The site of this marine protected area is also rich in history. For centuries, the shoals surrounding the Torre della Meloria have formed a natural bulwark against enemy incursions and a geographical marine reference point for the Maritime Republic of Pisa. But they have also been the site of numerous shipwrecks, and the wrecks and remains of numerous military and civil ships from as far back as Roman times lie in these waters, making the Secche an extremely important underwater archaeological site.
Indeed, the name “Meloria” seems to originate from the unpleasant nickname of “malora”, a term sometimes found on ancient nautical charts, meaning a place that was dangerous or risky for navigation.
Historical documents show that, following frequent shipwrecks of vessels heading for the Port of Pisa, in 1150, the Republic of Pisa decided to erect a tower at the highest point of the shoal to signal the danger and also act as a lookout point against Saracen attacks and other enemy attacks. The tower was constantly dotted with lit torches, thus becoming a real beacon for navigation at the time, so much so that in many contemporary maps, it was identified and referred to by the name “lanterna”.
Due to its location, the tower didn’t have an easy life: it was damaged by the sea and repaired several times, and it was also destroyed by battles and rebuilt.
The first Pisan tower was destroyed in the famous Battle of Meloria and a new one was only rebuilt in 1598 at the behest of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici, when he decided to definitively abandon the no longer unusable “portus pisano” and establish the new port in present-day Livorno. Later, this second tower was also demolished by the force of the sea and in 1712, it was rebuilt under Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in the configuration that we can still see today: a structure with a square base, rising 15 metres above the sea and resting on four pillars linked by four ogival arches to reduce the impact of the waves on the tower. On the south-facing façade, the Grand Duke had a plaque affixed, which reads “PRO NAVIGANTIUM SECURITATE A LATENTES SCOPULOS EVITANDOS”, or “for the safety of mariners, so that they may avoid hidden rocks”. This tower, however, lacked a modern signalling system with night lighting suitable for modern navigation, and so in May 1867 it was flanked, a little further south, by a twenty-metre high, cylindrical metal structure lighthouse, coloured in yellow/black stripes (today, the shoals are also signalled by another lighthouse at the northern head of the shoal, locally known as “ship-light” and a solar-powered elastic beacon). For centuries, the tower was abandoned to the ravages of storms, without any maintenance, to the point that, by 1980, it was in a disastrous structural condition, the columns having been corroded by more than two hundred years of storms. The historical and architectural importance of the monument prompted the cultural communities of Livorno and Pisa to lobby the regional administration for a rescue operation. In 1986, the Province of Livorno therefore intervened, consolidating the pillars and restoring the tower to its former glory.
The Battle of Meloria, which was fought on 6 August 1284 between the Maritime Republics of Genoa and Pisa in the waters surrounding the tower, has become known as the most famous historical event to have taken place at this site. It is said that the clash was triggered a few days earlier by a direct attack by the Pisans on the port of Genoa, while much of the Genoese fleet was stationed in Sardinia, a land over which the two cities were competing for domination. In this context, the Genoese commander Benedetto Zaccaria managed to outsmart the Pisans: finding himself outnumbered by their ships, he retreated towards the Ligurian coast where, however, the Tuscans encountered another 68 galleys defending the city. Before retreating, the Pisan fleet launched a shower of silver arrows as a sign of defiance. The Genoese response to the Pisan affront took place on 6 August, the very day on which the patron saint of Pisa, Saint Sixtus, was celebrated in the city. It is said that during the ceremony for the blessing of the ships, the staff with the archbishop’s silver cross broke. However, no one took any notice of this ominous sign, as Saint Sixtus was the anniversary of some thirty past victories in the history of the Pisan Republic.
In the Ligurian fleet, there were two main formations: the 63 galleys led by Admiral Oberto Doria, ready for a direct attack, while a group of 30 other ships led by Commander Zaccaria remained on the sidelines to catch the Pisans by surprise. The latter were led by Captain Morosini (hired by the Pisans in Venice) and Count Ugolino della Gherardesca. Strengthened by the fact that they outnumbered the Genoese fleet by no less than nine ships compared to the 63 of the Genoese fleet (excluding those that had gone into hiding), the Pisans decided to leave the harbour to respond directly to the attack. The warfare techniques of the time were to hurl all kinds of ammunition and other hazardous things such as boiling pitch or quicklime at the enemy, while attempting to board ships after ramming them with the rostrum with which the galleys were equipped. The clashes were very violent and bloody. After a few hours of conflict, however, the other 30 Genoese ships, which had remained hidden until then, perhaps in the haze of the summer horizon, arrived to deliver the coup de grace to the Pisans. An unusual technique was used: two of the fastest ships surrounded the Pisan flagship and, carrying a cable stretched between them, sheared off the mast of the flagship, tearing off Morosini’s insignia. The only ships that survived were those commanded by Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was therefore accused of treason and abandoning the battle.
The battle dead numbered over five thousand, while the prisoners numbered around ten thousand, including Morosini himself and the famous Rustichello, who helped Marco Polo write “The Book of Marvels”. They were all taken to the Genoese quarter that became known as the Campo Pisano: “If you want to see Pisa, go to Genoa,” people said after the battle. After 13 years of great suffering, the survivors were freed. Of the approximately ten thousand prisoners taken to Genoa, only a thousand were able to return home. The toponym Campo Pisano still refers to an area of Genoa close to the port. Genoese legends say that the restless souls of the Pisan prisoners still haunt the area known as the Campo Pisano, and some say that on stormy nights, you can still see the silhouettes of Pisan prisoners in chains walking up the steps from the Marina to the Campo Pisano… (www.isegretideivicolidigenova.com). The peace treaty was only signed by the Republic of Pisa in 1288 with very harsh conditions, including the surrender of Corsica and other possessions throughout the Tyrrhenian Sea. Pisa only partially respected this peace treaty, with the result that in 1290, Genoa attacked again and destroyed the entire Port of Pisa. The large chain placed to protect the entrance to the Port of Pisa was taken to Genoa, broken into several pieces and then hung at Porta Soprana and in various churches and palaces in the city. They were only returned to Pisa on 22 April 1860 and have been kept in the city’s Monumental Cemetery ever since. Only one link of the chain was never returned and is still kept in the village of Moneglia (near Genoa) outside the church of Santa Croce. The battle, won by the Genoese, marked the beginning of the decline of the Maritime Republic of Pisa and the rise of Genoese dominance over all the waters of the western Mediterranean.
The decline of the Maritime Republic of Pisa deprived the Tuscan lands of a great seafaring community and, as a result, of established ports for many years. At that point in history, Livorno was nothing but a small coastal village inhabited mainly by fishermen, whose name “Liburna” is first documented around the year 1000. This village, initially established as a secondary supply point for Pisan ships, became increasingly important as the Port of Pisa gradually silted up and was then destroyed by the Genoese. In 1392, under Doge Pietro Gambacorti, Pisa also decreed an early form of fortification, with walls similar to those that surrounded the city of Pisa. However, it was only after the advent of the Medici family in Tuscany that Livorno began to develop as a real town based around its port; notably, in 1577, Cosimo de’ Medici made it one of the most important ports in Tuscany with great prospects throughout the entire Mediterranean basin. His successor and son Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1587, proclaimed the port of Livorno a “free port”, and from 1590 to 1603 the Liburnine Laws were enacted, which guaranteed privileges to those who settled in Livorno and to which we also owe the future development of a cosmopolitan and multiracial city. Finally, on 19 March 1606, Ferdinand I elevated Livorno to the rank of city of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Another event that has become part of the history of this stretch of sea is the plane crash of 9 November 1971, the worst peacetime military air disaster for the Italian Armed Forces. The Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules military aircraft, operated by a British crew and codenamed “Chalk 4”, had departed at dawn with nine other military aircraft from Pisa San Giusto airport to transport Italian and allied troops to Villacidro in Sardinia as part of a NATO exercise called “Coldstream”. A few minutes after take-off, the aircraft crashed, sinking straight into the waters of the Secche della Meloria, for reasons that have never been fully clarified. In the accident, 46 paratroopers from the Livorno Brigade Folgore and the six British crew members lost their lives. During the operations to recover the bodies, a non-commissioned officer from the 9th Parachute Battalion also lost his life.
- 9 NOVEMBRE 1971 – In onore dei paracadutisti caduti alla Meloria [In honour of the paratroopers who fell at Meloria]
- Alla memoria delle vittime della Meloria nel 40° anniversario della tragedia [In memory of the victims of Meloria on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy]
A few web links:
• A rich and comprehensive bibliography on medieval Pisa is available on the website Enrica Salvatori, Researcher in Medieval History at the University of Pisa.
• The story of the chains of the Port of Pisa can be read on Franco Bampi‘s website, which also contains a number of interesting transcripts of documents from 1860 relating to the restitution process.
• The website run by Antonio Figari is really interesting and shows the city of Genoa from an unusual and “alternative” point of view. It’s not the usual educational site and is well worth a thorough read.