Many people visit Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. They stay for the Duomo, maybe the Baptistry. But whatever you do, don’t forget to go into the Camposanto and see this very unusually gory fresco.

Detail of evil people-eating monster in hell

The detached fresco fragments of the massive fresco cycle depicting the Triumph of Death and Last Judgement are on display in a special room off the Camposanto in Pisa (part of the Piazza dei Miracoli or Cathedral Complex). These scary frescoes are attributed to to either Francesco Traiani (active 1321-63) or Buonamico Buffalmacco (active 1320-36), probably executed in the 1330s. They were drastically damaged in the 1944 bombing of Pisa (see photo) and detached for conservation.

The frescoes were originally located along one of the short walls of the Camposanto courtyard, which functioned as a burial ground for the city’s elite. Ancient sarcophaghi line the lower part of the walls, while the floors are still paved with medieval tombstones, worn down by the feet of time. The themes of the painting, which read more as separate panels than as a unified narrative whole, are congruent with their location in a cemetery.

Camposanto frescoes: memento mori

They remind the (live) viewer of imminent death and the necessity of living a Christian life. The story depicted at the bottom left corner of the Triumph fresco is the “Meeting of three living and three dead”, a 13th century legend in which three noble young men on horses, out on a hunting trip, encounter three corpses in their open tombs in varying states of decomposition, complete with bloating and snakes coming out of their bodies, and one is a skeleton. The dead function as a memento mori, to remind the living that they will soon become that way too. The skeleton speaks: “Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Wealth, honor and power are of no value at the hour of your death.”

Pisa camposanto photos

Since good photos of this cycle are hard to come by I did my best to get a full series and have only lightly enhanced the contrast since they are rather hard to see. Finally you can see that the hell scene is one of the most gruesome in Italy, especially remarkable for its time. I particularly love this multi-eyed monster, which looks almost like a modern abstract painting in this cropped detail shot.

Do feel free to use these photos in your classes! (If you’re using them in a website, I’d appreciate a link back to this page).

A book for more information: Radke and Paoletti’s Art in Renaissance Italy offers pre-war black and white photos and an analysis of the entire cycle (page 153).


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