The Pisan Cemetery through the Eyes of Chroniclers, Artists and Travelers

Category: Guidebook

Giovan Battista Totti, Dialogo sul Camposanto (1593)

In this unpublished manuscript from 1593, Giovan Battista Totti writes a dialogue concerning the Camposanto. Totti was a canon of the Cathedral of Pisa for about 30 years between 1567 and 1595. In choosing to write a dialogue, Totti followed the taste of his time. This dialogue was only accessible in a series of manuscripts, and remained relatively obscure. The original is now lost, but several copies still exist. One of them is in the Archivio Capitolare Pisano, from which the following passage is transcribed. Three additional copies are in the Biblioteca Universitaria, and one is in the Archivio di Stato di Pisa. The Dialogo is an important source on the Camposanto and its frescoes at the end of the sixteenth century.
Educated in theology, Totti knew the writings of the Fathers of the Church as well as of antiquity. He was familiar with commentaries on the scriptures, medieval collections of ascetic sermons, saints’ lives, and even rabbinic writings. Through his position as canon, he had access to many documents concerning the religious and civic history of Pisa. At the time of the publication of the Dialogo, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550, 1568) had already been published, and Totti’s references to this work reveal his familiarity with it. Still, Totti followed a personal approach that honours the local tradition, drawing on his direct knowledge of the paintings from visits to the Camposanto throughout all the years he was a canon of the Cathedral of Pisa.
The protagonists of the Dialogo are a priest who, like Totti, is a man of the church, and two pilgrims coming from France. The priest serves as a guide for the pilgrims. The dialogue has a religious and moral message, as the protagonists mostly talk about the frescoes which serve to communicate a moral lesson. An example of this kind of reading of the frescoes in the Camposanto is the interpretation of the Triumph of Death in which the priest sees the three dead bodies as representing different stages of a sinful life. The corpse that is least decomposed stands for the sinner when he is twenty years old, still torn between good and bad. The second corpse represents the forty-year-old sinner, who has already fallen into sin without any hope of turning his life around. The third corpse is the sinner who is close to death and has completely lost anything that was once good in him.
The following excerpt of the Dialogo tells of the war in Palestine and the situation of the Pisans during the Third Crusade. Totti describes how the holy earth was brought from Jerusalem to the Camposanto in Pisa by Archbishop Ubaldo, who took part in the crusade. He writes about the building of the Camposanto, starting in the year 1200 with the efforts of Archbishop Ubaldo. Interestingly, he says that the earth came to Pisa in three separate loads and was distributed accordingly in the Camposanto. After this historical introduction, Totti has the aforementioned protagonists speak about the Camposanto. They all seem to be in high admiration of the building. But that is not all. They also talk about the power of the holy earth in the Camposanto. By describing how the earth can quickly decompose not only bodies, but also stones, its magical power is made clear. / SB

Source: Unpublished manuscript. Pisa, Archivio Capitolare Pisano, ms C. 43 (transcription by Michele Bacci).

[c. 6v-7r, durante la terza crociata, dopo la morte di Federico Barbarossa, i Pisani guidano la spedizione navale durante l’assedio di Tolemaide]
Dall’altra banda li potenti armati essendo andati costeggiando l’Asia messi genti nella terra della Palestina essendone stato fatto capo Ubaldo Arcivescovo di Pisa vi ridusse in diverse scorrerie fino presso Jerusalem, et qui benché havesse alcuna controversia di soldati del presidio lasciatovi dal Saladino et di già personalmente s’era transferito al soccorso di Tolemaide assediata da Filippo et Riccardo insieme, e diverse natione del populo Christiano Acco, l’Arcivescovo havendo costretto il presidio della città a starsi ristretti nelle sue mura hebbi comodità in quella impresa del Monte Calvario, et à perpetua memoria fece levare di quella terra certa quantità, dove stette la croce di nostro Signore, et mandatone molti corbi et somari carichi all’armata la mandò per certo vasello al Capitolo et Repubblica Pisana, ed avvisò che quella era di quella terra del campo, dove il Signore fu crocifisso.
Ubaldo ritornato a Pisa con la gente, che salvata haveva da quell’assedio, a sue spese comprò certe case che in quel luogo erano con un poco d’orto aspettanti al Capitolo et havendole spiantate vi sparse sopra quella terrasanta del campo, ove il Signore fu crocifisso, et ne fece il proprio campo, che è l’uno de’ tre chiostri, che in esso vederete, à reverenza spartola in quel luogo, dond’era stata cavata, ponendogli nome Camposanto per haverlo benedetto con quella solennità che à tal cosa s’appartiene. Poi nell’anno 1200 il detto Arcivescovo dette principio all’edificazione di quest’edifizio, il quale fu fornito per spatio di tempo si come per l’istesso epitaffio havete letto, et per poco doppo à quest’anni mandate due altre navi, nel tempo del dominio, et i Pisani hebbero di terra santa, nella quale fabbricorno quel nobil castello, et [c. 8r] fin’alli nostri giorni vi si vede in piedi, ove sta presidio del Turcho, perciò mi fa pensare che ella sia stata così compartita, in tre partiti, poiché l’Arcivescovo Ubaldo ne portò una parte, et l’altra fu condotta in due volte da navi grosse, le quali possono essere state compartite, et sparso la terra in tre lati, come havete inteso, hora in quello stesso giorno, et Ubaldo fondò il Camposanto, et il popolo pisano dette principio all’Arsenale…

[c. 6v-7r, during the Third Crusade, after the death of Frederick Barbarossa, the Pisans led the expedition at sea during the siege of Acre (Ptolemais)]

On the other side, the powerful army, having gone up the coast of Asia, put people on the land of Palestine, and Archbishop Ubaldo was engaged in diverse raids up to Jerusalem. There he had some skirmishes with soldiers of Saladin who were sent for protection and had personally rushed to protect Acre (Ptolemais), besieged by Philip and Richard and by many Christian nations.


After forcing the garrison to stay inside the walls, he took a certain amount of earth from Calvary, where the cross of our Lord stood, for eternal remembrance, and sent many carts and donkeys to the fleet, and sent it with a safe fleet to the chapter and the Republic of Pisa, saying that it was the earth from the field where our Lord was crucified.


Ubaldo returned to Pisa with the people he had saved from the siege and bought at his own expense some houses in that place with a small garden adjacent to the chapter. After leveling the ground, he distributed the holy earth from the field where the Lord was crucified and made a field of his own, which is one of the three cloisters that they will see and reverently divided the place and called it Camposanto to bless it with the appropriate consecration, as it belongs to that cause.
Then, in 1200, that same Archbishop began the construction of the building, which served for some time, as the epitaph reads. And shortly after, two more ships were sent and the Pisans conquered the holy land, where they built this noble castle. Until our days you can see where they went on foot, where the territory of the Turks is, that is why I think that the land was divided in three and Archbishop Ubaldo brought part of it and the other part was brought in two big ships and then the earth was divided in three sides, as may be understood, and on the same day Ubaldo founded the Camposanto and the Pisan people started the Arsenal…

[c. 8r-8v, ammirazione del Camposanto] Pell. O che mirabile, et dilettevole edifitio, o sopra tutti gl’altri cimiterii bellissimo. Comp. Non meno restiamo ammirati della sua beltà, et della contrarietà che sogliono indurre gli altri luoghi, ove i corpi nostri si seppelliscono. Pell. Non è maraviglia per certo sì come questo di bellezza avanza gl’altri per conseguenza insieme ha da superargli di condictione. Campagno. Veramente così è, perché negl’altri toscani cimiterii l’orrore delle tant’ossa c’hanno atterriti, et in questo per contro ci siamo rallegrati. Prete. Forse l’ossa che negl’altri si vedono cagionano tal’effetto, la qual cosa in questo non succede, per consummarsi con la carne et l’ossa in tutto […].

[c. 8r-8v, Admiration of the Camposanto]
Pilgrim: Oh, what a wonder and what a delightful building, more beautiful than any other cemetery. Companion: Not only do we admire the beauty, but also the contrast that evokes other places where our bodies are buried. Pilgrim: Surely this is no wonder, for this one is ahead of the others in beauty and deserves a higher judgment. Companion: Indeed, it is so, because in the other Tuscan cemeteries we were frightened by the bones, in this one, on the contrary, we rejoice. Priest: Perhaps the bones cause this effect in the others, because there the bones and the flesh are not completely decomposed […].


[cc. 239v-240v, descrizione della “terrasanta”]

Comp. Perché stanno queste urne antiche così poste intorno a questo chiostro? Pell. Sono del pubblico, o de’ particolari? Prete. Di più prove sono converse (?) erono prima e fuori del campo santo attorno alla chiesa maggiore prima che si gli facessoro le gradelle le quali messoro per dove è la terra santa la qual terra sì come io vi dissi al principio del nostro ragionamento posta in questi tre quadri per esservi stata portata in tre volte da Hierusalem nella città, la quale consuma non solamente la carne, ma l’ossa, et assai volte si trova esser consumata la carne prima che i panni. Io mi son ritrovato più volte a vedere l’effetto, et vedete questo osso scoperto e questa parte che tocca la terra: vedete che è terra, et questo di sopra che ò all’aria è sodo, e se tra tre giorni tornaste qui hora che l’ho coperto con la terra lo trovereste convertito in terra, questa benedetta terra non solamente consuma l’ossa ma rode l’altra terra che vi si pone, consuma [c. 240r] fino alli sassi, in essa vi si notano i sepolcri che sotto questi anditi son pieni di corpi, et in tre o quattro giorni son tutti terra, non mai esce da questo campo puzzo dal corpo che vi è posto e quando da questi avelli esce fetore alcuno preso un pugno di questa terra et posto à questo fetore di subbito passa quel fetore, questo cumulo di terra che sopra accansa (?) alquanto la terra del campo santo quando si fece questo sepolcro del Buoncompagno tutti quelli calcinacci le scaglie et terra cavata per il fondamento si pose in questo luogo et era alta più di un huomo et hoggi à poco à poco è avvallata quasi che è niente come vedete, ma quello che è degno di considerazione è che la terra del continuo abassa di tutti quanti tre campi come vedete et quelle pietre poste al secondo quadro da i portoghesi erano al pari delle gradelle, et hoggi non solo sono annullate et appena si vedono ma si vanno consumando, et in breve diventeranno terra. Nel notare un sepolcro d’una confraternità nel quale non capivano più corpi vi fu di quattro giorni avanti posta una fanciullina di 4 anni la quale conoscevo, et spesso alla porta sì gli dava una limosina fu vota (?) per sepolcro et fatto à caso come avvenne per accortezza di simili che fanno quest’arte scoperta la metà del capo à questa fanciulletta fuora della terra santa, doppo à 5 o 6 giorni à caso passando religiosi di qui veddero quel capo. Guard. Io mi ritrovai a cavarlo, questo. Tutto quello che era stato nella terra era consumato fin’agli occhi et la fronte con parte del capo, et haveva la carne viva [c. 240v] et la rete con un poco di ghirlanda di fiori et il bocciolo in capo senza mancamento. Prete. Il guardiano ha detto quello che dir volevo io. Pellegrino. Cosa in verità degna di considerazione.“

[cc. 239v-240v, description of the “Sacred Earth”]

Companion: Why are these ancient urns inside this cloister? Pilgrim: Do they belong to the people, or are they certain individuals? Priest: Of a few it is certain that they were moved and were first placed outside the Camposanto around the Cathedral before the steps were made where the holy earth is, which, as I said at the beginning of our discussion, is placed in these three fields because it was brought in three loads from Jerusalem to the city and decomposes not only the flesh but also the bones and many times it has turned out that the flesh decomposed before the clothes. I found myself seeing this effect and seeing the bone where it touches a part of the ground: behold that this is earth, and that the earth in the air is solid, and if you were to return in three days, what I have covered with earth would have become earth. This blessed earth not only makes the bones decay, but it consumes other earth that lies in it and stones. What should also be mentioned is that graves that are in it, full of corpses, have completely turned to earth in three or four days. Stench never comes from this field from the corpses that lie there, and if any stench appears, then take a handful of the earth and put it on the stinking part and the stench immediately goes away. This pile of earth that rose above some of the earth of the Camposanto was made when the tomb of Buoncompagno was made and the rubble, the splinters and the excavated earth for the foundation was laid out in this place and was taller than a man; now, however, it has sunk in, piece by piece so that you can’t see any of it anymore. But what is worth considering is that the earth continues to sink in all three fields as you can see and the stones that were placed by the Portuguese in the second field and were like steps have now disappeared and are barely visible and will become earth in a short time. I would like to point out that four days ago, in a tomb of the confraternity where there were no more bodies, a little girl I knew was buried. And often a little money was given to him at the entrance and as if by chance through the cunning of those who practice this craft, half of the girl’s head remained uncovered and protruded from the holy earth and after five or six days, believers passing by discovered the head. Guard: I found myself with that corpse. Everything that was in the earth was decomposed up to the eyes and the forehead. Priest:The guard said what I wanted to hear from him. Pilgrim: That is indeed worth considering.


Giacomo Filippo Foresti (1434-1520), Supplementum Chronicarum (1483)

Giacomo Filippo Foresti was from a noble family near Bergamo and entered the order of the Augustine Hermits at the age of 17 or 18. Author of several historiographical and humanist publications, he composed the “Supplementum” as an updated version of older world chronicles, following a strict chronological order of presentation. The book was reprinted many times, revised by Foresti himself in the early fifteenth century, and also translated into Italian. The entry for Pisa is linked to the year 1101 before Christ, when the city is said to have been founded by the Greeks. The short summary of the ancient and medieval history of Pisa, and the notice of its recent surrender to the dominion of Florence, is followed by a succint appraisal of the splendor of the buildings. Here, the worldwide renown of the Camposanto is highlighted. / DG
Foresti, Supplementum chronicarum_42v

Source: Giacomo Filippo Foresti, Supplementum Chronicarum (Venice: Bernardinus Benalius, 1483), fol. 42v.


“Ea [=Pisa] tamen superbissimis edifiis et pontibus super Arnum clarissimis exornata est. Habet et hec ipsa pisanorum civitas templum dive virgini dicatum et claustrum toto orbe celeberrimum quod campus sanctus nuncupatur. Quod videre et mirari incredibile videtur.”


“Nonetheless this city is decorated with the most splendid buildings and very illustrious bridges across the Arno. The same city of the Pisans has a church dedicated to the divine Virgin and a cloister that is most renowned in the whole world and is called Camposanto. This seems incredible when you see and admire it.”

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