Pietrasanta - Piazza Duomo

Pietrasanta - Piazza Duomo

Pietrasanta, Tuscany

Pietrasanta between Mediterranean Sea and Mountains Made of Marble

Pietrasanta is nothing less than a little gem, largely unexplored by mass tourism (except for its seaside district, “frazione”, Marina di Pietrasanta).

Its main tourism is elite and cultural, being an international centre for sculpture. Pietrasanta is called "the little Athens of Versilia" due to the concentration of artists who have come to live here.

Versilia, an area of north-west Tuscany, comprises 7 communes (city councils, or “comuni”): along the coast are Viareggio, which is Versilia’s main town, Camaiore, Pietrasanta and Forte dei Marmi; inland is Massarosa; and in the mountainous parts, named “Alta Versilia”, are Seravezza and Stazzema.

Pietrasanta is considered as the “capital” of historic Versilia.

Pietrasanta is a lovely, small Medieval town less than 2 miles from the beaches of Versilia Riviera with its fashionable seaside resorts: Viareggio with its famous Carnival, Forte dei Marmi, Marina di Pietrasanta, Lido di Camaiore (see map).

Marina di Pietrasanta is the part of Pietrasanta that is on the coast, and is a lively and popular seaside resort and holiday destination.

Very close to Carrara, the city which is synonymous with pure white marble, Pietrasanta lies at the foot of the magnificent, marble-rich Apuan Alps, and is a historical town where mountains and sea reach out to one another and meet.

The marble of which the Apuan mountains are composed makes them look snowcapped, and their impressive peaks stand out, emerging from the background throughout the whole region.

These mountains are a geological rarity: they are made of marble. No other part of the world can boast such an enormous concentration of this precious material.


The Hill Fortress With Best View of Pietrasanta’s Historic Centre as Far as the Sea

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

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.

The Rocca consists of a fortified square-shaped complex with corner towers and a central keep. From the top, above its crenelated merlons you see Pietrasanta town's crisscrossing paved alleys creating shadows on the side walls of ancient aristocratic palaces, and you hear the sudden noise of the city's marble and bronze workshops breaking the silence over the houses’ sunny red roofs.

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

Pietrasanta’s thirteenth-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.

As early as in Roman times, the Cassia, Clodia and Aemilia Scauri (or Aurelia Nuova) Roads converged in the Tuscan city of Lucca. When the Longobards made Lucca the capital of Tuscia, the city gained considerable importance as a road link between Padania in Italy's north and the central-southern Dukedoms of Spoleto and Benevento. It is during the Longobard domain that Via Francigena came to acquire its definite form. After the Franks of Charlemagne conquered the Longobard (or Lombard) Kingdom, and since the tenth century, the road assumed the name it still preserves, which means “originating from France”.

The Franks themselves consolidated the pilgrimage tradition of the road, choosing the two great pilgrims’ destinations of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and of Rome, so that eventually it formed a big Y, at the bottom end of which was the city of Rome while at the top ends were Northern Europe and Santiago. These two great directions joined in the ancient Roman town of Luni, north of Pietrasanta, and then continued to Lucca, which became a primary stop on the road for the presence in the city of the wooden crucifix depicting the Holy Face: the fame of this statue was spread throughout Europe also by Lucca’s merchants.

Lucca thus became a compulsory meeting place and main junction of the Via Romea, attracting within its walls pontiffs, kings, emperors, saints and pilgrims from all over Europe. The Francigena Way, therefore, gathered travellers from the British Isles, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, and was also linked to the other major pilgrimage destination which is Santiago de Compostela.

The pilgrims, once they came to Luni, went through Pietrasanta (and Camaiore) and from there walked to Lucca, finding refreshments in the many inns, lodgings, and that exquisitely Christian invention that was the hospitals, along the Via Francigena route. Pietrasanta is registered with the European Association of Vie Francigene.


Pietrasanta Sant'Agostino Cloister

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Michelangelo

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 - Marble quarries at night

Pietrasanta - Marble Quarries at Night

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.

Now that the area was part of the Tuscan Grand Duchy, the Medici Pope Leo X realised that it was no longer necessary to buy marble from Carrara. He had marble within the state of Florence. So he ordered Michelangelo Buonarroti, who at the time was working on the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo (the patron saint of the Medicis) in Florence, to plan a road from the sea to the marbles of Seravezza and Pietrasanta.

Plan a road? Michelangelo had already turned himself from painter and sculptor to architect (with Bramante he designed the magnificent Dome of St Peter's Basilica in Rome and he also designed other parts of the great church's architecture), so the artist, perplexed at first, thought to himself: why not from architect to engineer?

The challenge was enormous, and proved to cost him lots of blood, sweat and tears, but was extremely rewarding. He had to visit the Apuan Alps himself, still virgin territory at the time, trekking on perilous paths, but when he reached the seemingly inaccessible peak of the Monte Altissimo and touched its side, he thought that he had never seen or felt marble as pure, statuary and perfect as this, not even the nearby Carrara's marble which was easier to extract. This was "the gods' own stone". And he supervised the building of the road, laboured as a navvy and worked in the quarries.

Michelangelo and the Apuan Alps Marble

Michelangelo and the Apuan Alps Marble

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.

But his dream was never realised, at least not by himself. The ecstasy dissolves into agony: in March 1520 Michelangelo is disengaged by Leo X from the contract for the façade of San Lorenzo and the road is interrupted. Cosimo I will complete it and also build the beautiful Medici Villa of Seravezza for the family summer holidays and to extract "the Gold of the Apuane": by now the myth was born to stay and not only Pietrasanta but the whole of Versilia experienced a major economic development.

Today we've lost the sense of the sacred that inspired Michelangelo. No sculptor has ever equalled Michelangelo, no painter has ever equalled Leonardo da Vinci. Art and music have ceased to evolve, even to exist, decades and even centuries ago. Man is better, even more intelligent, when he is closer to God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is true in everything man is and does, but in art we can see it most immediately, without the mediation of thought, just through the senses.

Michelangelo Buonarroti came here to choose the most valuable marble for his sculptures. He stayed in Pietrasanta between 1516 and 1519 . According to some recent studies, it might be the work of Michelangelo the design of the bell tower of the Duomo di Pietrasanta, renowned for its unusual spiral-shaped self-supporting staircase, until now attributed to the Florentine architect and sculptor Donato Benti. who was the director of the works during the period.

From then, Pietrasanta became known around the world for marble processing, a gathering place of well-known and emerging sculptors alike.

in 1737, with the extinction of the Medici dynasty, the crown of the Grand Duchy passed to the Lorraines

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

French dictator Napoleon’s invasion of Versilia 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, the development restarted, 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 flourished.


Pietrasanta Statue of Leopoldo

Pietrasanta Marble, Sculpture, Artist Laboratories, Historic Centre

Today, Pietrasanta is rightly considered as the world's capital of marble working. Many internationally renowned art schools and sculpture laboratories are here, where bronze craftsmanship is also widely practised.

Pietrasanta has more sculptors per square metre than any other place on earth.

Artists and sculptors are drawn to Pietrasanta from all over the world. In the town’s beautiful, elegant historic centre, their studios mingle with small boutiques of trendy designers, distinguished wine merchants and art galleries, smart shops and historic landmarks, wooden shutters and buildings with ochre and pink coloured facades in the deep, narrow alleyways that radiate from Piazza del Duomo.

Pietrasanta has been chosen as a candidate for "Italian Capital of Culture" for 2020, and this in a country, like Italy, which is certainly not short of cities of culture.

Among the artists who mostly contributed to the town's planetary repute, apart from Michelangelo, and often settled here and worked alongside artisan masters of marble and bronze are Fernando Botero, the Colombian who, when he arrived in Pietrasanta, was the most famous and highly-paid painter-sculptor in the world, Henry Moore, Jean Hans Arp, Gio' Pomodoro, Jacques Lipchitz, Joan Mirò, Gina Lollobrigida, Jean-Michel Folon, Pietro Cascella, Franco Adami, Girolamo Ciulla, Marcello Tommasi, Kan Yasuda, and many more.

2018 will see the inauguration of the Museum Mitoraj, the world temple of the sculpture of the Polish honorary citizen of Pietrasanta Igor Mitoraj, as well as the ongoing upgrading of the International Sculpture Park. The novelty of the International Sculpture Festival will see the light in 2020.

Sculptures of these world-renowned major sculptors dot the town’s public spaces, streets and squares. It all depends on whether you like contemporary “art” but it’s all done in good taste and, even if you’re not a fan of modern sculpture, there are still myriad real artistic treasures to see in Pietrasanta.

Marble characterises the most important buildings of the city, among which the Cathedral (Duomo) stands out.

Pietrasanta has many remarkable sites to visit, artistic landmarks, monuments, palaces, churches, galleries. Its historic centre is a precious jewelry case of the Middle Ages, containing the splendid Piazza Duomo.

Pietrasanta marble quarries

Pietrasanta Marble Quarries

Some of the beautiful buildings in the square are the Collegiata of San Martino, built in the 14th century, better known as the Duomo, with the bell tower from the same period, remained incomplete because never covered in marble. The church contains important works of art and the sacred icon of the Madonna del Sole.

A little behind is the oratory of San Giacinto, better known as the Battistero, from the 17th century.

On the same side of the square are Palazzo Moroni and the Torre delle Ore, "Tower of the Hours", deriving its name from its clock, both from the 1500s.

On the other side is the Church of Sant'Agostino, built in the 1400s, with the former Agostinian convent and cloister. Also on the Cathedral Square is the Civic Tower, in Gothic style.



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