The Calci Charterhouse is a magnificent Carthusian monastery located in Calci, at the foothills of the Monti Pisani (Pisan Mountains) about ten kilometers from Pisa. The Charterhouse traces its roots back to 1366 when it was founded by a group of Carthusians. However, its current baroque façade stems from the 18th century. Thanks to the drawing power of the nearby Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Charterhouse remains well off the beaten path, and that’s great news to travellers wishing to quietly explore the monastery, admire its stunning interior and learn more about the Carthusians.
I visited the Charterhouse of Calci during my recent blogtrip to Tuscany. Our guide from Pisatour provided us with a wonderful narrative of the origins of the Charterhouse and life as a Carthusian in the monastery as he led us around the grounds. A relatively unknown fact is that various scenes from the movie “Portrait of a Lady” starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich were filmed at the Charterhouse. After a short walk around the grounds, he ushered us into the church and our jaws literally dropped.
We were greeted by this magnificent sight:
Trompe l’oeil – the origins of 3D
The grand appearance as well as the incredible details in the frescoes were absolutely captivating. One of the first things that caught my eye was the 3D-like effect of the wall paintings and the floor tiles. What at first looked like marble columns and statues were in fact paintings. The floor tiles give the impression of hundreds of descending or ascending steps (this depends on which angle you take). The optical illusion is simply phenomenal! This style, called trompe l’oeil (French for ‘deceive the eye’), is used profusely throughout the monastery. The main church and the smaller chapels each have their own style – from the types of frescoes and colour scheme right down to the arrangement of the floor tiles. Have a look at the two photos below. They’re both of the same floor but taken from different angles. Watch how the colour of the stepping surface of the ‘blocks’ changes from white to grey.
More examples of trompe l’oeil can be found in the other rooms:
Are those statues real? Compare the statues on the far wall with the statues on the side walls.
The life of the Carthusians
Our guide provided us with fascinating insights into the every day life of the Carthusians. They led a very secluded life in total silence. Their days were divided into 40-minute segments: for prayer, food, rest, study and work. They were allowed to venture outside the walls of the monastery twice a year – on a stroll in pairs (in silence) and on a family visit. Their meals were passed to them through cupboards so there was little contact with the others. The Carthusian brothers were recruited from wealthy families but within the walls of the monastery, their identities were kept a secret. Each brother was simply referred to by a letter of the alphabet, which was engraved on their room door.
The Last Supper
The monastery’s most famous fresco is the Last Supper by the Italian painter Bernardo Poccetti. This fresco can be found in the refectory or dining hall. Again, the optical illusions are unmistakable. As I walked past the fresco, the direction of the tables seemed to move with me, from left to right.
Our visit to the Calci Charterhouse was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip to Tuscany. It really is an enchanting spot that will have its visitors spellbound in moments. If you’re visiting Pisa, I highly recommend saving a few hours in your itinerary for a visit to the Charterhouse. To truly appreciate the history and wonders of this huge monastery, I recommend hiring a guide. If you’re interested in natural history, there’s another incentive to visit the Charterhouse – the Museum of Natural History (with one of Europe’s largest collections of cetacean skeletons) is right next door!
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