By Debi Lander
The Leaning Tower of Pisa stands as one of Italy’s iconic landmarks as well as a UNESCO Heritage Site. A construction mistake slipped the belltower into history, but that error is what eventually made it famous.
Pisa was a major power and port in the Middle Ages, but the river changed course over time. The main tourist attractions include a complex of three marble buildings: the massive Romanesque cathedral consecrated in 1118, the circular baptistery that contains figures intricately carved by a renowned 14th-century artisan, and the campanile or belltower. All three are worth a visit.
The first time I saw the askew belltower was more than 40 years ago. At the time is was dangerously close to collapse and closed to visitors. Scaffolding surrounded the structure and the marble exterior was dingy with pollution. The visit was less than memorable.
I revisited Pisa about 10 years ago and had a chance to climb inside the leaning tower. The dizzying experience is like no other. The marble stairs have worn away over the years and your center of gravity shifts as you work your way up and around the spiral staircase.
Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with fantastic views of the city and the walled Piazza dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles below. However, at that time, there were aggressive hawkers near the entrance. These roaming vendors left an uncomfortable feeling about the place.
In 2016, I had a chance to return again and, this time, couldn’t have been more pleased. The marble tower is clean and its wedding cake-like architecture appears simply stunning. The chiseled swirl in the columns and the details surrounding the arches are worth more than a mere glance. And fortunately, most of the hawkers are gone.
Construction on the campanile began in 1173 on unstable ground, a bog of clay. Almost immediately a slight shift occurred, but work continued. After reaching three stories, however, the belltower was abandoned for more than 100 years. Building was restarted and then stopped again, due to lack of funding and intervening wars. The tower was finally completed in 1370, but loomed four-and-a-half feet from vertical.
Various attempts were made to save the structure, but things went from bad to worse. In 1838 a walkway was excavated around the base, disastrously inducing water that flooded it. Later, Italian dictator Mussolini encouraged a plan for workers to drill holes in the base and inject 90 tons of cement. The building nearly toppled.
In 1990, the government again closed the tower and convened a commission (the 17th) to save it. By 1995, the lean had progressed to 17.5 feet. Eventually, a plan to subtract soil from the nearby field proved the solution for stability. In June 2001, Pisans celebrated the restoration of their famous landmark.
It’s fun to have someone snap a silly tourist picture of you trying to push over or hold up the leaning building. Be careful to avoid others in your photo doing the same thing, as it looks very strange to see someone pushing at thin air in the background.
I also meandered around the university town and noticed some extraordinary architecture that I had totally overlooked on previous visits.
My recommendation is to make a reservation well in advance to climb the leaning tower. Get your free tickets to enter the cathedral and baptistery from the Visitor Center before getting in line. Then, stroll away from the crowded tourist area and I’ll bet you’ll find that Pisa pleases.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander.
The Cathedral and Belltower at Pisa.