Death in Pisa: The Camposanto Sarcophagi

Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy

Part 11, Death in Pisa – The Camposanto Sarcophagi


In my previous post I showcased the gravestones of Pisa’s Camposanto, in Part Two I turn the spotlight onto the huge stone coffins lining the walls. But whereas the gravestones reflect entirely Christian values and notions of death this time around it is time to turn our attention to the sarcophagi. These huge hollowed out stone boxes reflect even more ancient Roman notions on the subject, and perhaps not surprisingly we see a similar outlook on the matter – namely that death is quite definitely not the end of life but merely the beginning of the next chapter, a notion shared it must be said by the majority of religions across the globe.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

But there the similarities end. For the Christians of the Middle Ages their destination was a heaven clearly defined and mapped out by the clergy (they hoped – not the equally graphically depicted Hell, as I suspect a great many of them feared). The Romans simply seem to be stepping into an idealized version of the same indulged and privileged lives they lived right down here on Earth, complete with all the trappings – for privileged and indulged indeed were. Oddly enough in Part 3 we’ll actually see such earthly and materialistic values revisited in the funerary statuary created by Victorians when the rigidity of the church doctrine gave way to quite flamboyant notions of an eternal bliss rather more attuned to Roman ideals than those of strict medieval church dogma.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

So, come along with me on a tour of my favorite Camposito sarcophagi sculpture as we meet the ancestors and try to imagine just what was on their mind as they designed the vessels that were to carry them across the river and into their preordained afterlife. As with the gravestones a great deal can be ascertained about these people by close examination of the very subject matter with which they made their one last statement to a world they were about to depart.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

But finally before we begin our tour I’d like to draw attention to the sheer technical difficulty, not to mention grueling work, carried out by the artists and craftsmen who hollowed out and carved these huge slabs of stone. Even today such a feat represents a colossal amount of work, and whether the inside or outside is carved first there is always the lingering fear of a catastrophic crack appearing to destroy the project during the final stages. The cracks you do see are almost certainly the result of damage caused during the fire that raged during World War 2, or simply due to mischief or weather during the almost two thousand years they have been vulnerable to such mishaps. But whatever condition they are in now you can be sure they were flawless the day their occupants were placed within a shrine entirely devoted to themselves, their lives and the importance of their social position, secure in the knowledge that they were indeed about to embark on a journey to an afterlife suitably befitting and worthy of such nobility. And unlike their Christian successors no day of judgment was about to spoil the party.

Let’s take a moment to expand on that last point with the aide of a few photos, as mentioned, even with the arsenal of tools available to the modern stone carver hollowing out a bowl of such proportion represents an epic task, but even discounting the physical aspect of the work there is the inherent danger involved with carving into such relatively thin walls – too much force with a single blow could prove disastrous – or, if the equation is reversed, a little too much zeal in the hollowing out process and all the time spent sculpting the intricate and deep bas relief covering the outside will have been for naught. I have grappled with the same problem while carving Mystique Masque, which although a great deal smaller than these giant containers nonetheless possessed wafer thin margins with no room for error whatsoever.

To me its fascinating to see the tool marks covering the inside that I know were made from a tool we call a punch and is often still the most effective way to remove, or ‘waste’ stone even today. But there can be no doubt that the same men who hollowed out such a gigantic block of stone had little or nothing to do with carving the sculpture – these days we, or at least I, tend to do everything from start to finish, but the elaborate and sophisticated carving seen on the outside of the sarcophagi was most certainly by the  hand of master carvers. And given the sophistication of the work, not to mention the prestige and importance of the commission, no doubt these were sculptors at the very top of their profession.

So, let’s take a look around. Here are a general sampling of sarcophagi (…love that word by the way) that immediately caught my attention, followed by a closer inspection of a few pieces that I found particularly impressive… quite fascinating in fact.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

To begin with, take a look at this pattern, its a theme repeated over and over. Slightly hypnotic isn’t it

It seems to represent the actual passage from this world into the next, like a curtain or an ethereal haze. Some have doorways in the middle, many don’t, but clearly these wavy lines are meant to infer a transition beyond and through the boundaries and limits of our earthly minds.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

However, I did notice, interestingly enough, that this particular Roman had hedged his bets somewhat by leaving the door slightly ajar… just in case, you know, there was a problem with the key!

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

I loved this one. Sometimes it is as well to throw the kitchen sink in there – centaurs? Why not?

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

Many of the sarcophagi seemed quite intent on asserting the the lofty social status of their occupants, such as this imperial statement of importance. No doubt the potential sculptors were as eager with the over elaboration as their patron in making sure no one could possibly mistake his importance both socially and, perhaps more important, politically.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

Others had more rugged outdoor matters on their mind, such as hunting, and cavorting naked in the presence of womenfolk. I’m not quite sure just what the inscription below it pertains to but clearly it is of an age several centuries later than the riot of imagery presented by the carvings. I do know that many of the sarcophagi once stood within the cathedral grounds and were only brought into the Camposanto to replace those that were destroyed by the fire, perhaps this was one.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

But if I had to choose this is perhaps my favorite sarcophagus of all. Just what in the world is going on here?

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

For one thing – just look at the buns on that guy! But what particularly captures my attention – if I can can block out those sculpted buttocks for a moment, is the action on the ground. Of course without the arms we are simply going to have to imagine each person’s actual involvement in the mayhem but we can see a fallen (barbarian) axe, a vicious looking beast just above it, and even more vicious and fearsome looking animal on the center right, a smaller animal with head torqued upwards, but just what is that thing on the right?Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

My first impressions were that it was a horse, but closer inspection reveals a wild boar – but what of those eyes, not to mention the beard. Its only a guess but I’m inclined to believe that the barbarian axe indicates a strong clue that this beast is in fact an amalgam of the Visigoth hoards that made life such made life such hell for Romans during the final years prior to the empire’s spectacular fall…. one last poke in the eye to those who were about to take the reins perhaps?

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

As I’ve mentioned previously there was much indication of the damage inflicted by the Allied bombing but this has me quite baffled – it speaks more of a concerted attempt to gain entry than destruction caused by a fire – you can even see the telltale signs of the point of the punch used to pry this piece out. Of course the answer may trace back to the unscrupulous period when the life of an aristocrat simply wasn’t complete without a Grand Tour. Perhaps this is another, if a far lesser example of the souvenir hunting mania exemplified by the famous ‘Elgin Marbles – once adorning the Acropolis and now residing within the British Museum. Perhaps this piece exists in some glass case somewhere and one day someone will do the right thing, return it, and glue it back in! For to my mind the damage looks far too careful to be the work of tomb robbers – besides, they could have simply lifted the lid.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

But to finish the tour I want to introduce these two characters. I’d noticed them on my first lap of the Camposanto and returned for one last look just moments before I was about to leave. I was immediately impressed and moved by the proximity of the couple, very intimate in fact… positioned nestled in towards each other in the most tender fashion. Of course their features have been obliterated and I suspect this was a result of the intense heat brought about by the fire, but the body language spoke volumes to me and even though all traces of facial expression were gone I was taken by the fact that this, above all else… above the grandeur of political statement, of taught buttocks and fearsome barbarians, of military prowess, of might and wealth… this tender, loving embrace was the lasting, nay eternal, statement these two people chose to leave behind as their lives drew to a close.

Camposanto, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy

But tender as this scene appeared the full force of the sculptural statement suddenly hit me when I noticed the woman’s arm tenderly curled around her husband’s shoulder. I’ve no idea who these people were, what their lives were like, but a more fitting epitaph for true and undying love I think I shall never see.

Until next time,

Love the one you are with,


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