Basilica di San Piero a Grado, Pisa - Italy
Basilica of St. Piero a Grado, Pisa – Italy

The tradition.

The Basilica of St. Piero a Grado rises exactly in the place where, in Roman times, the mouth of the River Arno flowed into the sea. It was built at the place where, according to proved tradition, St. Peter disembarked during his pilgrimage to Rome.
The present Basilica was begun in the 10th century and finished in the 11th century, during the period in which Pisa became a strong naval and commercial power.
The Basilica is built over the foundations of very ancient churches. Recent excavations uncovered three periods of construction: foundation of Roman port buildings; the wall of the apse of the first church dating from the 4th century and last but not least, the apse of the second church dating from the 6th – 7th centuries. The excavations, initiated in 1919-1920 and then suspended, were re-opened in1955-1965 with more modern research methods; these latter excavations revealed the ancient altar resting on the column placed beneath the canopy which was in the centre of the primitive church. Parts of the column protecting the antique tabernacle came to light, and one can still see the bases and some slabs of twisted white marble.
A very important discovery was the various apses, as indicate above. The oldest apse is the oratorio of the 4th century. The lightest wall was built in the Lombard period (6th-7th century). During the same excavations, various levels of the floor were found which over the centuries had caved in due to the elevation of th church. The excavations, as they are now organized, demonstrate to the visitor the variety of the works during the different historical periods. The internal walls of the main apse are reinforced due to a reconstruction followings a fire in the church. Traces of the fire have been found in the layers of flooring of the church.

The Basilica.

The Basilica is of Roman-Pisan style, and is constructed from local stone, mainly “verrucana stone”. The columns come from pre-existent Roman buildings, as well as the capitals of the various style: Corinthian, Doric, water leaves, and even Sirian. The series of arches between them clearly show the two phases of construction of the Basilica: first the east, with smaller arches, then the area towards the sea with higher arches. These arches should have been longer, ending with the façade, as one can see from the foundations which are extended on the exterior almost 12 meters. To this day the destruction of the façade is a mystery. The Basilica therefore, remains closed off from the counter opposed apses like the old imperial Roman basilicas.

External view.

Within the parameters of the Basilica are enclosed stones with relief in classical Roman style, as well as some Roman inscriptions. Beneath the external eaves of the roof where the sun sets in the west, the beautiful ceramics of Morescan style, which are among the most notable of this type of ornament in the region of Pisa.
The Basilica, having two counter-opposed apses, as well as two minor ones, is without a façade, which shows a type of construction different from other regions, and because of these characteristics the Basilica is unique in the world.
There is evidence that this place has always been a centre of Christian devotion. Between the city of Pisa and the Basilica many little convents were built. The monks who lived here welcomed pilgrims on their way to Rome, attracted by the fame of the sanctuary. The tradition of St. Piero a Grado grew many centuries before 1000 and go back to times before any written records were kept.
Archeology substitutes, in this case, for the lack of documentation and demonstrates that from the beginning, when Christianity first came out into the open, the Roman building on the beach near the mouth of the Arno was believed to the one in which Peter rested during his pilgrimage to the Eternal City.

The murals

The murals date from latter 1200/s and early 1300/s, and were executed by Deodato Orlandi, an artist from Lucca, who at that time worked at Pisa. He seems to repeat in the area around the central nave designs illustrating the life of St. Peter, from the call of Jesus (elevated, at the right main altar) to the episodes from the Act of the Apostles, to the coming at the “ad gradus armenses”, to martyrdom and burial together with that of St. Paul. The murals are similar to the ones that exist in the atrium of the old basilica of St. Peter at Vatican which has been demolished. Undermeath the immense paintings above the arches are portraits of the various Pontiffs from St. Peter to John XVIII, who was Pope from 1004 to 1009. This singular succession of images of the papal succession it is the most important series of portraits of Popes that remains after the loss of the ones which once adorned the Roman basilica of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican and Saint Paul’s outside the walls.

(original text from leaflet "A brief story of the origins of the Basilica, its architecture, murals and traditions" - Propositura di San Pietro Apostolo - San Piero a Grado - Pisa.
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