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Possibly of Greek origin, Pisa became an important naval base under Rome and remained a significant port for many centuries. The city’s so-called golden days began late in the 9th century when it became an independent maritime republic and a rival of Genoa and Venice. The good times rolled on into the 12th and 13th centuries, by which time Pisa controlled Corsica, Sardinia and most of the mainland coast as far south as Civitavecchia. Most of the city’s finest buildings date from this period, when the distinctive Pisan-Romanesque architectural style flourished.

Pisa’s support for the Ghibellines during the tussles between the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope brought the city into conflict with its mostly Guelph Tuscan neighbours, including Siena, Lucca and Florence. The real blow came when Genoa’s fleet defeated Pisa in devastating fashion at the Battle of Meloria in 1284. After the city fell to Florence in 1406, the Medici encouraged great artistic, literary and scientific endeavours and re-established Pisa’s university. Galileo Galilei, the city’s most famous son, later taught at the university.