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One of the highlights of my 12 days in Italy, in 2017, was seeing a famous landmark that always fascinated me as a child. I grew up looking at photos of the impossibly Leaning Tower of Pisa. To see it in person, as my daughter, grandson and I walked into the huge piazza, brought surprising tears to my eyes.
There it stood, creamy white in the Tuscan sun, surrounded by other structures and a throng of people. It does, indeed, lean. And visitors enjoy snapping fun selfies with the illusion of holding up the tower.
What else do you know about this iconic campanile?
Discover these fun facts about the leaning tower of Pisa!
Pisa, Tuscany, Italy
The medieval town of Pisa enjoyed great prosperity in the 12th century. The city’s seaport became a powerful one in the Tuscany region. After sacking Palermo, Pisa desired to show of their wealth by constructing the “Square of Miracles”, or Piazza dei Miracoli.
The square houses a cathedral, baptistry, cemetery and a tall bell tower, or campanile, meant to hold the tile of tallest of its kind. And it might have, if plans had not gone awry.
Check out these fun facts about that famous leaning tower.
The Tower Began Leaning Before Construction Ended
The word pisa is Greek for “marshy land”. That’s the first problem builders encountered with building a tall tower in the area. The ground in Pisa is an unstable mix of sand, clay and shells that shifts easily.
Due to a shallow, heavy foundation, the tower began sinking on the south side by the time construction began on the second story. As construction continued, builders tried to compensate by adding taller columns and arches on the south side. However, the tower continued to lean. After completing the third story, construction stopped for almost 100 years.
The Architect is Not Absolutely Known
Construction on the tower began in 1174, however due to concerns that slowed or stopped progress, it wasn’t completed until 1350.
Bonanno Pisano is sometimes credited as the original architect. Yet Gherardo di Gherardo is another possibly. Giovanni di Simone took over as primary architect in 1272. Tommaso di Andrea Pisano finally completed the tower with the addition of the belfry. The tower style is Romanesque.
The Campanile Isn’t the Only Leaning Tower in Pisa
Because of the soft subsoil, there are actually several leaning towers in Pisa. The second most famous one is the bell tower of the Church of St. Nicola, in Pisa’s Borgo Stretto. Built in 1170, about the same time as THE leaning tower, this eight sided tower tilts slightly too.
The third leaning tower is the bell tower for St. Michele dei Sclazi, located on Viale delle Piagge. Piagge is Latin for “low plains that flood”. So you can guess that the “plain that floods” might create a similar unstable problem!
Pisa’s Leaning Tower Has Leaned in Different Directions
Over the centuries, engineers tried to correct the tower’s tilt. When construction began again, after almost a century, engineers tried to stop the lean by building straight up. That only succeeded in throwing off the center of gravity, causing the tower to lean to the north. As construction continued, the tower eventually settled back into a southward lean, where it remains.
The Tower’s Unusual Dimensions
Because of the tilt, the tower never reached its designed height of 197 feet. The highest side of the tower is 186 feet tall, while the shorter side reaches 183 feet.
By 1990, the tower tilted almost 10 degrees…enough to cause concern that it could topple. A massive restoration project corrected the tilt to 3.97 degrees.
You Can Climb the Tower
In spite of the obvious lean, the tower is open (in non pandemic times) for visitors to climb to the top. The north staircase contains 296 steps while the south staircase has 294. You must purchase tickets in advance, to climb Pisa’s leaning tower.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is an Actual Bell Tower
The tower houses seven large bells at the top. Each bell weighs nearly 8,000 pounds and represents a musical note on the major scale. Although the bells remain in the tower, they have not rung since the 20th century. Can you guess why? That’s right. The sound vibrations could make the tower lean even more.
Mussolini Hated the Tower
Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, felt embarrassed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He attempted to correct the tower’s lean by drilling hundreds of holes in the tower base. Mortar and grout, pumped into the holes, was supposed to anchor the entire tower and straighten it. On the contrary, it only created a heavier base, which made the tower lean more than it did before.
Allies Intended to Destroy the Tower During WWII
American soldiers carried orders to tear down Italian structures that might serve as lookout points for enemy snipers. However, when troops arrived in Pisa, they were so impressed with the beauty of the leaning tower and the Square of Miracles that they spared the campanile.
The Tower is Now Stable
In 2008 engineers declared the tower stable. For the first time in its history, the tower is no longer slowing sinking on the south side. It is officially considered safe for the next 200 years.
Add the Leaning Tower of Pisa to Your Travel List
If you visit the Tuscany region of Italy, make sure Pisa is on your destination list! It’s a beautiful tower, in spite of…or perhaps because of…it’s noticeable lean.
We visited Cinque Terre in the morning, and stopped by Pisa in the afternoon, on our way to Lucca. A couple of hours is plenty of time to enjoy this well known landmark, unless you purchase tickets to climb the tower.
Like other visitors, we took fun photos. And we spent time in the Square of Miracles, admiring the other structures that share space with the unique bell tower, our eyes frequently returning to the Leaning Tower in admiration. I’m grateful I got to check that destination off of my travel list.
Have you seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person?
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