Pisa, The Leaning Tower

Address: Piazza del Duomo, Pisa
tel +39 050 835065/25


Cassandra’s guide purports to keep you off the beaten track as far as tourism in Italy goes, yet here she is suggesting you visit the tourist trap of all tourist traps, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But wait! I can explain! The Tower, on top of being a trap, is a ghoulish place of science: some say that Galileo Galilei dropped two balls of different weights from it to prove that their time of descent was the same. That may be a myth, but climbing the Tower will put your, ummm, balls to the test. It’s scary up there!

It may not be easy to visit this popular trap, so plan ahead. Children under the age of eight are not allowed in, children up to the age 18 must be accompanied by an adult. But the difficulties only begin there: only forty people can enter the Tower at a time, every half hour on the half hour. Plus, the ticket costs a whopping 18 euros and you have to do the climbing (there are 293 steps to the top) yourself. And I haven’t mentioned the vertigo and acrophobia yet.

Machine guns and metal detectors at the entrance to the tippy tower

So, the Leaning Tower of Pisa leans and it has from the outset. The foundation stone was laid in 1173 and already in 1185 the ground under the foundations sank in a process called subsidence whose opposite is uplift. The Tower began to list to one side and construction was halted.

In the mid-1200’s an engineer (even though there were no engines as we know them back then) named Giovanni di Simone had the stones for the Tower re-cut so that the ones that were on the the up side were slightly longer than the ones on down side, thus partially correcting the lean. Only partially though, because as he built upwards the added weight made the tower sink even more.

Pisa at the time was a great city-state and one of the dominant forces in the Mediterranean along with Genoa, Venice and Amalfi. But the Med was too small a place for four maritime republics. Things came to a head in 1284. The Genovese blockaded the Pisa fleet in their port at the mouth of the Arno river. The Pisans decided to sail out to attack them, only to find that the Genovese had double the ships they thought laying in wait close by. One infamous man from Pisa, Ugolino della Gherardesca,

Pisa was trounced at sea in the Battle of the Meloria and to make good and sure that Pisa’s days as a maritime republic were over, the Genovese filled in their port so they couldn’t sail out of it and spread salt over their land so that they couldn’t cultivate it. They also took the huge chains that Pisa used for closeing the entrance to the port as spoils of war, only giving them back about 600 years later. (See the Pisa, Camposanto Monumental post.) Nearby cities Florence and Lucca took advantage of the chance to give Pisa a good, swift kick by land too and Pisa never recovered. Florence took over in 1406.

One result of the upheaval was that construction on the Tower was halted. Another was that a man named Rustichello da Pisa was captured and put into prison by the Genovese. There he had a Venetian cellmate named Marco Polo (Genoa was at war with Venice at the time too) who told excellent stories about his travels in Central Asia and China. Rusticello wrote them down and they became The Travels of Marco Polo. Think of that next time you’re hanging around a pool wondering what game to play.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Tower was leaning. In 1990 it was closed to the public and its seven huge bells (it is a bell tower after all) were removed to lighten it. It was cinched with steel cables and weights were put around the uphill side of the base. Earth was gradually removed from under the high side and the Tower was straightened to its 1838 tilt. More earth was removed and now engineers say that it has been stabilized. At least for another 200 years. Probably. More or less.

293 beautifully cut steps lead to the top of the Tower. The treads are worn out towards the inside or towards the outside, depending on the tilt as you ascend.

The Tower’s tilt has now been corrected to 3.99 degrees and the bells have been put back but it’s still about four meters off kilter. As you climb the spiraling stairs you find yourself first thrown against the inside wall, then against the outside wall. Except that the outside wall also has arched doorways and going off the side seems only natural. At the top it all gets worse. Says who that this thing is going to stand for another 200 years? Why should Cassandra or anyone else trust work done by an engineer in the year 1250? The Leaning Tower of Pisa is crooked as anything. Plus, it costs a pretty penny to climb. But then again roller coaters and the like cost a pretty penny too and have a fraction of the story to tell.

Suggested reading: Nancy Bach, Galileo Galilei e La Torre di Pisa

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