Just 7 kilometers west of Pisa, an 11th-century Romanesque basilica stands solitary and solemn in an open field:
The medieval basilica San Piero a Grado (also known as the Basilica di San Pietro Apostolo) is fascinatingly unique for various aspects:
- the lack of a facade but with two apses
- in one apse, the first stone altar ever erected in Italy
- probably the first place of Christian worship in the Pisa area
- adorning the nave, the only intact medieval fresco cycle in Italy portraying the earliest popes from St. Peter to Pope Giovanni VII (proclaimed Pope in 1003)
- perhaps a sculpted corn cob on an exterior wall of this medieval church (when corn only reached Italy post-Christopher Columbus)
- the church houses one of the oldest wooden confessionals in existence
According to legend, in 42-44 A.D., St. Peter himself once preached on this site enroute from Palestine. According to tradition, during a violent storm at sea he found safety on this strip of land near Pisa, called “Gradus Arnensis.” In Roman times, this was the last ferry stop on the Arno River
The name – San Piero a Grado – indicated a terraced level (gradone) along the Arno, generated by frequent flooding of the Arno. The continuous overflow of the Arno ramified here thus forming the huge fluvial and maritime basin of Pisa.
The massive stone under the late Gothic (13th-14th century) ciborio (“ciborium” – a structure built to highlight the altar) is said to be the site where St. Peter preached in the mid-1st century A.D.
Under the ciborium, a crucifix and plant sit on an ancient column – called “la colonna di San Pietro” – which is placed on the flat rock where the Saint evangelized, according to tradition:
The legend’s veracity would indicate the first celebration of worship in Tuscany…maybe in all of Italy?
Around the sacred primitive altar are the remains of the first early Christian church of the 4th century – built on the site of a Roman structure – and a later one (7th-century?):
14th-century frescoes adorn the walls of the nave above columns with capitals di spoglio (“of undressings,” ie., taken from pre-existing classical structures):
The western apse of the 11th-12th-century church rises behind the “St. Peter column” on the tradional site of his sermon:
And when standing in front of that western apse just rising behind the St. Peter preaching spot, one views the central apse at the eastern end of the church:
In the late 12th-/early 13th-century, a lightning bolt or a flooding of the Arno destroyed the facade on the eastern side of the church and in its place, the large apse was built, i.e, two apses, no facades in this church.
A door of access was opened on the north side ot the church for the facade had been eliminated:
Massive blocks of classical spoglio flank the door as you can see above…and here is a detail:
The mysterious, unexplainable corn cob alluded to in my introduction to this note tops this block of Roman relief near the door entrance:
The great campanile (bell tower) was built in this period as well, but mined by the retreating Germans in July 1944 for they had feared it could be a lookout point of surveillance.
Walking around the Basilica, I took photos of all that remains of the tower, squatting solemnly near the western apse…
….and remains of the destroyed bell tower piled nearby:
Inside the church – not far from the St. Peter column – a display of photographs and ancient prints includes images of the church with the medieval bell tower:
This photo of 1943 was taken a year prior to the destruction of that medieval bell tower with German mines:
…and this photo evidences the rubble afterwards:
Near the western apse and photograph display stands St. Peter, sculpted in white Carrara marble in the 18th.century:
The bearded San Pietro carries the cross of his martyrdom (crucifixion upside down) and with hand upraised and gaze directed upwards (towards the approximate location of the destroyed belltower), he almost seems to be asking, “Why…?
Just to his left, stands one of the the oldest wooden confessionals in Italy, crafted in 1628 by a Pisa legnaio ( “one who works in wood,”, i.e,, carpenter), Giuseppe San Martini:
Many a treasure fascinates the visitor to San Piero a Grado but the highlight of our visit for me were the 14th-century frescoes by Deodato Orlandi adorning the nave.
(Photo below thanks to http://www.travelingintuscany.com)
Above the rounded arches, characteristic of a Romanesque nave, the frescoes just above the arches depict portraits of the all the popes from the first one, St. Peter, to Pope John VII (1033):
Above the papal portraits are scenes of the martyrdom and burial of St. Peter …
…with images of pre-11th-century Popes below.
St. Paul’s martyrdom is also depicted….
….as well as his burial:
Scenes of classical Rome are frescoed as well, a bellicosen Nero featured in one:
Above the scenes run windows surmounted with recessed arches, depicted skillfully ih three-dimensional perspective, angels peeking out of each window:
The authoritative Touring Club Guide of Tuscany introduces the Church of San Piero in Grado as “il piu pregevole monumento nei dintorni di Pisa” (“the most prized monument in the area of Pisa”).
There is no better description.
We are already anticipating another visit.
Click here to see my video on this splendid churcn.