Leaning Tower of Pisa (12/03/03)

Last updated 12/03/03                                                                                                                                

Pisa was our first stop on the Italian soil, not counting short waits to change trains in Ventimiglia and Genoa, and it proved to be as nice an introduction to Italy as I could imagine. For one, the weather was beautifully warm and sunny... I will let you in on a little secret: we originally planned on staying overnight in Genoa and heading to Pisa the following morning, but the rain made Genoa look so drab and unwelcoming that we just got on the next train away from the place. Pisa, on the other hand, felt like sudden summer in December, and had marvellous things to show us, the main being, of course, the Leaning Tower.

I was surprised to see that the tower is in fact part of a cathedral complex which includes the Cathedral itself (beatiful Romanesque building with tiers of arches and pillars on the facade, made of marble pieces put together in a way that creates an illusion of horizontal stripes across the walls), the cupcake-like Battistero (baptistry), and the Campanile (bell tower).
The cathedral complex is located on the grass-covered "Campo dei Miracoli" (Field of Miracles) square, surrounded by the old town walls and lined with souvenier stalls with the inevitable leaning-tower items -- minituare copies in white and pink with shining lights, keychains, t-shirts, even leaning mugs! Okay, so I couldn't help myself and got a kitsch leaning cup for Mom's coffee-cup collection.

All of the buildings on Campo dei Miracoli lean to some extent due to the irregularities of water pressure under the soil (basically, the complex was built on a swamp), but only in the Leaning Tower the angle is so pronounced that you can't possibly miss the phenomenon. The tilting of the tower was, obviously, not planned by its architect Bonnano Pisano, but started unexpectedly when he only completed three tiers of the eventual seven. I have no idea how the poor man lived down this embarassment of his career, but it sure has made the town of Pisa a tourist magnet for the following millenium! The tower's deviation from the perpendicular (over 4 meters at the top) is obvious to the naked eye and lends itself well to photography (see below). It appears from the scientific studies done on the tower's condition (the last one happened in 2000 on EU money) that the tower is caught in a positive reinforcement loop: because it's already leaning, the north side of the building is more exposed to sun and wind, while the south side is more affected by the air particles caught in its shade, and due to differences in aging of the stone on the opposite walls the tower tends to lean more and more over time. Efforts have been undertaken throughout the tower's lifetime to stop the tilting, but they have so far been unsuccessful; the tilt is continuing to increase at 1mm a year. Let's hope they can stop it, because it would be a great pity to lose this architectural mishap turned one of the wonders of the world!

The rest of Pisa, although unable to rival the fame of its focal point, is altogether pleasant to explore and has nice examples of Italian-style architecture as well as a plethora of reasonably priced restaurants and cafes. The prices must be kept down by the presence of a large university; if Pisa weren't a college town but only a tourist attraction, I bet they'd be charging triple for that panini (hot grilled sandwich) right around the corner from the Leaning Tower! As is, food is cheap, and you can have your lunch of a super-salty panini with proscuito (Italian ham) sitting on the steps of the cathedral, watching the tower lean in front of your eyes. For a fancier meal, head out into the labirinth of small streets off Via Santa Maria, and you may discover a small friendly restaurant with cellar-like decor and incredible pasta dishes that plays "Phantom of the Opera" tunes while you dine. And they speak English, too! At this point in our journey we had no language problems, given that our Italian proficiency starts and ends at "Chiao".


                     Cathedral complex on the Campo dei Miracoli

                            Yes, the tower is indeed leaning!

                     Pisa is not all about the tower, it has other places too...