Opera del Duomo Museum
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – literally the “Museum of Cathedral Works” – opened in 1986 in the former Episcopal seminary, or Seminario Vescovile. It was the outcome of a long museum project designed to display and illustrate the art of Pisa, and in particular its mediaeval sculpture, which had its roots in the centuries-old Piazza. The most important sculptures removed from the buildings during restoration operations carried out over the years, and especially during the radical nineteenth-century works, had until then been kept in city collections and in the storage facilities of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana.
The ground-floor display offers a vision of the cathedral complex through inscriptions and casts, but especially it provides a close-up view of the sculptures that have been removed from the Piazza during the many restoration operations. Here we find intarsias, bas-reliefs and capitals from the Cathedral façade, together with what remains of the original furnishings of the chancel and the Arab spolia – a marble capital and a bronze Griffin, which were once proudly displayed at the very top of the building. The three spirits of early Pisan art – Islamic, Byzantine and classical – thus all interact here. The wide corridor of the cloister and the corner room, which is still decorated with its original frescoes, house the sculptures which Nicola and Giovanni Pisano set up to crown the Baptistery. These are followed by the sculptural groups, also by Giovanni, which adorned the lunettes of the portals of the Cathedral and Baptistery. Examples of early fourteenth-century sculpture for the interior can be seen in the imposing remains of the tomb of Emperor Henry VII. It was built at the centre of the apse by Tino da Camaino, who also made the remarkable altarpiece in painted marble, formerly on the altar dedicated to St Rainerius. This is the only one of its type to have come down to us. The bishops’ tombs carved by Nino Pisano, the last of the great Pisan sculptors, and by Andrea Guardi, the most active of Donatello’s pupils in the city, also come from the chancel area of the Cathedral.
Ample space has been given to the magnificent collection of mediaeval liturgical objects, which was also expanded in later centuries. Items for use in religious services, vestments, and caskets and vessels for relics were made of the most precious materials such as gold, silver, rock crystal, hardstone, and gems and pearls, as well as parchments with a wealth of illuminations. In a journey through changing liturgies, we are taken from ivory and enamelled reliquaries to Giovanni Pisano’s little Ivory Madonna and Wooden Crucifix, to exultets in the form of parchments that the ministrant would unroll from the pulpit, to a seventeenth-century table service by the famous Parisian goldsmith Pierre Ballin, austere reliquaries made by Medici craftsmen and, lastly, a neo-Gothic chalice donated by the King of France, Louis Philippe, in 1839. A cope and an embroidered fourteenth-century altar frontal are all that remain of the sumptuous mediaeval fabrics mentioned in original documents. There is, however, a sizeable collection of post-Reformation vestments.
The revival of religious fervour which, from the thirteenth century onwards, changed the look of the Cathedral interior with new paintings and inlaid wooden pews, was swept away by the terrible fire that ravaged the building in 1595. Some of what was saved was reused, albeit in a different overall design, while other parts were set aside even though they were of the highest quality. These include intarsia works made to designs by Botticelli, those of Cristoforo da Lendinara, from Lombardy, and sophisticated perspective views by Guido da Serravallino of Pisa, now on display in the rooms of the Museo dell’Opera. The Translation of the Body of Saint Guido (1752) by the Florentine artist Domenico Ferretti, one of a series of large paintings that adorned the walls of the nave in the eighteenth century, is now in the Museum because, well into the nineteenth century, it was decided to make room for a work that would better celebrate the past glories of Pisa. The shaped panel with The Virgin, painted by the Melani brothers in the early eighteenth century, on the other hand, was inserted into a spectacular temporary display and raised on the day of the Saint.