If the most remote origins of Pisa and of its name are inevitably lost in myth and legend, the most recent historiographical acquisitions, abetted by archeological finds, testify to far distant Eneolithic settlements and the certain presence of the Etruscans between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. It is most likely that Ligurian colonists of Celtic origin settled here even earlier, anticipating Greek colonization. Moreover, even though the legend of Pelops, who left the shores of the Alfeo (a river
in the Peloponnesus) for those of the Arno to found a new Pisa, in perennial memory of his land of origin, is inirectly supported by Virgil himself in the 10th book of the Aeneid, we know with certainty that Pisa was a port of call in trading with the Greeks. In the Etruscan period Pisa, situated near the extreme northern border of Etruria, was certainly influenced by Volterra but never became more than a modest village of fishers and skilful shipbuilders, which depended in a part on the instability of the coastline and the periodical floods of the Arno. As Etruria was romanized, Pisa grew in importance and was an ally of Rome in the long wars against the Ligurians and the Carthaginians. The port (Portus Pisanus), at the tima situated between the mouth of the river (in those times near where San Piero a Grado stands today) and that portion of the coast now occupied by Livorno, constituted an ideal naval base for the Roman fleet in the expeditions against the Ligurians and the Gauls, and in the operations aimed at subjugating Corsica, Sardinia and other coastal zones of Spain. Pisa, ally of Rome, then became a colonia, a municipium, and in the time of Octavianus Augustus (1st cent. B.C.) was known as Colonia Julia Pisana Obsequens. In the meanwhile the growth in population, the development of shipbuilding and trade – fostered by the establishment of the Via Aurelia and the Via Aemilia Scaurii as well as by the harbor – meant an expansion of the inhabited area which was soon surrounded by a circle of walls.
The imperial was noted for the magnificence of its public and private buildings: although at present traces of ‘Roman life’ in Pisa are scarse (Baths of Hadrian, improperly called the ‘Baths of Nero’, capitals from the age of Severus, 3rd cent. A.D.) there seems to be little doubt as to the existence of a Forum and a Palatium as well as an Anphitheatre, a Piscina, a Naval Circus and numerous temple structures, replaced by churches in Christian times. Recently (June 1991) axcavations carried out near the Arena Garibaldi have revealed the presence of an Etruscan necropolis on
which a domus augustea was laid out in Roman times. The first Christian ferments were introduced into the area of Pisa by Saint Peter himself, who landed ‘ad Gradus’ in 47 A.D. So goes the legend, so deeply rooted however that a basilica was subsequently built here.With the fall of the Roman Empire, Pisa passed first under the Lombards and then under the Franks. In the early Middle Ages the city’s maritime vocation burgeoned and soon contrasted with the Saracens, who were aiming at full supremacy of the Mediterranean. With bases in Corsica and Sardinia, they frequently threatened the lands controlled by the Church itself. The story of Kinzica de’ Sismondi is well known. This young pisan heroine is said to have saved the city from a Saracen incursion while most of the Pisan army and fleet were out driving the infields of Reggio Calabria (1005). Between 1016 and 1046 the Pisans conquered Sardinia, hand Corsica too in the end (1052), thus laying the bases for an effective control of the Tyrrhenian Sea as opposed to the Saracens. After these successes the city, with Papal consent, sent the fleet to Sicily to support the struggle of the Norman Roger I and Robert against the Saracens. After breaking the chains of the harbor of Palermo, the ships hoisting the Pisan Cross in a field of red (the city’s standard since the exploit of Sardinia) defeated the enemy (1062) returning home with such rich booty that they were able to begin the construction of the Cathedral.
In the meanwhile rivalry with Genoa had broken out in a first naval conflict, victorious, opposite the mouth of the Arno (06.09.1060), while in a larger Mediterranean theatre the Pisan fleet succesfully took part in the first Crusade. These positive results helped the Maritime Republic consolidate its position in the Near Eastern ports of call and in particular in Constantinople. The subsequent conquest of the Balearic Isles, terminated in 1115, and the victory over Amalfi (1136), coincided with the peak of the city’s maritime and military power. But the 13th century was to be fatal to Pisa, whose standing in the Western Mediterranean had in the meanwhile equalled that of Venice in the Adriatic and the Eastern Mediterranean. The continuous rivalry on the seas with Genoa and fierce contrasts with the Guelph cities of Tuscany (heated by Florence and Lucca) led to an inexorable downfall. As a result of its unconditioned support of imperial policies, but above all because of the seizing of a group of ecclesiastic dignitaries who were on their way to Rome to take part in a council which could have ended in the removal of Frederick II of Swabia (1241), Pisa was excommunicated by the Pope, and had to wage a bitter struggle on two fronts – against Genoa (which also declared Guelph sympathies) and against the Tuscan cities which had by then become members of the Guelph League.
The disastrous consequences of the war on land against the Guelphs and the burdensome conditions consequently imposed by the Florentines (1254), and in particular the collapse of the Ghibelline ideal, were paralleled by events on sea: in the fateful waters of the Meloria on August 6, 1284, the day of St. Sixtus, a date up to then propitious for the Republic, an astute naval maneuver of the preponderant Genoese fleet, commanded by Oberto Doria, wiped out the Pisan galleys, under the command of the Venetian Alberto Morosini and Andreotto Saracini. It was absolutely impossible forCount Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was defending the port of Pisa, to come to the aid of the fleet, which suffered heavy losses, and at least 10,000 prisoners were taken. The subsequent attempt of Ugolino (who
in the meanwhile had become podestà) to impose a neo-Guelph restoration in Pisa, ceding possession and castles to the eternal Florentine, Luccan and Genoese rivals, earned him the undisguised ostility of the Ghibelline faction, and this together with that had happened at meloria, led to new accusations of betrayal. In March of 1289 the Ghibelline faction, with Archbishop Ruggeri degli Ubaldini at its head, prevailed, and Ugolino, with his children and grandchildren, was sentenced to die of starvation in the Torre dei Gualandi. In the meanwhile the peace of Fucecchio (12.07.1293) imposed new and onerous conditions in favor of the Florentines, and the hopes aroused in Ghibelline Pisa by the ephimeral episode of Henry VII of Luxenbourg was to no avail. With the advent of the podestà Uguccione della Faggiola, valorous Ghibelline condottiere, Pisa took its revenge, conquering Lucca (1314) and drastically defeating the Florentines and their Sienese and Pistoiese allies at Montecatini (29.08.1315). Subsequently, the prevailing party struggles in the city (in which the philo-Florentine merchant faction headed by Gambacorti was long opposed to the anti-Florentine faction comprised of nobles and entrepreneurs, headed by the Gherardesca) led the Genoese to force the harbor and carry off the chains, which they showed off as a trophy for many years (at present they are once again in Pisa, in the Camposanto). On the land front, the Florentines were once more victorious at Cascina (28.07.1364).
The subsequent signoria of Piero Gambacorti seemed to inaugurate a period of relative peace and prosperity but his treacherous assassination (21.10.1392) by hired killers instigated by the Visconti, handed Pisa over the lords of Milan. In 1405, with base bargaining, they traded Pisa off to the Florentines for Money. The indignation and fierce resistance of the Pisans was weakened by a series of negative events: in the end the city had to surrender after a siege. This episode (09.10.1406) marked the irreversible fall of the glorious Maritime Republic. The subsequent advent of the French king Charles VIII aroused new hopes of independence in the city but the Florentines hastened to gather under the walls of the invincible rival and once more besieged it together with their allies. The indomitable resistance of the Pisans was so strong the Florentines even though of deviating the course of the Arno and called Leonardo da Vinci. But the idea remained on paper for Pisa, exhausted by famine, had to accept the Florentine signoria (20.10.1509). The Medici government of Cosimo I resulted in a reinassance in the city: university activity was rationalized and augmented, various public offices were organized, and, most important, the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen was instituted (1561), bringing new lymph to the Pisan maritime traditions, and taking part in the epic naval encounter of Lepanto (07.10.1571). In that circumstance the Christian fleet, the expression of a coalition of European powers (the papacy and Spain, Venice and the House of Savoy and still others), under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria, assisted by Gian Andrea Doria, Marcantonio Colonna, Ettore Spinola and
Sebastiano Veniero, Wiped out the maritime power of the Ottoman Turks capitained by Mehemet Ali.