Al-Andalus and Pisa, Italy

The train system is an efficient and wonderful way to see Italy. We took a train from Venice to Bologna, then headed to Rome and today we got onto the 4-hour long train journey to Pisa, our final destination. The local train we take goes along the sea and the Western coastline towards Toscana. It stops at places like Tarqiunia, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its ancient Etruscan tombs and I see a few history enthusiasts in their linen trousers and loose shirts with cork buttons getting off, as I munch on my crème croissant. Pisa excites me more than previous sites as it is a city that had a direct vibrant relationship with Andalus both culturally as well as in trade.

Yesterday we hired scooters to explore Rome, but towards the end of our whizzing in crazy traffic, my daughter fell, I jumped off too quickly to avoid a clash and I damaged my ankle. So today I am sitting with my feet up in a groggy backstreet café eavesdropping as locals drink their birra and complain about money, Covid and us, tourists.  I do not mind taking a few hours off the streets, it gives me time to be brushing up on my history and I delight in exploring the relationship between Andalus and Pisa while sipping coffee under the shade.

Pisa is a charming city and you feel like being back in a few decades. But I am also back in centuries, as I think of the city’s relation with Andalus, in Muslim Spain. Andalusi ceramics and other artefacts entered medieval Pisa as commercial goods and shaped the way the city developed its culture. In the 11th and 12th century there were wars for territory and power as well as trade initiations- such was the nature of medieval Mediterranean politics. Pisans always engaged on both fronts with the Muslims; on the one hand trying to destroy them, while all the same trying to build trade relations with them as the most viable way to profit.

Muslims were a powerful political and economic force in the medieval Med, and while the Crusades were launched already, the traders had to navigate their ways through their own to gain prosperity. Though Pisa undertook a number of expeditions against Muslim territories, the only objects identified as spoils of war came from al-Andalus, so they demonstrate an active engagement with the region.

The most exceptional Muslim object imported from al-Andalus in the early Middle Ages is the Pisa Griffin, the largest Islamic metalwork from the 10th century. Originally displayed on the exterior of the cathedral, the griffin is now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Its origin and how it arrived in not documented anywhere, so there is only speculation about it. Another object that has a significance in Pisa is the stylized Corinthian capital with a signature indicating that it is the work of a sculptor by the name of Fath, most likely arrived from Madina Al Zahra. A third artwork on the cathedral of Andalusi manufacture is a set of wooden doors but they were destroyed in the disastrous fire of 1595. Documentary sources, however, indicate that they came from Mallorca and arrived as spoils from the victorious Balearic expedition of 1113–15.

The Andalusi objects displayed in both the Duomo and San Sisto did not lose their identity in their new Christian setting,  but accrued additional meanings while preserving the memory of their origin. On a purely aesthetic level, they could be appreciated for their beauty and high level of craftsmanship, for their exotic origins and luxurious materials. From an ideological standpoint, they were objects seized from Muslim foes and thus manifestations of Christian victory. However, the Pisan commune in the twelfth century had much more to fear from aggressive and antagonistic Italian neighbours and opportunistic competitors like Genoa than from the Muslims of the western Mediterranean.

At the same time as the Genoese developed into key political adversaries, Islamic polities in North Africa and al-Andalus became established trading partners with Pisa. In 1133 the Pisans signed a treaty with the ruler of Morocco, followed a little more than a decade later by an agreement with the ruler of Valencia.

Another type of Andalusi object arrived in far greater numbers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries – glazed ceramics. Several archaeological sites in Pisa have yielded a large number of Islamic ceramics dating to this time period. The ceramics that adorn numerous churches in Pisa, known as bacini. Eight churches in Pisa from the eleventh and early twelfth centuries feature eighty bacini from Islamic Spain in their decoration. Monochrome wares produced in Denia or Murcia are the most common type of Andalusi ceramic employed as bacini, ornamenting the churches of Santo Stefano, San Sisto, San Silvestro, and Sant’Andrea. They are the most effective pieces visually, as their simple green or white glaze provided a strong contrast to the predominantly brick facades of Pisan churches.

The other type of object in Pisa were lusterware, and its origins can be traced to Iraq. This pottery technique travelled through Egypt to North Africa and Spain; it was produced in Murcia and especially Málaga until the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. The most famous form of Andalusi green and brown ceramics dates to the caliphal period in al-Andalus and was produced in centers in and around the caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra. Known as caliphal ware, this type of ceramic adorns two Pisan churches, San Zeno and San Piero.

The last type of Andalusi ceramic found in Pisa, cuerda seca ware, is the least prevalent and brings up the question whether these ceramic basins were plunders of war or luxury items. The most compelling argument for them to be trading object is the fact that they are versatile and varied in design, therefore most unlikely to be brought back as spoils of war. The Pisans considered Muslim Spain an admirable power and whilst they were driven to win over them, they could not deny their economic brilliance and creative genius for beautifying objects.

It was ironically the humble Andalusi ceramics that had the greatest artistic and cultural legacy in medieval Italy. Imports of Spanish pottery to Pisa continued throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, indicating the popularity of these wares for Pisan consumers. The most important legacy of Andalusi pottery, however, was the transfer of technical knowledge that led to the creation of some of the earliest Italian glazed pottery, the archaic maiolica produced in Tuscany. Italian artisans borrowed the form of green and brown Spanish wares, and learned the technique of tin glaze pottery that allowed them to create lusterware and green and brown wares of their own. Though their origins in Muslim Spain became obscured over the centuries, two of Italy’s most distinctive pottery forms in the late medieval and Renaissance periods were thus direct descendants of the Andalusi pottery imported to Pisa in such great numbers throughout the Middle Ages.

The city holds many secrets of history, but also from its present. It is literally run by Bengolis, like many other parts of Italy. They have the small shops, some hotels and work as chefs. We meet one of them who serves us an amazing Italian feast. He trained in Rome, worked for the military as a chef and now head chef in a Tuscan restaurant near the main bridge connecting Pisa train station with the rest of the city. I keep marvelling the charming architecture, catch glimpses of carvings and pottery on the wall but it is time to head home and rest for the flight tomorrow. The airport is walking distance, so my feet must be ready for the morning stroll.

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