Pisa, The Leaning Tower

“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’

The early morning traffic din was enough to wake the dead and the weather inspection revealed a most unsatisfactory situation.  There was a bit of rain in the air and there was a mizzle that hung over the river and shrouded the buildings on the other side in a hazy mist.  I can’t remember but I expect that I complained about this, when the weather is poor I usually do.  In the couple of weeks before the trip the weather in Pisa had been excellent with sunshine and high temperatures so this was rather a disappointment.

The breakfast room was just as eccentric as the rest of the hotel and we choose a seat near to the window so that we could keep an eye out for any weather improvement.  There was none so soon after we collected our umbrellas and went out.

It was raining but it was not unpleasant so we walked along the river and then in a northerly direction towards the Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, and the home of the famous Leaning Tower.  It has to be said that Pisa is not a particularly attractive city but it has a certain honest charm about it.   It simply cannot be Florence of Sienna or Lucca because this is essentially a functional and working city and it doesn’t try to pretend to be what it is not.  If it wasn’t for the fact that historical fortune has given to it the Leaning Tower I doubt if it would feature on many people’s travel itinerary at all.

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 schoolboy 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 at an angle of five and a half degrees and this means that the tower 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 inadequately prepared 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 so little wonder then that it started to sink.

Impending collapse brought construction proceedings to a halt for a hundred years while architects and builders considered what to do and over the intervening years there have been a number of attempts to prevent the whole thing giving in to the laws of gravity and crashing to the ground.  In 1272, for example, builders returned to the project and four more 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 massive engineering disaster and the result was that the tower actually sank further into the soil.  In 1964 Italy finally had to concede 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 purchased a ticket for the trip to the top.  There are two hundred and ninety four steps up a spiral staircase that take visitors up and which due to the absence of windows, and therefore orientation, is reminiscent of a fairground wacky house attraction, especially when although you know that you were ascending sometimes according to the extreme angle of the tilt of the building it feels as though you were going down at the same time, which, believe me, is a very unusual experience.  Mark Twain described it like this: “The winding staircase within is dark, but one always knows which side of the tower he is on because of his naturally gravitating from one side to the other of the staircase with the rise or dip of the tower. Some of the stone steps are foot-worn only on one end; others only on the other end; others only in the middle. ”

Because the Tower had been built at a time when health and safety was not such an important consideration in construction the modern 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.  We were bemused therefore to see some young children dashing about the building and their parents defying this sensible instruction.  Sensible because even if the stone surfaces were dry, which today they certainly were not, it really wouldn’t be too difficult to disappear over the side in an instant 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 that was in a previous age when this was still an innocent and acceptable thing to do.

In London St Stephen’s Tower at the Palace of Westminster which contains the clock Big Ben is leaning to one side and may eventually become unstable – but only in thousands of years and it will take a long time to challenge the Leaning Tower of Pisa for tourist bragging rights.  St. Stephen’s Tower leans 0.26 degrees to the north-west, putting it out of alignment by about 0.5m at its highest point but right now the 0.26 º angle is one 16th of the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s tilt.

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12 responses to “Pisa, The Leaning Tower

  1. Chesterfield’s crooked spire is quite distinctive although hardly the leaning tower.

    I got a really disorientated feeling when I went up there, and thought those open galleries or whatever you call them were fearsome. Are they still open?

    I knew they had tried to stabilise it but I didn’t realise to what extent so a good read there.

    • I’d forgotten about Chesterfield’s crooked spire. In Long Sutton in Lincolnshire there is a church (also called St Mary’s) which claims to have the highest wooden spire in the UK – but it isn’t twisted!
      At the Leaning Tower the galleries were open and were pretty scary!

  2. A squirt of viagra into the substructure every few weeks should achieve the desired effect. (You can order it online, I see.)

  3. I burst out laughing:
    “…task force of eggheads was assembled to come up with a miracle Viagra cure.”
    All in all, it’s amazing this tower is still standing.

  4. We visited the Leaning Tower a few years ago and I was quite amazed how much it really does lean. For some reason the stairs were closed that day. Perhaps not an adequate does of the little blue pill the day prior. 🙂

  5. There is a leaning clock tower in Belfast, but nowhere near as impressive as this one.

  6. I reckon there’s not too many people who have visited Pisa and resisted having a photo taken some distance away (so that the whole Tower fits in the shot) in a pose of stretching their arm and opening their hand, seemingly pushing it against the Tower, to achieve the effect of propping up the Tower … I have a couple of those in my family 🙂

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