Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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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!

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa title meme

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.

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa - complex
Fun facts about the leaning tower of Pisa – the Baptistry, Cathedral and Tower (Campanile)

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!

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa - leans different directions
Fun facts about the Leaning Tower of Pisa – it’s leaned in different directions

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.

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa marshy ground
Fun facts about the Leaning Tower of Pisa – pisa is Greek for “marshy ground”

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.

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa tourists
Fun facts about the Leaning Tower of Pisa – visitors like to take “holding up the tower” photos

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?

Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa Dayan
Dayan’s “holding up the tower” photo.

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Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel

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The Sistine Chapel, located within Vatican City in Rome, Italy contains one of the most famous frescoes in the world. On the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo’s masterpiece inspires wonder. Security officers within the room encourage silence out of respect for the space. Truly, the magnificence of the paintings instill reverence. It’s not difficult to observe the silence.

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel either, to protect the vibrancy of the artwork. So when my daughter, grandson and I toured the room, we strove to soak it all in. Although I grew up seeing limited photos of the chapel, that someone took, I had no idea what to expect. Several things surprised me.

Check out these fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel and see if any surprise you!

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel title meme

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel

Because we could not take photos in the chapel, I’m sharing photographs of other ceilings within Vatican City, which truly contains amazing collections of art. While not painted by Michelangelo, these ceilings inspire awe as well, when you look up.

The photo of the chapel ceiling, used here in this post, is one I purchased from the Canva site.

Where Does the Name Come From?

The chapel is named for Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel’s construction in 1475. It rests on the foundation of the original Cappella Magna (Great Chapel). The chapel’s layout is reminiscent of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Old Testament.

Size of the Chapel

The small size of the chapel surprised me. I think because the paintings are so complex, covering the ceiling and parts of the walls, I expected a huge room. In reality, the chapel measures a little larger than a professional basketball court.

Michelangelo Covered Another Artist’s Work

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, beginning work in 1508, he covered the original fresco on the ceiling. Artist Piero Matteo d’Amelia created a blue night sky filled with gold stars.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel St Peter's Basilica
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – this gorgeous view is in St Peter’s Basilica

Michelangelo Didn’t Want to Paint the Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo considered himself primarily a sculpture, not a painter.¬† In fact, he didn’t feel qualified for such a massive project as the chapel ceiling. However, because the pope asked him to do the work, he could not easily refuse. Michelangelo even entertained the thought that his rivals set up the commission, just to see him fail.

Michelangelo Expressed His Unhappiness in a Poem

The artist disliked his commission so much that he wrote a poem about it.¬† His friend Giovanni da Pistoia received the lament, which included the line, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture, hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy.” I somehow find it refreshing that the great Michelangelo could poetically tell it like it is!

Did He Paint Lying on His Back?

Although the story suggests that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling while lying on his back, he in fact built his own scaffolding. This allowed him to stand near the ceiling, providing better precision and control of his brushes. As his poem suggests, however, the cramped working conditions and long hours looking up created physical pain for him.

St Peter's Basilica ceiling
Ceiling in St Peter’s Basilica, which is also located in Vatican City.

Four Years of Work

It took Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling, covering 12,000 square feet of space. He left the portrait of God until last, so that he could refine and perfect his technique. A year into the painting, a large portion of the fresco developed mold. He had to repaint that section. He tried to use this setback as proof that he wasn’t the right artist for the work, however the pope asked him to continue.

Depiction of God

Michelangelo painted God as an older man with white hair and a long white beard. While this image later became common, Michelangelo was the first to portray God in this way. The angels surrounding God create an image with their spread wings that resembles a brain. Scholars think Michelangelo perhaps showed off his knowledge of anatomy.

Cover Up Those Nudes

In the 1560s Pope Pius IV ordered painted fig leaves and loincloths added to strategically cover the nudity in Michelangelo’s paintings. Fortunately, when restoration work was done between 1980 and 1999, to remove layers of grime that built up over the years, these cover ups were removed.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel museum
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – Vatican Museums contain beautiful ceilings too

The Last Judgment

Michelangelo also painted The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar. However, he returned 22 years after he completed the ceiling, to add this fresco. The artist included two figures in The Last Judgment that represent him and neither are considered flattering.

Acorn Motif

A reoccurring motif in Michelangelo’s work is the acorn. This is a nod by the artist to the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV, whose family name was Rovere, meaning oak in Italian.

Millions of Visitors

When we are not experiencing a pandemic, the Sistine Chapel draws more than five million visitors every year. If a visitor has exposed shoulders or clothing that ends above the knees, he or she is asked to cover up while within the chapel. Due to the high volume of visitors, sweat, carbon dioxide and skin flakes pose a threat to the frescoes. Methods of controlling humidity and temperature are underway.

Vatican City Hallway
Amazing ceiling in a museum hallway.

Well Worth a Visit

Our 12 day tour of Italy began in Rome. On our first full day there, we visited Vatican City. Nothing prepared me for the experience. The vast collections of art astounded me. St Peter’s Basilica moved me to tears. And the Sistine Chapel, which was near the end of our tour, truly was the highlight of an amazing half day spent exploring the vastness of Vatican City. I think my mouth involuntarily dropped open when I entered the chapel.

Is Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel worth seeing? Yes. Allot at least three hours and more if you have time. There’s so much to see and experience.

I hope the collection of fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel inspires you to plan a visit. It’s a sight I’m extremely grateful for.

For now, check out this virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – a section of the famous ceiling (Canva photo)

Check out things you may not know about Michelangelo’s David HERE

 


 

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