Sunday, 1 June 2014

49. Wonder: The Leaning Tower of Pisa

(For the Leaning Tower of Pisa preview, please click here.)

Oh, ok, go on.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa does odd things to people's dignity.


It's a funny thing. The Tower of Pisa is the 49th Wonder I've officially visited, and I'd felt I'd got into my stride. What makes a Wonder? A lot of things: size, beauty, age, meaning, surroundings, and plenty of other subtle factors. Seeing a new potential Wonder for the first time, I've become used to my responses, which can vary on a rough spectrum between awe and disappointment. I usually have a fair idea of what to expect. Well, the Tower of Pisa is the first Wonder to make me laugh. The moment Danielle and I crossed the street and, unexpectedly, saw it in full view ahead, Danielle emitted an "Oh my!" and I just laughed in sheer surprise. Turns out that the name doesn't lie - that thing really does lean.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has lived a charmed life. On multiple occasions, it really should have fallen down. It's not just the improbable lean, which looks like it should topple over, it's the series of misadventures that led to that lean, the appalling efforts to correct it, and there's a little bit of World War 2 near-miss as well. The Leaning Tower may be one the world's most recognised buildings - it's also one the world's most unlikely.

Standing today at an angle of 3.99 degrees, the top 3.9 metres further north than the bottom, the Tower of Pisa was never intended to lean, as you might expect. It certainly wasn't supposed to be a giant comic prop to enhance tourists' photos. It was supposed to be a pretty bell tower, standing at the side of the greater glory of the cathedral. The Tower is part of an ensemble of a cathedral, a baptistery, and a monumental cemetery, all of which together constitute the Cathedral Square, or as it's more attractively known, the Piazza dei Miracoli, the Square of Miracles. The origins of this square go way back to the 11th Century. Pisa now is a small city of 80,000, notable pretty much only for having a tilted tower, but back then, it was a naval and trading force to be reckoned with. In the 11th Century, Muslim forces had started to bother the city: they had already captured Sicily and other islands from the 9th Century, and had their eyes on Pisa. Fortunately Norman forces were at hand to help out. From northern France, descended from Vikings, the Normans were keen to take over southern Italy and Sicily, especially as it meant getting rid of these pesky Muslims. The Pisans had made various raids against Muslim towns, but they left the hard work of conquest to the Normans and were content with taking a whole bunch of booty. With their new wealth and diminished threat of Muslim aggression, they decided to build.

The showpiece would be the cathedral. The Pisans set their sights high - they wanted something to rival St Peter's in Rome or the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The idea might seem ridiculous today but back then Pisa was an emerging superpower. Starting in 1064, they used the services of an established church builder, a man called Buschedo di Giovanni Guidien, who fully understood the remit: do it big and do it magnificent. The nave, that is the main interior space for the general public, of the huge Romanesque cathedral is almost 98 metres; St Peter's today is 84 metres, the Hagia Sophia's is 79 metres. As construction begun, the Normans defeated the Muslims in Sicily once and for all, opening up sea trade for Pisa. Money started to pour in. In 1081, Pisa was given official independence by the Holy Roman Empire. It was boom time.

The cathedral was consecrated, that is officially opened for business, by 1118, although it wasn't fully finished till 1250. Meanwhile, in 1153 the Baptistery begun, the unusual but attractive dome immediately to the cathedral's west, used for baptisms, to eventually be finished by 1300.

When work on the new bell tower begun in 1173, therefore, the entire cathedral square area was something of a building site. Welcome to the Middle Ages: most of the glorious cathedrals and other constructions we celebrate now took decades or centuries to build, generations and lives could pass by as projects progressed, no end in sight, just labourers and carts and blocks of stone and lots and lots of noise. We don't know the name of the architect who designed the Tower of Pisa, and this is probably because in 1178, after just three storeys had been completed, work stopped. Why? We can't say for sure, but you can bet it was already leaning even then. It was a botched job, and the architect removed his name from the work - or had it taken away. His three metres of foundation on soft ground was inadequate. His tower was no good.

Our unnamed architect was a little unlucky in this. Looking back 800 years later, it's easy to judge his work as poor, but that's a harsh judgement. Remember, this was the 12th Century, there wasn't exactly many handbooks around. The quality of his work in the tower was good. There was already a cathedral and baptistery in semi-complete form, and they were doing fine. It was entirely reasonable for him to have dug a 3-metre-deep foundation, which was filled with a kind of concrete and left to set for months. His calculations were fine - what he didn't take into account was the deeper instability of the ground. Once upon a time the ground underneath the foundations had been a bog, and after building upon these foundations with heavy marble blocks, the ground slowly began to shift. Upon the first level being built, already there was a very slight shift to the north. No big deal though - they built it slightly heavier on the south to balance things out. It didn't work. Pisa's tower was leaning. You can imagine the builders gathering round, looking at their squint building, scratching their heads, and wondering what to do. After some consideration, somebody must have said, "Screw it, just leave it for now. We'll worry about it later."

This decision saved the Tower. If work had continued, the tower would have toppled. Rather than try to get to the root of the problem, perhaps even start again, they just left it - for almost a century. Work didn't resume until 1272, and by this time the stubby tower had had time to settle, compacting the soft ground below it. We know the name of the next architect - Giovanni di Simone. In the century since the Tower had been started, styles had changed. Europe had undergone the Gothic Revolution, with new architectural techniques making buildings bigger, grander, and lighter. But di Simone shrugged his shoulders to this and kept Pisa's Tower true to its original Romanesque aesthetics. This meant he also, unwittingly, kept it true to its lean. He built the 3rd to 7th storeys with the same thick walls and heavy materials, and destabilised it all over again. Under his watch, most of the Tower's 16,000 tons was built, and concentrated in tower form it was a little like plunging a stiletto into mud. Di Simone tried to prevent the lean - on the upper levels, he built one side taller than the other, to compensate for the tilt. If you look very closely, you can still see this - the Tower of Pisa actually has a bend.

But di Simone's corrective plan didn't work. In 1278, work again stopped, for almost a century.

Again, no official reason is given, although the lean is the very likely candidate. Di Simone doesn't seem to have been as ashamed as the previous anonymous architect, and instead he moved his energies to the Campsanto Monumentale, i.e. the Monumental Cemetery, which is the final part of the Piazza dei Miracoli complex. This is effectively a very grand cemetery for the great and the good of Pisa. Packed with art and sculpture, it was only finished in 1464 but for many centuries was regarded as the highlight of the complex. It's still used today - one grave I saw was dated 2009. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged during the Second World War, in which a bomb started a fire, which wrecked much. It is still a lovely place to visit, and very tranquil compared to the hordes of camera-wielding tourists taking trick shots of the Tower that fill the rest of the site.

Meanwhile, Pisa went into a decline after a massive defeat to its rival, Genoa. It never recovered, and its days as a superpower were over, but its artistic side continued to flourish, and work on the Piazza dei Miracoli continued. In a few fits and bursts, the remainder of the Tower was finished, concluding in 1372. By now, the lean was very pronounced. This can be seen at the bell chamber at the top, which again was built in a vague attempt to level things off, if not with the whole tower, then with the chamber itself. From the south side, six steps are needed to reach the bell chamber, but only four on the north side. The Leaning Tower looks like a man wearing his hat squint.

And so, about 450 years passed. The Pisans had a squint tower. No big deal, but maybe don't mention it too much around them as it wasn't exactly their pride and joy. But by the 19th Century, the perception began to change. Wealthy tourists began noticing the tower, and they loved it. Myths arose, and the tower became celebrated. All of a sudden, the Pisans were proud of their tower: it wasn't squint, it was leaning. And the tourism almost brought about its downfall. The Tower had been at a stable tilt for centuries, but in 1838 an architect called Alessandro Della Gherardesca thought it would be a good idea to dig a walkway around the base to show tourists the sunken base. Bad idea. The Tower was again destabilised, but in its own peculiar way in the most gradual manner possible. It began to lean more and more - not much, but very steadily increasing. You might call it leaning, you could also call it falling, very slowly, but accelerating. It was only a matter of time before it finally came crashing down.

Naturally, people tried to stop this increasing tilt, but all failed, many made it worse. Mussolini, in 1934, authorised a stupid plan to inject over 90 tons of cement into the foundation, which had the astonishing effect of moving the Tower's lean south-east, then north, then south, then east, before resuming its previous northerly tilt. Meanwhile, it survived the Second World War - but was a single command away from destruction. Aside from surviving the bombing of the city by the Allies (the Camposanto Monumentale got off less fortunately), the Allies became convinved that German snipers were hiding in there, helping stall the Allied advance. The solution - blow the thing up. In 1944, a young American GI was entrusted with watching the Tower, and if he saw any movement inside whatsoever, he was to give the order and it would be destroyed. Instead, despite being in enemy territory and just wanting to get back to safety, he became transfixed by the beauty of the Tower, and found himself unwilling to give the command. It perhaps helped that he was slightly short-sighed - he'd been rejected by the Navy for that very reason. German shells started bursting and he retreated back to his lines. The Tower survived for another day.

That day could well have come in the 1990s. By 1989, the rate of tilt had doubled since the 1930s, with the top of the Tower shifting an extra 1.5 millimetres per year. The entire thing was at a 5.5 degree inclination, which may not sound much, but had actually gone beyond all computer model predictions, which had it collapsing at 5.44 degrees. The Leaning Tower of Pisa really was on the brink. Even approaching it with heavy machinery might make it topple. In September 1995, drilling efforts to install steel cables saw the Tower pitch 4 millimetres to the south in a single moment. An 6.0 earthquake 200 kilometres away in September 1997 killed nine people and made 40,000 people homeless - but the Tower was fine. Any closer and it would surely have fallen.

In the end, a different tower was perhaps responsible for saving Pisa's. A (non-leaning) tower in Pavia collapsed in 1989, killing four, and the dangers of the Nearly-Falling Tower of Pisa were brought home. The Tower was closed to the public. It took a while after that, but some serious expertise - as opposed to Mussolini - was brought in. Using a very careful process of soil extraction, they made the Tower pull back a little, decreasing the lean. By 2001, the Tower was declared stable for the next 300 years and reopened to the public, and in 2008, it was, um, declared stable again, for the next 200 years. If that's the trend, let's hope no more declarations are forthcoming.

Whether 200 or 300 years, authorities are confident to let tourists climb the thing again for now. Naturally, Danielle and I did so. It's a very novel experience. Only 30 people are allowed entry at a time, at 15 minute intervals. Upon entering, the tilt is immediately felt. The Tower of Pisa is a curiously insubstantial thing - it's basically a hollow cylinder with a spiral staircase running up the cylinder from the base to each storey and finally the bell tower. As we all entered, we sat along a circular bench while a lady summarised the Tower's history. But nobody listened. Everybody was looking up the hollow tube we were in, and adjusting to the slope.

Climbing the stairs is another interesting experience. The best I can compare it to is climbing a stairway on a boat in rough seas - one moment you're pitching forward and almost running up the stairs, the next you're leaning back and fighting against an additional force. It's strange, but rather fun. The Tower of Pisa is only 56 metres high so not terribly tall, but 293 steps is still a fair climb, especially at an angle.

By the time we'd reached the top, we'd got used a little to our world being unbalanced. At the top, the Tower of Pisa does what all good towers do - offers great views.

Even if the Tower of Pisa was straight, we'd like it. It might not be one of the world's most famous buildings, but it would still be a gorgeous addition to the overall Piazza dei Miracoli. It's a very attractive tower, with a clean simplicity to its heavy repetition of columns and arches. The lean, if you like, tips it over the edge into greatness. It's an incredible, ridiculous, perfect lean that gives the Tower thar rare quality found in the very best of Wonders - an unworldliness. You can hardly believe your eyes. It's not just the lean, it's not just the tower, it's the perfect and improbable harmony of the two. Because not everything that leans is great - there are buildings out there than lean more. Look at this German church in Suurhusen.

It leans at 5.2 degrees to the Tower's 3.99, but although a nice enough church, doesn't have the star appeal of the Tower. How about this one then? It's also German, is a little bigger, leans at 4.8 degrees, and has the fantastic name of the Oberkirche of Bad Frankenhausen.

 It's definitely got some appeal, but perhaps not quite the looks or the mythos of Pisa's Tower. If it's lean you're after, you might want to check out what's in Abu Dhabi.

This is the Capital Gate Tower, leaning at 18 degrees. But deliberately so, which seems to take away a lot of the appeal. It's like a 18-year-old trying to grow whiskers, smoking a pipe and wearing a flat cap - trying a little too hard.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa truly captures the imagination. I love it, and Danielle does too: it's an immensely likeable tower, a truly joyous building to be around. You can sense that simply from the buzz of the crowds. Sure, some of the antics of the young Australian groups may get a little wearing - "Pretend you're licking the Tower! Again! Yeah, like it's a giant penis! Hahaha! I'm a total idiot! Yeah! Punch me in the face someone!" - but let's not blame the Tower of Pisa for Australians. It's a great building just to sit and gaze at, enjoying it's beauty, wondering at the improbable angle it's decided to adopt. It's earned its fame through the crazy lean, and it's kept that fame because underneath it all, it's a remarkably attractive tower that just so happen to really suit its lean. A crazy lean might just make a building look weird; for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it makes it beautifully weird, or weirdly beautiful. Take your pick. Who cares, it's just a pleasure to look at.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's not terribly big: a 57 metre-high tower. Still, standing below it, it seems big enough. And it is big enough - it was any bigger at all, it would have toppled centuries ago. In this sense, the Tower of Pisa is pretty much the maximum height it can be.
Engineering: It's a well-built tower, or would have been if the subsoil had behaved itself. Hence, it's a well-built cock-up tower, that by some miracle of brinkmanship has survived despite the world's best efforts to knock it over.
Artistry: A beautiful tower. The lean makes it fascinating to look at.
Age: Started almost 850 years ago, finished around 650 years ago.
Fame/Iconicity: Probably one of the most famous structures in the world. The unlikely lean seems to have captured everyone's imagination.
Context: Part of the lovely Piazza dei Miracoli and surrounded by the pleasant streets of Pisa. They're all bonus features though - everybody wants to look at the Tower, which has entirely eclipsed the Piazza and Pisa.
Back Story: A series of great tales of technical cock-ups, confusions, very near misses - and all with a happy ending.
Originality: Part of what makes the Tower stand out is that it's not an identikit bell tower. I don't know of any other that look like it - in Italy they usually take more of a squarish ground plan. But then of course, there's the lean - and that takes the Tower into fairly unique territory. I think we can safely say this is one of a kind.
Wow Factor: "Oh my!" Seeing the The Leaning Tower for the first time surprised me a lot more than expected. Yes, it leans, and looks like it's just about to topple.

It would be easy to dismiss the Tower of Pisa as a novelty act among greater heavyweights. That would be wrong. What makes a Wonder? As I've said, many things do. The Leaning Tower of Pisa fits the bill with most of them but never really exceeds them. It's big, but hardly gigantic; it's a technical achievement but also a bit of a cock-up. It's very attractive, beautiful even, but not truly transcendent. The Tower of Pisa kind of creates a new category though, of sheer improbability. Seeing the best Wonders, you can hardly believe your eyes - the Tower of Pisa has this appeal in spades. The crowds turn up because of its fame, and they linger because of the startling tilt coupled with the surprising beauty. It really makes an impression. Likewise, it makes an impression on my list. While it doesn't sneak into the realms of the very top-most bunch, I'd certainly class it under the banner of "Other Wonders", just behind the mystical Borobudur (which also suffered from questionable workmanship and suffered partial collapse a short time after construction) but ahead of the much grander, much better-built, much more austere but much more regular Chartres Cathedral.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. I visited this in the 1990s, when the tower wasn't open to the public. Even at that young age I was quite impressed (I was about 13). I think what I find the most interesting, as you say, is the curve that shows how they tried to correct the inclination.

    Also I like the fact that the whole thing (cathedral, tower, baptistry) is in the middle of a big neat lawn. That's quite original, most cathedrals are in squares or hemmed in by other buildings.

    Photo number 8: it looks as if if the tower is trying to photobomb the cathedral, like a weird uncle looming in the background of a wedding photo.

    Regarding fame/iconicity: I think that the Tower of Pisa is *the* symbol of Italy. In fact I reckon that it is required by law for all Italian restaurants outside of Italy to have a picture of it on their menus or on their walls. Joking aside, I think it represents Italy (say, on guide book covers) in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents France or the Statue of Liberty represents the United States. More so, perhaps, than the Colisseum.


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