The Slightly Less Leaning Tower of Pisa
One of the most famous sights in Italy has been given a new lease on life. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, with its
spiraling rings of loggias (slender columns), is undoubtedly
one of the most famous and beloved monuments in the world. In early
November, I visited the 12th century tower, which took 200 years to
build and has survived earthquakes, war, and even government debate.
The dramatically leaning tower has always seemed to be in
peril, but mainly due to the unstable ground surrounding it. It's as
though the tower could have only stayed up due to some sort of
divine intervention. After all, as it sits upon the Campo dei
Miracoli (Field of Miracles), the massive engineering feat to
save it has been nothing short of a "miracle."
Saves a Wonder
In 1990, the structure was closed to the
public. It was deemed to be leaning too far for tourists to climb
safely. To lengthen the life of the tower, and let tourists resume
their 294-step climb to the bell chamber, engineers, scientists, and
historians set out on a remarkable journey to correct the tilt (a
bit) and help preserve this beloved wonder.
Because there are
few documents that record the tower's history, historians and
engineers had to track the progression of its tilt by studying 14th
and 16th century paintings. They also studied measurements taken by
19th century English and French architects. After compiling all
their data, scientists and engineers devised a relatively safe way
to straighten (and strengthen) the structure…slightly.
It took a little over 11 years to change the
190-foot tower a half-degree in tilt, a difference that is
indiscernible to the naked eye. Several tons of sandy soil at the
tower's base were delicately removed and replaced with firmer soil;
while at the same time, cables attached to huge lead counterweights
pulled the tower backwards. It is estimated that these improvements
should keep the tower safe for the next 300 years.
November, the steel cables supporting the tower will be removed, and
visitors, now kept back by an iron fence, will be able make the
dizzying climb in one of the world's premier monuments once
again—all thanks to the "miracoli" of science.
Pisa was one of the Mediterranean's most
important ports between the 11th and 13th centuries, and to signify
its importance to the world, the inhabitants set out to build a
grand bell tower. Construction began in 1173, but had to be
suspended five years later due to political strife. At this point,
the tower had reached its third level and was left untouched for
over one hundred years. Over that period, the structure began
The building of the tower resumed in 1272, and by
1284, the tower had reached its seventh level. Then, during that
last year, Genoa defeated Pisa in the battle of Meloria, and
construction was halted yet again. At that time, the tilt was
evident, and masons tried to in vain to correct it by changing the
thickness of the marble as they built upward. Around 1365, the
belfry was added, but was placed slightly north of the tower's
original axis in a further attempt to compensate for the
It is interesting to note that the delays in
construction turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Engineers
believe that if the tower had been built all at once, the clay
surrounding it would have given way, and the tower would have
The tower is definitely
Pisa's star attraction. In front of the tower, tourists giddily pose
for silly pictures that make them look as if they are holding it up.
And yes, there are endless stalls around the tower that sell all the
staple Leaning Tower tchotchkes like salt and peppershakers,
mini-replicas, and cigarette lighters. Nevertheless, you will find
more cafés, hardware stores, and Vespa (motor scooter) shops than
tourist traps in this town.
Besides the tower, Pisa has several other
significant sights. For example, the Duomo, the Cathedral of Pisa,
is famed for its Romanesque panels depicting the life of Christ. The
Museo Nazionale di San Matteo contains other dramatic examples of
Romanesque (and Gothic) art. In addition, Pisa's streets are very
intriguing as they hold many charming buildings and delightful
piazzas, which are all bathed in those restful Tuscan oranges,
browns, and yellows. Pisa also has one of the most culturally packed
squares in Europe, filled with Italians, gypsies, and foreign
visitors all intermingling.
Pisa is definitely a great place
to visit—tower or no tower, leaning or less leaning.
sources on Pisa:
Leaning Tower of Pisa: Official
About.com's Italy for
Click here to return to article index