San Sisto in Cortevecchia: The Oldest Church in Pisa

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So you’re finally visiting the magnificent art city of Pisa in Tuscany! It has been your lifelong dream, on your bucket list, or possibly, you’ve been here before. I want to let you in on a little secret that I only just discovered myself. Recently, on a “routine” trip to Pisa, I took a chance on a church that could be considered somewhat of an “ugly duckling” compared to its neighbors. “Ugly” is not really the right word for the church of San Sisto in Cortevecchia, but the truth is that being just steps away from the Leaning Tower, the magnificent Duomo, and the Baptistry, its competition in this beauty pageant is stiff. But, I’m here to tell you, it is worth your time if only you’ll give it a chance. 

san sisto cortevecchia-pisa-chiesa

The Unassuming Facade

I had walked past this church, this diamond in the rough if you will, too many times to count. Maybe, as we mature, we begin to realize that not all things are as they appear from the outside. San Sisto is stuck up against some other very average-looking buildings and typically, hidden behind a row of cars and Vespas. Its exterior is made of stone, or to the untrained eye, you may even think it’s brick. 

On this particular day, maybe it was because we were traveling with relatives from northern Italy, or maybe, it was just destiny, but I decided to go inside for the very first time ever. I was instantly awe-struck; not in the same way that Pisa’s Duomo or Firenze’s strikes you, but in a gentler, more curious way. It was as if I knew immediately that San Sisto in Cortevecchia had an awesome story to tell. 

Dedicated to Pope Sixtus II

I grabbed a brochure that was laying on a table at the entrance and used it as my guide as I slowly walked the interior perimeter of the church. I found out that it was built almost a thousand years ago, in the year 1087, making it the very oldest church in Pisa.

It was dedicated to Pope Sixtus II whose Patron Saint day of August 6th proved to be extremely lucky for Pisa in numerous battles including an expedition in Tunisia. I also found out that the stone facade is made out of pietra verrucana mined from Mount Verruca in the nearby mountains. If you look closely, you’ll also notice some colorful ceramic bowls, Islamic in nature, above the mullioned window. These are actually replicas of the originals which are kept in the Museum of San Matteo also in Pisa. 

If this was all I had learned, it would have been enough, but there was more.

san sisto cortevecchia-facciata-pisa

Islamic Influence

The three naves are divided by stunning columns with ancient Roman capitals that were brought in from other locations. The Islamic influence is also blatantly obvious and not that uncommon in medieval architecture. The naval fleets of Pisa, Genova, Amalfi, and many others were frequent visitors to the northern coast of Africa where trade had been established. Inside the church, there is also a stone epigraph, a funerary monument inscribed in Kufic for emir Al Murtadà and taken as loot from the Balearic Islands in 1115. 

Other interesting things not to miss inside are a rudder taken from a Pisan ship that dates to between the 14th and 15th centuries, and also a mast (date unknown). I’m sure the statue of the Virgin Mary will catch your eye. The Virgin Mary of Loreto is depicted as being black. Near the confessional, the wooden Crucifix dates to 1370 and was created in the likeness of the Volto Santo or Holy Face in Lucca. 

So, I’m asking you, whether it’s your first trip to Pisa or your one hundredth, whether you got that perfect pose “holding up” the Leaning Tower, or a dinky souvenir statue of it, please give the Church of San Sisto in Cortevecchia a chance. You won’t be sorry. 

Article by Marie Contino

copyright photo of cover image: Di Luca Aless – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0,; church facade: Giuseppe Capitano – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0,