After over a decade of being strapped in steel cables and inaccessible to tourists, La Torre di Pisa is open once again. Nearly $30 million was spent to prevent the tower from leaning any further to avoid total collapse. Now it is good for another 300 years.
Begun in 1173 AD, the tower has been an architectural problem almost from its beginning. Owing to soft ground and a shallow foundation, the tower began to lean as early as the time the third floor was completed. This despite the over 13 foot-thick walls at the base. But engineers at the time had few resources to call on. There was no ground-penetrating radar, geological science, lasers or huge cranes to right the work.
Ironically, the tower is not, or more accurately was not, the main attraction of the site. It was intended as a bell tower for the nearby cathedral. Both are extraordinary works of Romanesque-Gothic art. It’s only because of an unfortunate engineering failure that the tower is the more famous of the two structures.
But far from being considered a failure at the time, it was not completely unknown for buildings to be less than perfect 800 years ago. There are examples in Germany, Ireland and even not far away inside Tuscany of both towers and rectangular buildings that lean slightly.
Still, visitors, today will be thrilled by the view from below or above.
From the base, standing far back from the tower, one can see the round, layer-cake type facade. The base is somewhat plain, but not far up there are magnificent columns. The elaborate carving is even more amazing when one considers that the major construction effort was completed less than 200 years after the beginning.
The project was stalled for about 100 years while the Pisans engaged in battles with Genoa and other Italian city-states of the period. Then, picking up in 1275 AD it stalled again in 1284 AD, just before the belfry was added. Finally, in 1360, the building topped out at 51m/167ft.
From the perspective of distance those who observe carefully can see that not only is the tower leaning (which is obvious) but that it is curved as well. Noting the lean, builders attempted to compensate by making some of the floors taller on the side opposite. The result gives the tower its slight banana shape.
Fortunately, since digging out 70 tons of earth from below the ground, the tower was reopened in 2001. Visitors in bunches of 30 can now go up inside for a 35-minute guided tour. Be sure to obtain tickets well in advance. It’s a hugely popular attraction.
Now, tourists can see the surrounding area from on high, as well as some of the magnificent bells in the belfry. Not to worry about the lean, though. It’s only 13 feet from vertical and modern engineering has ensured a safe visit.