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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street
London, 1848.

The text is in the public domain.


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 p85  Chapter XXXVI


Alpheae veterem contemplor originis urbem
Quam cingunt geminis Arnus et Ausur aquis.

— Rutilius.

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Leghorn High antiquity of Pisae Historical notices Very few ancient remains Etruscan urns in the Campo Santo

On approaching Leghorn from the sea, I have always been inclined to recognise in it, Triturrita, with the ancient port of Pisa.​1 It is true that the modern town does not wholly correspond with the description given by Rutilius.  p86 It has now more than a mere bank of sea-weed to protect it from the violence of the waves; it embraces an ample harbour within its arms of stone; but it lies on a naturally open shore; it has an artificial peninsula, on which the Villa Triturrita may have stood; and, by a singular coincidence, there are still three prominent towers to suggest the identity.

No traveller, now-a‑days, omits to make a trip hence to Pisa. Like the Itinerant Gaul, he leaves his vessel in the port, and hurries away to lionise that city. He now needs no friendly loan of a carriage, or of saddle-horses; but, thanks to the railroad, he may run to Pisa and back, while the steamer is taking in coals; for presuming on his privilege as "roba di vapore," he may set custom-house officers, and all the usual stumbling-blocks of travellers, at defiance.2

Of the multitudes that thus visit the elegant and tranquil city of Pisa, who remembers her great antiquity? — who thinks of her as one of the most venerable cities of Italy, prior to the Trojan War, one of the earliest settlements  p87 of the Pelasgi on this coast?​3 The Pisa of the middle ages is so bright a vision as to throw into dim shade the glories of her remoter antiquity. This is one of the very few cities of Etruria, which, after the lapse of three thousand years, still retains, not only its site,​4 but its importance, and has shrouded the hoariness of antiquity in the gay garlands of ever-flourishing youth.

 p88  Her remoteness from Rome may well account for the absence of historical mention of Pisa during the period of Etruscan independence. Virgil introduces her as sending aid to Aeneas against Turnus​5 — a statement which can be received only as confirmatory evidence of her antiquity. Yet a modern writer of great weight does not hesitate to regard her as one of the Twelve chief cities of Etruria.​6 The earliest mention of Pisa in history occurs in the year 529 (B.C. 225), when, just before the battle of Telamon, a Roman army from Sardinia was landed here.​7 Frequent mention is subsequently made of Pisa, which played a prominent part in the Ligurian Wars.​8 It was colonised in the year 574, at the request of its citizens.​9 Under the Romans, it was of considerable importance on account of its port, and was celebrated also for the fertility of its territory, for the quarries in its neighbourhood, and for the abundance of timber it yielded for ship-building.10

Of the ancient magnificence of Pisa scarcely a vestige  p89 remains. Various fragments of Roman antiquity have been discovered on the spot; but, with the exception of sundry sarcophagi, broken statues, and numerous inscriptions, nothing remains above ground beyond some mean traces of baths, and two marble columns with Composite capitals, probably belonging to the vestibule of a temple of the time of the Antonines, now embedded in the wall of the ruined church of San Felice.​11 As to the city of the Pelasgi and Etruscans, it has entirely disappeared. The traveller looks in vain for a stone of the walls, which from the exposed position of the city must have been of great strength — in vain for a tumulus or monument on the surrounding plain — the city of the dead, as well as that of the living, of that early period, is now lost to the eye. Yet the necropolis of Pisa must exist; but, as far as I can learn, it has not been sought for.12

The only relics of Etruscan antiquity at Pisa are a few sarcophagi and urns in that celebrated sepulchral museum, the Campo Santo.13 Even these were not found on the  p90 spot. The eye, experienced in Etruscan remains, at once recognises them as the roba of Volterra. They were found at Morrona, in the neighbourhood of that town, and presented in 1808 to the city of Pisa. There is nothing among them of remarkable interest. Most are small square cinerary urns, or "ash chests," as the Germans term them, with stunted and distorted figures on the lids. One of these recumbent figures holds an open scroll, with an Etruscan inscription in red letters. Among the reliefs are — a banquet; a sacrifice; another of the same on a sarcophagus, in good style; the deathbed scene of a female, with her friends round her; a soul in a quadriga, conducted to the shades below by Charun, armed with his hammer; a griffon contending with three warriors; an Amazon with sword and shield defending her fallen comrade from a fierce beast like a tiger, which is emerging from a well; Orestes persecuted by a Fury; Polites, with one knee on the altar, defending himself with an axe against Pyrrhus, who is rushing up, sword in hand, to slay him, while two demons, one with a torch, the other with a sword, stand one on each side. A large sarcophagus has a pair of figures on its lid, and the hunt of the Calydonian boar in relief below. Perhaps the most interesting monument is an alabaster urn, on which a female figure reclines, holding a rhyton, or drinking-cup, in the shape of a horse's head and fore-quarters; in the relief below, is represented a female demon or Fury, winged and  p91 buskined, but without drapery, in a sitting posture, and with a spear in her hand — extremely like one of the evil spirits painted on the walls of the Grotta del Cardinale at Corneto,​14 who sits as guardian over

           — "the gates of grislie Hell,
And horrid house of sad Proserpina."

As in duty bound, I have noticed these Etruscan relics; yet few who visit this sacred and silent corner of Pisa, where the grandeur and glory of the city are concentrated, are likely to give them much attention. Few will turn from the antique pomp, the mosque-like magnificence of the Cathedral — from the fair white marvel of the Leaning Tower — from the cunningly-wrought pulpit and font of the Baptistery — or even from the frescoed visions, the grotesque solemnities of the Campo Santo, to examine these uncouth memorials of the early possessors of the land.

The Author's Notes:

1 Rutil. I.527, et seq.; II.12. Called "Turrita" by the Peutingerian Table, which places it 9 miles from Pisae. The Maritime Itinerary has "Portus Pisanus" in the same position. Much doubt has been thrown on the antiquity of Livorno (Repetti, II. p717); and the highest generally ascribed to it is that of Roman times — either as the Ad Herculem of the Antonine Itinerary, on the Via Aurelia, 12 miles from Pisae; or the Labro of Cicero (ad Quint. Frat. II.6); or the Liburnum, mentioned by Zosimus (Annal. V cited by Cluver); whence the modern name, Livorno, is derived. It is said to have been called Ligurnum (Leghorn) in the middle ages. The arguments Cluver (II p467) adduces to prove that Portus was at the mouth of the Arno, seem to me of little force. Cramer (Ancient Italy, I p175), however, agrees with him. Mannert (Geog. p353) on the other hand contends for the identity of Leghorn with the Portus Pisanus. He places Labro, however, at Salebro and Ad Herculem at Violino. An intermediate opinion is held by Targioni Tozzetti (Viaggi in Toscana, II. pp398‑420), who considers the port of Pisae to have been a bay between the Arno and the site of Leghorn, now filled up with alluvial deposits from the river; and he finds Villa Triturrita in some Roman remains on the inner shore of this bay. Indeed it is well known that the land has gained considerably on the sea in the Delta of the Arno. Müller (Etrusk. I.1, 2; I.4, 8), who follows Tozzetti, considers this port to have been connected with the city, by an ancient branch of the Arno, now stopped up, one of the three mentioned by Strabo, V.p222. Yet from the Maritime Itinerary it seems evident that it was not at the principal mouth of the river, but 9 miles to the south; which favours the claims of Livorno. The VIIII in that Itinerary and the Peutingerian Table, may easily be an error for XIIII, which is the true distance between Leghorn and Pisa.

2 The use of this word roba is most singular and amusing, and should be understood by the traveller. It is of universal application. What cannot be designated by roba? It is impossible to give its equivalent in English, for we have no such word handy. The nearest approach to it is "thing" or "stuff," but it has a much wider application, accommodating it to the whole range of created objects, animate or inanimate, substances or abstractions. It implies belonging, appertaining to, or proceeding from. The Spaniards use the cognate word ropa, but in a more limited sense. Our word "robe," must have the same origin, and "rubbish" must come from its depreciative inflexion — robaccia. An Italian will speak of his wife and children, as well as of his goods and chattels, as his roba. A mountain is the roba of the Tuscan, Roman, or Neapolitan State, as the case may be. The mist rising from a stream and the fish caught in it, are alike roba di fiume — "river-stuff." The traveller will sometimes have his dignity offended when he hears the same term applied to himself as the cloth on his back — roba di Francia or roba d'Inghilterra, according to his country; or, as in the case referred to above, when he hears himself spoken of as "steam-stuff" because he happens to have just landed from a steam-boat. Even the laws and institutions of his country, and the doctrines or observances of his creed, will be brought by the Italian under this all-comprehensive term.

3 Pisae is classed by Dionysius (I. p16) among the primitive cities of Italy, either taken from the Siculi, or subsequently built by the confederate Pelasgi and Aborigines. Another tradition ascribes its foundation to a Greek colony from Arcadia, who named it after the celebrated city of that land; another to some of the Greeks who wandered to Italy after the Trojan War, whether Epeus, the maker of the wooden horse, or some of the Pylians, the followers of Nestor (Serv. ad Aen. X.179; Strabo, V.p222); but the connection with Pisae of the Peloponnesus seems to have been most generally believed. Virg. Aen. loc. cit.; Serv. ad loc.; Plin. III.8; Claudian. de Bel. Gildon. 483; Rutil. I.565, 573; Solinus, Polyh. VIII. Servius records another tradition of its origin, one assigning to the Celts; another that its site had been occupied by an earlier town, by some called Phocis, by others Teuta, whose inhabitants the Teutae, Teutani, or Teutones, were of Greek race. Plin. III.8. Cato (ap. Serv.) though admitting that this region was originally inhabited by the Teutones, who spoke Greek, could not trace the foundation of Pisae earlier than the arrival of the Etruscans in Italy; and he ascribes it to Tarchon. This tradition of the Teutanes, Müller (einl. 2, 9, n55) regards as confirmatory of a Pelasgic origin. Some say Pisae was taken by the Etruscans from the Ligurians. Lycoph. Cass. 1356. cf. Justin. XX.1. But the almost concurrent voice of tradition assigns to Pisae a Greek origin, which its name seems to confirm; though on the other hand its name, which Servius says signified a moon-shaped port in the Lydian (i.e. Etruscan) tongue, may have given rise to these traditions. Its site also in an open plain, so unlike that of most Etruscan cities, favours the view of its Pelasgic origin.

4 Pisa anciently stood on a tongue of land formed by the confluence of the Arnus and Ausar (Strabo, V.p222; Plin. III.8; Rutil. I.566); but the latter, the Serchio, at the close of the twelfth century altered its course, and found a more northerly channel to the sea. In Strabo's time the city was only 20 stadia (2½ miles) inland, but by the accumulation of soil brought down by the two rivers it is now removed 6 miles from the sea. An old tradition represents the water, at the point of confluence, rising to such a height in the middle of the channel, that persons standing on the opposite banks could not see each other.​a Strabo, loc. cit.; cf. Pseudo-Aristot. Mirab. Auscult. c94. Colonel Mure remarks the similarity of site between the Pisa of Etruria and that of Greece — both occupied "a precisely similar region, a low, warm, marshy flat, interspersed with pine-forest." Travels in Greece, II. p283. The analogy of site may explain (p88)the identity of name; which Colonel Mure is doubtful whether to derive from πίσος — a marsh — or from πίσσα — the fir or pine-tree. The former or an equivalent derivation is favoured by Strabo (VIII. p356), and by Eustathios (ad Hom. Iliad. XX.9); but the latter derives support from the actual existence of pine-woods, both around the city of Elis, and also on this coast, in the royal Cascine, where they cover some square miles, and are in all probability the legitimate descendants of the ancient forests, where Rutilius, when weather-bound, amused himself with hunting the wild-boar (I.621‑8). The city is called Pissa or Pissae by Lycophron, Polybius, and Ptolemy.

5 Virg. Aen. X.179. He calls it — urbs Etrusca.

6 Müller, Etrusk. II.1, 2. Strabo (V. p223) says that it had originally been a flourishing city. Mannert (Geog. p339), though he does not regard it as one of the Twelve, calls it, apparently on the authority of Strabo and Polybius (II.16), "the natural rampart and frontier-wall of Etruria towards the north."

7 Polyb. II.27.

8 Liv. XXI.39; XXXIII.43; XXXIV.56; XXXV.21; XL.41; XLI.5. Previously, in the Second Punic War, Scipio had made use of its port. Polyb. III.56.

9 Liv. XL.43. Festus calls it a municipium. Pliny (III.8) and Ptolemy (Geog. p72) mention it among the Roman colonies in Etruria.

10 Strabo, V.p223. Pliny also speaks of its grain (XVIII.20), of its grapes (XIV.4, 7), and of its wonderful spring, where frogs found themselves literally in hot water (II.106).

11 Repetti, IV. p305; Dempster (II. p248) infers from Seneca (Thyestes, I.123) that Pisa was anciently renowned for her towers; but the true reading is —

"Pisaeisque domos curribus inclytas,"

and the line refers to the city of Elis. The Italian Pisa, however, was renowned for her towers in the middle ages. Benjamin, the Jew of Tudela, who lived in the tenth century, records that nearly 10,000 towers were to be counted, attached to the houses — verily, as old Faccio degli Uberti says of Lucca — "à guisa d'un boscheto." Other chroniclers increase this number to 15,000; and Petrarch vouches for a great multitude.

12 It can hardly lie between Pisa and the sea; for it is probable that the city stood originally almost on the shore. It is now six miles from the sea; but in the tenth century, according to that wandering Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, it was but four; and in Strabo's time only two miles and a half inland; therefore, at the same rate, we may conclude that a thousand years earlier, it stood almost close to the sea. Repetti (IV. p372) says that numerous Roman sarcophagi have been disinterred within the city itself, for the most part on the right bank of the Arno, and at some distance from the river.

13 There are some small copper coins with the head of Mercury on the obverse, and an owl, with the leg Peithesa, in Etruscan characters, on the reverse, which most probably belong to Pisa. The opinion of early Italian antiquaries (p90)was generally in favour of Perusia; Lanzi (Sagg. II pp27, 76) seems to hint at the Arretium Fidens of Pliny. Sestini (Geog. Numis. II. p5) was less extravagant in ascribing these coins to Veii (cf. Mionnet, Suppl. I. p204). They have also been assigned to Pitinum in Umbria; but Müller (Etrusk. I p338) suggests that Peithesa may be the old Etruscan form of Pissa; and Cramer (Ancient Italy, I p173) also remarks that if we suppose its pronunciation to have been Pithsa, it would not be far from the Pissa of Lycophron. Millingen (Numis. Anc. Ital. p170) thinks that these coins belong to some forgotten town, near Todi in Umbria, because they are generally found in that neighbourhood.

14 See Vol. I p321, where the resemblance this figure bears to the Fury Tisiphone is pointed out.

Thayer's Note:

a persons standing on the opposite banks could not see each other: O why must people say such things? I am glad, at least, to see that Dennis carefully avoids falling into it. And then again. . . .

Here is what Strabo says:

δυεῖν δὲ ποταμῶν κεῖται [Πίσα] μεταξὺ κατ’ αὐτὴν τὴν συμβολήν, Ἄρνου τε καὶ Αὔσαρος ὦν ὁ μὲν ἐξ Ἀρρητίου φέρεται πολύς, οὐχὶ πᾶσι ἀλλὰ τριχῆ σχισθεις, ὁδ’ ἐκ τῶν Ἀπεννίνων ὀρῶν· συμπεσόντες δ’ εἰς ἕν ῥεῖθρον μετεωρίζουσιν ἀλλήλους ταῖς ἀντικοπαῖς ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον ὥστε τοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν ἡιόνων ἑστῶτας ἀμφοτέρων μηδ’ ἕτερον ὑπὸ θατέρου καθορᾶσθαι, ὥστ’ ἀνάγκη δυσανάπλωτα ἐκ θαλάττης εἲναι· στάδιοι δ’ εἰσι τοῦ ἀνάπλου περὶ εἴκοσι.

The textual note in the Loeb edition of Strabo reads: Αὔσαρος, Cluver, for Αἴσαρος; so most of the editors, including Meineke.

[Pisa] is situated between, and at very confluence of, two rivers, the Arnus and the Ausar, of which the former runs from Arretium, with great quantities of water (not all in one stream, but divided into three streams), and the latter from the Apennine Mountains; and when they unite and form one stream they heave one another up so high by their mutual resistance that two persons standing on the opposite banks cannot even see each other; and hence, necessarily, voyages inland from the sea are difficult to make; the length of the voyage is about twenty stadia.


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