Few tourists know of the road that connects Lucca with the small village of Calci. Nor do many visitors know of the monumental surprise that awaits them – the Charterhouse of Pisa.
My recommendation is to not take the A-11 autostrada from Lucca to Pisa. Rather, as you arrive at the Lucca Ovest (West) interchange follow signs to the SS-12 (Strada Statale-State Road) toward San Giuliano Terme.
As you drive toward San Giuliano Terme, you will pass through the village of Santa Maria del Giudici then enter a tunnel. After you leave the tunnel and drive into San Giuliano Terme, watch for a turn to the left ttoward the town of Calci. Once you are on the road to Calci, the signs directing you to the Certosa (Charterhouse) of Pisa make the rest of the trip very easy.
This is an enormous complex of buildings, many of them restored after World War II. The remote and beautiful setting, once referred to as the “Valle Graziosa” or “Pretty Valley,” allows visitors the opportunity to enjoy a visit to a beautiful church without the crowds that are found below in the city of Pisa proper. Though the charterhouse is located only about six miles from Pisa, you may as well be a hundred miles from such a large population center.
It was in 1366 that Carthusian Monks established their hermitage near Calci. The Carthusian order derives its name from the location of the first heritage established by Saint Bruno. The Chartreuse Mountains, located east southeast of the French city of Lyon is where Bruno began his religious life.
Gorgona, a small island located about twenty miles off the port of Livorno, is part of the Tuscan Archipelago. (On very clear days,you can see the island from a few of the small seaside villages north of Livorno – Tirrenia and Marina di Pisa). In 1369, Pope Gregory XI expelled a group of Benedictine monks from the island. Some of the monks from Calci were sent to repopulate the island, even as their population grew at the Charterhouse. In the mid-15th Century, due to threats of possible attack by Saracens, the monks on the island brought all of their valuable documents to the Charterhouse.
The current architectural style of the buildings is owed to Baroque work of the 17th and 18th Centuries.
After Napoleon’s suppression of religious orders, in 1808, the Carthusian order at Calci was forced to disband. The majority of the monks moved to the Vallombrosian Monastery in Pisa. Most of the silver and gold pieces collected from the religious community were sent to Florence to be melted and used for other purposes. Contents of the library, records, archives and many valuable paintings were sold.
In 1814 when the Grand Dukes of Lorraine permitted the return of the order the Charterhouse, their financial support assisted in the purchase of items that had previously been sold.
A few years after the unification of Italy, in 1866, the government decreed that all works of art, the library and other important documents were to be removed. The buildings and land, then, were assigned to the new Ministry of Education.
From 1946 until 1963, a group of Carthusian monks from the Netherlands attempted to establish a group of monks at the Charterhouse, with the hope of reestablishing their order in their home country. Their efforts yielded no success. When the last of the two Carthusian monks were moved from the monastery in 1972, the state took over responsibility for the maintenance and care of the buildings.
In 1981 the Natural History Museum of the University of Pisa was moved into one wing of the Charterhouse. The collections, started in the mid-16th Century, primarily include paleontological and mineral specimens collected over the centuries.
The major construction work on the buildings occurred after the monks returned from the Island of Gorgona (1425) and during the 17th and 18th Century. Monk’s cells, the main chapel and other parts of the building, to include a natural pharmacy based upon the research of herbs grown in the Charterhouse’s “Giardino dei Semplici,” were completed in the early part of the 16th Century. The garden, similar in purpose to one established in 1545 by Grand Duck Cosimo di Medici in Florence, was intended to investigate and research plants that might be used for the cure of disease and infection.
The interior of the church contains some of the finest hand carved choir stalls in Italy. Giovan Francesco Bergamini began, and his son Alessandro (1665-1686) completed, work on a beautiful altar made from Carrara marble. One of the few remaining original works is one of San Bruno (founder of the Carthusean order)
offering the Charterhouse to Our Lady (1681) by Baldassarre Franceschini, called Il Volterrano. An interesting note about the work is that San Bruno holds a model of the Monastery as it appeared before Baroque era changes.
This is an incredibly beautiful building, little known by the millions of tourists who flock to a certain tower in the city of Pisa. If you are in Lucca, or Pisa, and seek the opportunity to explore an historic and beautifully preserved site, visit the Charterhouse of Pisa.
IF YOU GO:
Here are some on-line resources for your information before a visit.
• Tuesday to Saturday: from 8.30am to 6.30pm
• Sundays and public holidays: from 8.30am to 12.30pm
• Closed Mondays and 1/1, 1/5 and 25/12.
• Full Euro 5.00
• For 18 to 25 year old visitors Euro 2.50
Natural history Museum of the University of Pisa
NOTE: This is a very popular place for school visits, so you may be a bit surprised to see so many children crowded at the entrance to the Charterhouse. Those groups usually only visit the Museum and do not enter the main religious structures for a tour.