On Saturday 5 February, the day of the liturgical commemoration of Saint Agatha, the Municipality of Pisa will open the evocative building dedicated to the virgin martyr from Catania to the public. The opening of the ancient chapel, located in the apsidal area of the church of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno (entrance from Via San Paolo) was announced by Mayor Michele Conti during the presentation of the restoration work carried out. The day's programme includes a short religious ceremony at 12.00 noon, presided over by the Metropolitan Archbishop Giovanni Paolo Benotto, who will bless the chapel in the presence of the Mayor, the Council and city councillors. Maria Luisa Ceccarelli Lemut will tell the story of the Saint and the origins of her cult in Pisa, followed by an illustration of the restoration work carried out by the Municipality of Pisa, thanks to the contribution of the Pisa Foundation, by the architect Roberto Pasqualetti and the restorers Silvia Bartalucci and Federico Galli.
The cult of Saint Agatha probably arrived in Pisa with the liberation of Catania from the Saracens: the first certain attestation is in the privilege with which Pope Honorius II, on 21 July 1126, extended to the archbishop of Pisa the use of the pallium on the feast of Saint Agatha, 5 February. On that feast day and for the following two days, the saint's alleged skull was exhibited, and is still preserved in the church of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno: the event still attracted a large number of breastfeeding mothers at the end of the 19th century. The importance of the cult is also testified by the octagonal oratory dedicated to her, built within the monastic complex around the middle of the twelfth century.
The building will also be open to visitors in the afternoon, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., thanks to the volunteers of the cultural association Il Mosaico, with an illustration of the restoration work. Entrance will be limited to the maximum capacity, in which case access will be by flow. An illustrative brochure will be distributed for the occasion.
Owned by the municipality, it had been in a serious state of disrepair for years. The restoration was made possible by co-financing from the Pisa Foundation and the Municipality of Pisa.
Description of the chapel. The building has a central plan, an octagonal shape with perimeter walls and a pyramidal brick roof. The vertexes of the octagon are marked by eight pilasters, also made of brick, whose bases are made of regular courses of cut stone. The eight perimeter walls are characterised by a main structure of round brick arches directly connected to the pilasters, under which brick infill is inserted. The entrance to the chapel is obtained by removing one of the infill panels from the wall of the octagon facing the apse of the church of S. Paolo a Ripa. On the four walls closest to the entrance there is a triple lancet window with round arches and thin marble columns decorated in various ways; above the triple lancet window there is a small oculus described by moulded brick elements; on the remaining three walls at the same height there is the same oculus as the only opening to the outside. The upper part of the eight walls is completed by a series of eight blind arches on each side; the eaves cornice is covered by a mantle of tiles and embryos on which the pyramidal roof is set. The pyramidal roof is made of solid brick elements without a covering, and crowned by a marble column bearing a double iron cross. The interior floor is made of terracotta with a square pattern oriented at 45° to the entrance threshold.
Brief history. The monument is set in a small quadrangular garden, bounded to the west by the apse of the church of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno, to the south and east by two residential complexes and to the south by Via di San Paolo. The space surrounding the chapel appears to have been greatly altered by the destruction and subsequent reconstruction caused by the bombing of the Second World War. Historical maps show that the chapel was bordered by the cloister of the Vallombrosian monastery on all sides of the present garden. The events of the war in 1943 irreparably compromised most of the buildings on the perimeter, including the bell tower of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno. Following the reconstruction project by the then Superintendent, Engineer Piero Sanpaolesi (circa 1955), all the now dilapidated buildings were demolished.
The date of construction and the author of the chapel are not certain. In fact, there is no inscription that reveals the year of construction. However, local tradition has it that the church was built in the second half of the 11th century by the canons of St Paul's on their return from the capture of Palermo (1063), from which the cult of St Agatha was imported.
In addition to consolidation and conservation works, the restoration extended to a profound redevelopment of the area aimed at enhancing this part of the city. To preserve the monument, a protective metal fence was also built around the perimeter of the north and east side of the lot.
The project included the insertion of a thin layer of loose gravel between the external perimeter of the garden and the thin stone curb further inside the garden itself, a thin line, the latter, which schematically delineates the encumbrance of the buildings of the ancient Vallombrosian cloister. The previous paving in grey clinker tiles of little value around the chapel was replaced with a thin layer of draining paving in a light-coloured inert material, with the twofold aim of replacing the worn-out paving with a number of gaps and as a necessary work to help preserve the walls at the foot of the chapel, which are subject to dampness from rising dampness from the ground.
The renovation work also included repairing the plaster and painting the surface of the southern boundary wall and a general overhaul of the external lighting system.
The first work involved the removal of weeds and the cleaning of the biological patina and deposits of exogenous material on the external surfaces, given that the structure had not been maintained since its restoration in the 1960s. In accordance with recent regulations, studies were carried out to assess the seismic vulnerability of the walls.
Fragments of frescoes have surfaced. On the particularly valuable surfaces, specifically on the stone columns of the three-mullioned windows, on the small column at the top of the spire and on the brick surfaces where, from the analysis of the archives of the Superintendency, it is assumed that there are fresco decorations, a more intense cleaning operation using solvent-based compresses was necessary. This delicate and accurate phase of the work made it possible to identify the real consistency of the decorative apparatus of the entire chapel, unfortunately reduced to small fragments of fresco concentrated on the surfaces of the arches of the three-mullioned windows, in the blind arches and in the ferrules of the arches that underlie the plugging of the perimeter walls. Noteworthy decorations were found on the surfaces behind the blind arches in the northern part of the building: small fragments of fresco of fine workmanship depicting faces on an ochre background. Decorations that, in addition to their value as documentary evidence, represent an actual value of fine artistic workmanship, as they were made on a thin layer of lime applied directly to the brickwork on the external surfaces.
Two mechanical consolidation systems were implemented, the first involves the installation of tension cables that block the pyramidal roof structure at the base, and the second involves the construction of a curb of steel tubes anchored and fixed to the top of the perimeter walls. The first intervention secured the roof, which had a significant cracking lesion in the masonry, and the second intervention permanently blocked the movement of the perimeter walls, which tended to open up. The masonry was reconnected using a specially formulated and compatible mortar. The small covering at the base of the pyramid was also dismantled, which allowed not only for the removal of the dense vegetation underneath, but also for the insertion of a further element of consolidation of the masonry. The reconstruction made it possible to eliminate many of the causes that, in the past, had led to the various degradations and alterations of the structure. One of the most important works was the removal of detached or pulverised joints, and of any incongruous or incompatible materials such as cement-based mortars.
New window frames on the three-mullioned windows. The metal grilles installed in the 1970s on the four three-mullioned windows were removed and replaced with polymethylmethacrylate sheets. The restoration of the windows and doors included cleaning, integration of missing or detached parts, application of a consolidating and protective agent for the wooden entrance door, including the reintroduction of missing or completely deteriorated metal elements.
Interior. The interior surfaces of the chapel are in a very poor state of conservation. Water infiltration and the consequent proliferation of biological patinas has made it difficult to appreciate the rich decorative apparatus today. Much of the brick surface is characterised by a refined surface finish, with a complex stratigraphy in the pyramidal part, which appears to have been frescoed. A very thin preparatory layer of lime and organic binder is applied over the entire surface, on which the decoration is applied, the true consistency of which is difficult to define today. The current poor state of conservation of the surface can be attributed to the latest restoration work carried out between the post-war reconstruction and the early 1970s.
Historical photographs show that before the restoration of the 1950s, the inner and outer surfaces of the roof were plastered. With the intention of restoring its original image, it was decided at this time to remove the plaster in favour of an exposed brick surface.
Interior organisation. Finally, the project involved a significant reconfiguration of the internal spatial organisation. The altar, a stone slab resting at the rear on two iron pillars made during the 1964-71 restoration, was positioned far away from the entrance, and was repositioned in adherence to the wall itself according to its original location. The marble tombstone, hanging to the left of the altar, has been set into the line of the pavement and in the middle of it, the fragments of stone arches have been removed from the wall to be relocated on a separate structure within the chapel space.