Calci, in the Tuscan province of Pisa, is an interesting place. It’s one of those places you’d think would draw a fair number of active tourists. It’s also a place where you might need a guide to show you its hidden charms.
What’s in Calci? Well, there’s an interesting church, called a “pieve” which refers to a country church—which at some point during the early history of Pieve of Sts. John and Ermolaus it probably was, but today the town has sort of swallowed it up. That’s it above. You’re probably thinking, “gee, that’s a huge bell tower, and it doesn’t look like it belongs there.”
And you’d be right. Sort of. Really, it’s a facade with bells sitting on a square box with these narrow slits for windows. Right away you might think, “wait a minute, this looks rather defensive.”
Right again. Here’s where the townspeople fled when they were in danger. They had a great view of the outside through those slits, but there wasn’t a good way for someone on the ground to see in. You could also shoot things out of those slits quite easily, but they were hard to hit from outside.
We, of course, students as we are of Romanesque churches, would likely have missed all this as well without a guide, who just happened to be available as part of the “days of the Pisan Romanesque” festival weekend.
It turns out that this bell tower is part of what our guide called the Arab telephone, which is a lot like what (some) Americans call an Indian telephone without the bells. You see, if a town along the coast was in danger from, say raiding marauders, it could raise some smoke to get the attention of the next town up the hill, warning them that a particular message was coming up, then ring the bells in such a manner that the folks in Pisa with the bad-ass army would understand, and this bell-wringing code would be passed on through all the small towns along the chain, Calci included, without the relaying bell-ringers necessarily knowing what it meant. They could only repeat what they heard. It was a sort of primitive but secure communication system.
But that’s not all that’s fascinating about this church. Look at the photo above. You’re looking at the outside of the apse. That’s the guide pointing out some engraved stones on the side of the pieve. They’re game boards. What are game boards doing on the side of a church? People didn’t play on them this way, that’s for sure.
Today we’d say that that these carvings were advertising silly games to the kids in the piazza. Simple as that. But remember things were different in the 11th and 12th centuries. Folks were largely illiterate. Romanesque churches used carvings to tell stories—or rather moral tales, often biased toward warning folks to avoid bad behavior. Just like the bible. Symbols were almost the opposite of what they’ve become today—so when we see a 12th century church carving of a man masturbating (and yes, you can find those), we think, “oh, my, those church people are advertising the doing of nasty things. How abominable they were in those days!”
But nothing could be further from the truth. You didn’t advertise, you told people the pitfalls of an immoral life directly and graphically. Thus, the game boards trumpet the message, “don’t play games anywhere near this sacred place” just as mothers might jump in to stop a Sunday soccer game in the piazza del Duomo.
Well, that’s enough about the Duomo, although the inside is interesting too. Most guide say that the only thing to see near Calci is the charterhouse of Pisa, or La Certosa Pisana di Calci to be exact. It’s an impressive building just out of town you just have to visit. Then there’s the evocative ruins of il complesso di Nicosia, a monastery complex just out of town. From there you can take a new walking trail to the fortress of Verruca and see great views.
And just think, the Wikipedia entry for Calci is a mere 5 lines. Wandering (and wondering) opens up the world to you, a bit at a time.
Calci Travel Planning Resources
Outside of town you can visit the Museo Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History) just 10 km. outside Pisa in Calci.
This Museum is one of the hidden places of Pisa. You won’t be crowded and it offers a nice change of pace and subject if your feet are protesting and Renaissance paintings are all starting to look alike. FYI, it’s so unknown that only 5% of TripAdvisor reviews are in English yet all the reviews are Good or Excellent. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, the town of Calci is pleasant and has a knockout Romanesque church ~ A Path to Lunch
If it’s open (and we have info on that in the article) the Nicosia Monastery Ruins are evocative and interesting.
Il Molendino is a highly rated b&b in the countryside, where you can arrange all manner of country excursions, including on horseback, a popular way of wandering in Calci and the valley it’s located in: Val Graziosa.
Monumental Complex of the Charterhouse of Calci is today a historical and artistic museum in a stunningly large complex in the countryside outside of Calci.
As always, visit the tourist office to get a list of guides who specialize in what you want to see. Or go during special weekends (especially if you know a bit of Italian, most of these smaller places don’t cater to Americans, which is why you know little about them).