The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

“There is no record that it ever stood straight up. It is built of marble. It is an airy and a beautiful structure, and each of its eight stories is encircled by fluted columns, some of marble and some of granite, with Corinthian capitals that were handsome when they were new.”                                                                           Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

After finishing her University course my daughter Sally quickly found employment as a school teacher and being unaccustomed to a salary and a credit balance in her bank account quickly set about making arrangements to get it spent.  What better way than to go on holiday, so in early August she set off for a whistle stop back packing trip to Italy.  Before she went she invited me to meet her for a night at the end of the first week and we agreed on Pisa.

I flew to Pisa on an uneventful early morning flight and arrived a couple of hours later in a bright sun-kissed Galileo Galilei Airport.  The Airport is only a very short distance from the city so I took a bus and within minutes I was in the Campo di Miracoli and admiring the Leaning Tower.  I checked in at the Hotel Francesco and then sat in a bar for a couple of Pironi beers while I waited for Sally and her friend Natalie to join me from their previous nights stop in Bologna, the home of spaghetti Bolognese.

Unpacking is an unnecessary distraction when there is sight seeing to do so after they arrived they left their packs and we went straight out into the street and walked back the short distance to the Campo.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is probably one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Europe and probably the whole World.  I can certainly remember it from a school encyclopedia article and when I was a young boy I was always intrigued by the concept of a building listing so perilously to one side that it was apparently just waiting for a strong wind to topple it over.  I had secretly suspected that the pictures had exaggerated the buildings predicament so I was astounded when I actually saw it for the first time and was able to satisfy myself that this tower really does lean over a very long way indeed.  The tower actually leans at an angle of five and a half degrees and this means that it is four and a half metres from where it would stand if it was perpendicular.

Although intended to stand vertically of course, the tower began leaning over soon after construction began in 1173 due to a poorly prepared ground that allowed the inadequate foundations to shift.  Today the height of the tower is nearly fifty-six metres from the ground on the lowest side and nearly fifty-seven metres on the highest side. The width of the walls at the base is a little over four metres and at the top two and a half metres. Its weight is estimated at fourteen thousand five hundred tonnes (that is about six hundred fully loaded UK dustcarts) so little wonder then that it started to sink.

This brought construction proceedings to a halt for a hundred years while architects and builders pondered what to do.   Over the intervening years there have been a number of attempts to prevent the whole thing crashing to the ground.  In 1272 for example builders returned to the project and four floors were added at an angle to try to compensate for the lean.  Their answer was to build the support columns higher on one side than on the other to get the whole thing vertical again.

Now, I am not an engineer but I think that even I would have spotted the inherent problem with this particular solution that has resulted in the curious curve in the structure about half way up.  It continued to lean of course because more weight meant even more pressure on the dodgy foundations.

Then in the 1930’s Benito Mussolini ordered that the tower be returned to a vertical position, so concrete was poured into its foundation. This was a catastrophic mistake and the result was that the tower actually sank further into the bedrock.  In 1964 Italy finally conceded that it couldn’t maintain its erection any longer, called for help and requested aid in preventing the tower from falling over completely. A multinational task force of eggheads was assembled to come up with a miracle Viagra cure.  Then, after over two decades of serious cranium scratching work started in 1990, but it took a further ten years of corrective reconstruction and stabilisation efforts before the tower reopened to the public in 2001.

We were glad of that and we bought our tickets for the trip to the top but because of the amount of people and the serious restrictions on how many visitors it can accommodate in one go we couldn’t get a visiting slot for nearly three hours.

We purchased immediate entry tickets to the museum next door and all of the other magnificent buildings at the Campo dei Miracoli including the Duomo (the Cathedral) and the Babtistry that were both constructed on the same unstable sand as the Tower and also lean half a degree from centre, not as dramatic as the Tower I grant you, but enough to be confusing if you have had a drink or two.

  We finished the tour by visiting the impressively and recently restored Camposanto or monumental cemetery with some renovated plaster wall paintings that had been destroyed during the Second-World-War by Allied bombing raids as the Germans were being pushed out of Italy and back towards Central Europe.

We rested for a while on the hotel terrace where I enjoyed some more beer and the girls caught up on their internet correspondence and then we returned at the appointed time for our visit to the tower.  We had to climb the two hundred and ninety four steps spiral staircase that takes visitors up and which due to the absence of windows, and therefore orientation, was reminiscent of a fairground wacky house attraction, especially when although you knew that you were ascending sometimes according to the angle of the tilt it felt as though you were going down at the same time, which was a very weird experience.

Because the Tower had been built at a time when health and safety was not considered such an important consideration the safety instructions were quite clear especially in respect of young children and how parents should take care to hold the hands of the under twelve’s.  This is quite sensible because the stone surfaces were slightly slippy and it really wouldn’t be too difficult to disappear over the side and become a permanent addition to the new foundations.

I liked the Leaning Tower of Pisa because it lived up to all of my expectations, I tried to bring to mind anything else that was famous for leaning but all I could think of was Oliver Reed after forty pints of beer and George Formby who used to lean on lamp posts looking at ladies, but you can get into a lot of trouble for that sort of thing now!

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