Pietrasanta Tuscany

Pietrasanta - Piazza Duomo
Pietrasanta – Piazza Duomo

Pietrasanta History

How from a Fortress on a Hill, between Mountains and Sea, Pietrasanta Was Born

The area of Pietrasanta has long been inhabited by various peoples, including Ligures, Etruscans, Romans and the Longobards, the Northern Germanic tribe who ruled much of Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire before settling in the Northern Italian region of Milan, called Lombardy because of them.

However, what is now the historic centre of Pietrasanta was founded in 1255 by the then mayor of the Municipality of Lucca, Guiscardo Pietrasanta, after whom the new town was named. The name “Pietrasanta” means “holy stone” but has nothing to do with marble.

Guiscardo belonged to a noble Milanese family, whose descendants now – sort of ironically – produce the only DOC (controlled designation of origin) wine of the entire province of Milan, which lies in the notoriously flat plain of the river Po with the rare exception of hilly San Colombano al Lambro, home to the Pietrasantas’ vineyards.

Pietrasanta map
Pietrasanta map

The first, original nucleus of Pietrasanta, even pre-dating its official foundation, still exists: it is the fortress guarding the city from above on the hills behind it, called Rocca di Sala and also known as Rocca Ghibellina, the true witness to the history and life in Pietrasanta for several centuries.

This defensive fortification was built by the Longobards around the year 1000 to protect the small hamlet of Sala, the nucleus of the future Pietrasanta, and was used by local feudal lords in the Middle Ages.

The Rocca di Sala is the best observation point for the urban structure of Pietrasanta’s historic centre, which is dominated by Piazza del Duomo (the cathedral square, the heart of the town) lined by the Cathedral with its red bell tower, the Moroni Palace, the golden facade of Sant’Agostino Church, the Torre delle Ore. The view extends as far as the sea.

Getting to Rocca di Sala is a short, pleasant and panoramic walk up the hill among olive groves from Piazza Duomo, affording fine views.

When Pietrasanta was founded in 1255, the town’s new settlement was placed at the foot of the hill on which the Rocca di Sala fortress stood.

Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, lord of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, strengthened the Rocca di Sala, built a new fortress called Rocca Arrighina, and around the town’s inhabited centre constructed a system of walls, whose remains are standing today, into which he incorporated both Roccas.

The beautiful Rocca (or Rocchetta) Arrighina is still there to be admired, adjacent to the arched Porta a Pisa (the gate leading to the road to Pisa) that it was built to protect, the only surviving one of the three gates in the city walls that permitted access to the town.

Rocca di Sala’s strategic position on the hill dominating the city centre was attractive to men of wealth and power, including the fifteenth-century lord of Lucca Paolo Guinigi, who lived long in Pietrasanta and inside the Rocca in 1408 built Palazzo Guinigi, an elegant residence for himself joined to what remained of the ancient city walls. Guinigi Palace, a part of which still remains, over the centuries hosted illustrious figures including popes and emperors.

Paolo was a patron of the arts, a tragic and romantic figure, whose wife Ilaria, of the noble Ligurian family Del Carretto, Marquises of Savona, died very young in 1405 giving birth. Paolo commissioned the greatest sculptor of the age Jacopo della Quercia to create a marble sarcophagus for her, in which she reclines peacefully with a dog, symbol of loyalty, at her feet. The work, that can be seen in the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, is one of the masterpieces of Italian sculpture of the 1400s.

Pietrasanta - Duomo
Pietrasanta – Duomo

The Fight over the Most Important Road of the Middle Ages, from Canterbury to Rome

Pietrasanta’s 13th-century foundation occurred at a special time in Italy’s history, the passage from one period to a new one: the end of the feudal period (represented in Pietrasanta by the expulsion of the aristocratic lords of Corvaia and Vallecchia) and the establishment of municipal power.

Pietrasanta had considerable importance in the Middle Ages.

The town, founded by Lucca and originally under its domination, became the object of dispute and conquest by the republics of Pisa, Genoa and Florence, and was subjected to the alternating sovereignty of these four city-states, not only through countless wars but also transactions in which Pietrasanta was bought and sold.

Guiscardo founded Pietrasanta because Lucca needed to expand and also to control the coast and the Via Francigena.

The reason why Lucca and neighbouring municipalities had a long struggle over Pietrasanta was their desire to take possession of a territory that was crucial for its strategic-military position and economic importance, due to the presence of the major ancient sea port of Motrone (where now is Marina di Pietrasanta), of rich mining resources such as iron and silver, of agricultural resources, and for being crossed by the most important road of the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena.

The Via Francigena (or Via Romea) was the main route of travel, transit, trade and pilgrimage of the Middle Ages and the principal artery connecting Northern Europe with the Mediterranean. It was – and is, as it still exists – partially based on the previous Roman road network which, after the decline of the Roman Empire, had undergone a remarkable degradation.

Pietrasanta is registered with the European Association of Vie Francigene.

Pietrasanta Sant'Agostino Cloister
Pietrasanta Sant’Agostino Cloister

Shortly after its foundation, Pietrasanta was in the hands of the Pisans then returned to Lucca. During this period of Lucca’s rule the town had its greatest development, particularly under Castruccio Castracani’s government, which, as we saw, in 1324 erected the Rocchetta and restored the Rocca di Sala. The Duomo (cathedral), the Convent of Sant ‘Augustine and the Pretorio Palace were also built then.

After alternate vicissitudes, in 1430 Genoa took control of the town until 1484 when it was occupied by the Florentines. Only 10 years later, in 1494, Piero de’ Medici, called Piero the Unfortunate and son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, handed this land to the King of France Charles VIII. The governor of the King of France in Italy eventually returned the control of Pietrasanta’s territory to Lucca in exchange for 29,000 ducats of gold.

Under Lucca’s authority it remained until 1513, year in which Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici), arbitrator of the dispute between Lucca and Florence, assigned Pietrasanta and its district to the latter.

Pietrasanta Statue of Leopoldo
Pietrasanta Statue of Leopoldo

As part of the Florentine Grand Duchy of Tuscany Pietrasanta prospered economically and flourished culturally, as the whole of Tuscany did during the Renaissance. These were years of political stability as well as economic expansion.

Here in Pietrasanta, in the Rocca di Sala, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1561 signed the decree granting to the great Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini the house in Via del Rosario in Florence where Cellini would set up the workshop for the fusion of Perseus, his masterpiece, now holding the head of Medusa under the vaults of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

The city of Pietrasanta was still growing, the defensive walls were expanded and strengthened. And, most importantly, marble quarries were opened.

Michelangelo himself, the greatest sculptor of all time, recognised the beauty of the Carrara white marble extracted from the quarries around Pietrasanta: not only did Michelangelo use it for his own sculptures but he also worked in the marble quarries.

Pietrasanta’s reputation as an international centre for marble processing and for sculpture started then. Sculptors, from the best known to the novices, flocked here and gave rise to a global community of artists, studios, laboratories and schools.

In 1737, with the extinction of the Medici dynasty, the crown of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany passed to the Lorraines.

In the second half of 1700, with the advent of Lorraine family to the throne of Tuscany, Pietrasanta’s economic expansion continued.

French dictator Napoleon’s invasion of the Versilia area in 1799 and its annexation to the French Empire were a terrible blow for Pietrasanta whose economy and wellbeing suffered.

But Napoleon, like so many other tyrants and ideologues, did not last for long. After the fall of the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of ancient regimes, development started again, and Pietrasanta became an important economic and cultural centre in which marble had a predominant role.

From 22 March 1841 the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II of Lorraine raised Pietrasanta to the status of noble city (“Città Nobile”), event commemorated by the statue of Leopold standing on the Cathedral Square.

In 1842 the School for Marble Artwork, still active, was opened, and within a few years a myriad of workshops followed.

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