Less Lean, More Gleam

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Our visit to Pisa's famous Leaning Tower came near the end of a remarkable restoration period for this famous Italian icon. Begun in 1173, construction of the tower took 177 years over three stages interrupted by frequent battles between the Republic of Pisa and neighboring republics of Genoa, Lucca and Florence.

With only a ten-foot foundation set in weak subsoil, the tower was already beginning to tilt by the third floor just five years after construction began. In an effort to compensate for the lean, architects designed the upper floors with one side taller than the other.

As we all know from seeing photos of the famous tower all our lives, these efforts were not enough to correct the tilt. Nor did the tower stop its tilt. By the mid-twentieth century, the tower was leaning to such an extent that a multinational task force was convened to determine how to stabilize the tower. Much research ensued and in 1990, the tower was closed to the public and underwent a decade of stabilization and corrective work. In a multi-pronged effort that included steel girdles, lead weights, and removing soil from below the high end, the tower's lean was improved from 5.5 degrees to just under 4 degrees. Experts declared it stable for at least 300 years, and it was reopened to visitors in 2001.

Though the tower had been stabilized, there was still centuries of erosion and discoloration caused by air pollution, pigeon deposits and corrosive sea salt. Millions of tourists over the years had left their marks as well, as had rain that collects in certain areas due to the slant. Since 2003, a team of 10 restoration experts has cleaned every one of the 24,424 blocks of stone in the tower using lasers, chisels and syringes. Scaffolding remains on the top level as they are about to complete their work.

Today the tower looks like a beautiful wedding cake that almost toppled on its way to the reception.  The cleaning is said to have cost in excess of €6 million ($8.5 million), making the €15 ticket to climb to the top of the tower seem quite reasonable.
Pisa's leaning tower is, of course, the bell tower for the medieval cathedral of Pisa.  Other structures in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) include the circular baptistery and the camposanto, which we found to be particularly fascinating being the taphophiles that we are.
Called a campo santo (holy field) because of its foundation of soil brought back to Pisa from Golgotha in the Holy Land, this walled cemetery dates from the late 13th century.  This large Gothic cloister was once home to beautiful frescoes, dozens of Roman statues, and elegantly decorated sarcophagi.
During World War II, a fragment from an Allied bomb hit the roof of the camposanto, and the timbered supports caught fire, melting the leaden roof and destroying most of the contents.  The painstaking work of restoration has been ongoing for decades but the statuary and other contents can never be replaced.  Only 84 of the originals remain intact.
Visiting these majestic spaces in Pisa, it's easy to forget how much the city depends on the revenue from tourists to maintain them. But once you step outside the square, you will have no difficulty finding a souvenir of your trip to the leaning tower. They come in all sizes and colors, but only one shape.

Pisa Stats:
Tower height:  186 feet (183 on low side)
Horizontal displacement:  12 ft 10 in (from where it would be if straight)
Dirt removed to help stabilize:  77 tons
Angle of slant:  3.99 degrees
Number of bells:  7, tuned to the musical scale

By Our Count:
Souvenir stalls near the piazza:  122
Stalls selling the identical souvenirs:  119
Sizes of leaning tower shaped bottles:  25
Designs of leaning tower boxer shorts:  12
Sizes and styles of leaning tower decorative replicas:  81