This square, known in the time of the Pisan Republic as the Square of the Seven Roads, is thought to be the site of the Forum of Roman Pisa. It was the centre of politics of the Pisan Republic when it was transformed by Cosimo I de Medici into the seat of the new military order of «The Knights of Saint Stephan with the aim of eradicating any trace of the city's past independence.
Its present appearance is therefore the fruit of radical renovations of the surrounding palaces, for the most part designed by the Florentine architect Giorgio Vasari in 1562. In the square's centre can be seen a fountain beneath the statue of Cosimo I in the robes of Grand Master of the Order of Knights, both the work of Pietro Francavilla in 1596.
Behind the statue rises the Palazzo della Carovana dei Cavalieri. This, the old republic's Hall of City Elders was entirely transformed by Giorgio Vasari with its present facade which recall, both in style and subject, various buildings along Via dei Mille and Via Ulisse Dini.
The building now houses the Scuola Normale Superiore, the elite University founded by Napoleon Bonaparte who modelled it after the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Within its walls have studied many of Italy's most famous personages, such as the poet, Giosuè Carducci and the physicist Enrico Fermi.
Opposite and to the left of the Scuola Normale stands the Palazzo dell'Orologio which was transformed into its present structure for the infirmary of the Knights by uniting by bridge the two crumbling towers of the Count della Gherardeschi. In Canto XXXIII of his Inferno, Dante Aleghieri recounts the story of the fate of the suspected traitor, Count Ugolini. Tradition holds that it was in one of these towers that, in 1288, he was left to die of starvation, along with the other males of his family whose corpses he fed upon.
Beyond Via Corsica, after the Oratorio di San Rocco, you will find the former Collegio Puteaneo, founded in 1605 by the Archbishop, Antonio Dal Pozzo to lodge the students of the city of Biella attending the University. Its facade is adorned by the original frescoes of Stefano Marucelli, as is the Palazzo dell'Orologio.
On the southern side of the square stand the monumental Palazzo del Consiglio dei Dodici (Palace of the Council of Twelve), the ancient site of the city magistrature which was completely refurbished in 1596 according to a project by Pietro Francovilla. Later the building became the Court of the Knights of Saint Stephan. In its interior can be seen a hall with walls frescoed in architectural motifs and ceiling engraved and painted by Ventura Salimbeni of Siena.
To the right of the Scuola Normale, the Church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri completes the tour of the square. Its construction, begun in 1565 following the plan of Giorgio Vasari, was completed in 1593 with the addition of the facade designed in rich architectural motifs by Don Giovanni de Medici. Its hall-like interior is closed overhead by a richly engraved and gilded wooden ceiling including paintings of the greatests artists of the de Medici era.
Particularly interesting are the banner-trophies and various parts of ships seized from the Turks by the Knights during their policing operations in the Tirreno Sea in order to guarantee safe passage there. Beside the sacristy is a collection of costumes and memorabilia commemorating the activities of the Knights.
Comune di Pisa