 1064 by the architect Buscheto di Giovanni Giudice to commemorate the naval victory near Palermo, which took place in 1063. It is clad in alternate bands of green and cream marble, which was to influence the style of future churches throughout Tuscany. The Duomo was dedicated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II to Santa Maria Assunta. It was later enlarged between 1120 and 1125.


Duomo’s 13th Century Facade

In the 13th century the facade was completed by the architect Rainaldo who designed a tomb for Buscheto on the left hand side of the facade. It is constructed of white Carrara marble, which incorporates coloured sandstone, glass and majolica plates. There knots, flowers and animals in the inlaid marble. The four tiers of loggias include statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on each corner, and the Madonna and Child at the top.


Battistero di San Giovanni

“…the Baptistry of San Giovanni, built of pure white marble and cover’d with so artificial a cupola the voice uttered under it seemed to break out of a cloud.”

John Evelyn

The Battistero di San Giovanni was designed by the architect Diotisalvi as a cylindrical building, instead of the usual octagonal design. The construction of the first level started in 1152 of white Carrara marble in the Romanesque style. After his death the design was changed by Niccola Pisano, who together with his son Giovanni, built the Gothic middle loggia level. The cupola roof was added in 1365 to complete the building. This domed roof covered the coned shaped upper section creating an amazing acoustic space.


Torre Pendente

“a horrible but an astonishing object”  

Robert Adam

All the buildings lean to some extent as a result of the soft, pliable stratum of clay and sand; and their lack of substantial foundations. But the Campanile has become famous for it’s very noticeable lean. This region of Italy is vulnerable to earthquakes, and the fact that they have been built on this unstable surface has absorbed the vibrations and insured their survival.



Construction of the Romanesque style Campanile was started in 1173, it’s architect is not recorded but it is believed that the first phase is the work of Bonanno Pisano. After his death he was buried at the base of the Campanile. This first phase was halted in 1178 when they reached the 4th gallery and the tower had started to lean. The construction of the second phase resumed in 1272, and is attributed to Giovanni di Simone who tried to correct the lean, by building the stories taller on the shorter side to compensate. Unfortunately the extra weight caused the tower to sink further into the ground and increase the lean. This phase was completed in 1278.

Bell Chamber and Bells

The bell chamber and final phase was started in 1360 by Tommaso Andrea Pisano, it is smaller in diameter than the rest of the tower and houses seven large bells. This phase was completed in 1399 and four original columns had to be replaced due to the lean. In 1993 the bells were silenced because experts were concerned the vibration could affect work to stop it from collapsing.

The tower was built of San Giuliano marble which has been gradually replaced with white Carrara marble. Only 33 of the original pillars of the open galleries remain, these are on the north-eastern side. The tower was 60 meters tall but now it is 56.67m on the highest side and 55.86m on the shortest side.

Previous work over the centuries to correct or stabilise the lean had all been unsuccessful. In 1990 the tower was closed to the public and work started in 1993 to safeguard the tower, which had a 5.4 meter lean. By 2008 it had been stabilised and the lean reduced by 0.5 degrees. By 2011 restoration to the interior and exterior stonework was completed.


There are 251 very worn steps to the top

During World War 2 my father was called up in 1940 and joined the Essex Regiment. He served in Egypt, Iran and Iraq before being assigned to 17 Brigade Indian Army Ordinance Corp. Because my father spoke Hindi he was transferred in April 1943 to the 8th Indian Division with officer status. The Division was based in Damascus training in mountainous warfare ready for the invasion of Italy. In September they landed in Tarranto Italy fighting their way up to Monte Cassino, Assisi, Rome and Florence and in the New Year of 1945 they rested in Pisa. My father often talked about sleeping in tents beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


The photos are from the author’s own collection.


A Church with Literary Links


St Pancras Old Church

Not far from the hubbub of the Euston Road located just beyond St Pancras International Station is an architectural gem, which transcends the ages. The origins of the site are believed to date back possibly to 313 or 314 AD, as a place of worship to honour the death of St Pancras, a fourteen year old who was executed by Diocletian in Rome 304 AD. The first recorded mention of the church is in the Domesday Book, and as the years passed more documented evidence was accumulated to testify to its history as a site of worship, and from the 12th century there is a full list of Priests who administered to the needs of the local parishioners.

The church became disused when St Pancras New Church was consecrated in 1822. The church became derelict and was rebuilt in a Norman style during the late 1840s by a local born architect Alexander Dick Gough. Gough with his partner Robert Lewis Roumieu, designed schools, churches and residences in Islington. They also undertook surveys in the Southwest and West for the railway. When the partnership dissolved he built and restored churches, as well as designing schools. The church has undergone a number of restorations over the years especially in 1948 due to war damage.










Church Interior

The Neo-Romanesque exterior encapsulates a whitewashed interior made up of Roman tiles, a Norman wall and window, and a eleventh century altar stone. These perfect white walls enhance the memorials, which date from the 17th century and later, giving the impression of a tasteful and respectful art gallery.


The Hardy Tree

Stranger than fiction is The Hardy Tree, an ash tree surrounded by gravestones. The tree and the gravestones have become one entity, strange and beautiful in a weird way. It was created by Thomas Hardy, a young assistant architect working in the practice of Arthur Blomfield. Hardy was given the task of excavating and exhuming the bodies in St Pancras Old Church’s graveyard, ready for the building of the new terminus for the Midland Railway at St Pancras. When the job was complete he was left with several gravestones, which he decided to arrange round the ash tree. A permanent monument to his early career as an architect. Hardy eventually left London and returned to the Southwest to pursue a career in writing which proved to be more successful.


Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Tombstone

There is a large square grey block of stone that was originally located in a different part of the churchyard. It was erected by William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist for his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Mary was a writer, philosopher and an influential advocate of Women’s Rights. She was read by and influenced the writings of among others Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Elliot and Virginia Woolf. She is mostly remembered for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and for being the mother of Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. They both did not believe in the principles of marriage but agreed to marry as she was pregnant at the time. She already had an illegitimate daughter by a liaison with Gilbert Imlay. On the 30 August 1797 after a difficult labour Mary gave birth to a daughter, ten days later she died of septicaemia due to complications of the birth. The baby was given the name Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and was baptised on 12 February 1798 at the family church. The years passed and she would visit the grave and it was here that she would rendezvous with Percy Bysshe Shelley. A month after declaring her undying love for Shelley, at her mother’s tomb, she ran away with him to the continent. Mary Shelley had wished to be buried with her parents, but as the graveyard was neglected her son Percy Florence Shelley and her daughter-in-law Jane choose to bury her at St Peter’s Church Bournemouth, near their home at Boscombe Manor. Out of love for Mary they exhumed her parents and reburied them with her.


Mr William Jones The Sadistic Schoolmaster

Charles Dickens also has strong links to the site, during his childhood he lived in various locations in the Parish. There is a gravestone for a Mr William Jones, a schoolmaster Wellington House Classical and Commercial Academy Hampstead Road. Dickens attended this school at the age of 13 leaving after two years. Jones provided the inspiration for the sadistic schoolmaster, Mr Creakle of Salem House in David Copperfield and some of his other publications. Dickens also used the site for the grave robbers in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial was unveiled by Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts who was a Victorian philanthropist who worked to rid London of its slums and was a close friend of Dickens.


“Melancholy day indeed! The burial of all that is dear to me in this world and all I wished to live for.” Sir John Soane

On the 22 November 1815 Elizabeth Soane died and was buried in St Pancras’s graveyard, her husband the renowned architect Sir John Soane was devastated. He designed a monument to her memory covered with symbols of eternity and regeneration. The central Carrara marble cube is enclosed by a Carrara marble canopy supported on four Ionic columns, surrounding this structure is a Portland Limestone balustrade with steps leading into the vault. A hundred years later this monument was influential for the K2 telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

I am biased about this church as I have a strong link through my great grandparents who were married here in 1884. Walter was a printer originally from Somerset, and Susan was a milliner from Islington.

This little church has witnessed so many events, and the last resting place of significant people. It knows so many secrets and I am proud to say my family are part of it.

The photos are from the author’s own collection.


%d bloggers like this: