There are few structures on the planet that are as iconic as the bell tower that sits in the Piazza del Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles) in the city of Pisa on the Tuscany coast of Italy. While it is quite normal in Italy to have a piazza that consists of a cathedral, a baptistry, and a bell tower, a patch of soft ground, determined engineers, and a little luck have combined to define the whole region as the home of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It is certainly a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight; although currently leaning at only a 4-degree angle, it seems much more pronounced as you approach, exaggerated perhaps by the overcompensating angle of the bell chamber on top, which the tower appears to wear like a cocked hat. Up close, standing at the base of the column, it is hard to believe anything could stand so long tilted so sharply.
A wonder of the world, and something on the bucket list of many, but don’t let the tower, the souvenir stalls, or the hordes of tourists all posing for that “look at me, I’m holding up/pushing down the tower” photo blind you to the charm and rich history of one of the oldest cities in Italy.
How old? Well, authors and historians of Ancient Rome refer to Pisa as “an old city”. In fact, its origin and name are a bit of a mystery—historians are not sure which of the ancient indigenous peoples of the Aegean Sea area are responsible for the founding of the city, but ruins have been uncovered dating back to the 5th century BC. Much like Venice and Amalfi, Pisa rose to prominence and endured so long because of its strategic location on the sea. Over the centuries, the river Orno has deposited enough alluvial runoff to gradually move the shoreline west, while still providing Pisa with that important link to the sea and the interior of the Tuscany countryside.
Today of course Pisa is a well-known tourist destination, but it is much more than that. Perhaps it is not surprising that the birthplace of famous astronomer, engineer, and polymath Galileo Galilei—considered by many to be the “father of modern physics and the scientific method”—is now home to three major universities. One of those, the University of Pisa, is one of the oldest in Italy, found in 1343. It is also the site of the oldest academic botanical gardens in all of Europe, which is open to the public.
In the rush to get to the famous Tower, it is easy to overlook the city itself. In fact, if you take a tour bus from Florence or other nearby cities, they are likely to take you directly to the Piazza and then whisk you away with only a passing glance at Pisa itself. Do yourself a favor, and plan on spending some time strolling the ancient streets of this city of over 90,000 people.
You will find a heady mix of modern streets and shops, and cobblestone roads alleys with quaint stores and cafés that have changed little in 500 years. There are at least 20 historic churches, a couple of medieval palaces, ornate bridges across the Orno, and stunning architecture from the city’s heyday as a major maritime power. One of those palaces, Palazzo Reale (“Royal Palace”), once belonged to the Caetani patrician family. Here Galileo Galilei showed to Grand Duke of Tuscany the planets he had discovered with his incredible device, the telescope. The palace is now a museum, one of no less than eight in Pisa.
Of the almost two dozen churches in town to admire, one in the don’t-miss category is the oldest of them all, the San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno (St. Paul on the bank of the Arno). This Roman Catholic church dates back to the year 925 and is a pre-eminent example of Tuscan Romanesque church architecture. The church is also locally known as Duomo vecchio (old cathedral) —and in a city as old as Pisa, that’s really saying something. You could also spend quite a few days just admiring the statues and fountains dedicated to saints and heroic figures of past, both real and legendary, that adorn the church plazas and city squares.
Of course, sooner or later you will find yourself at the center of it all, in the Piazza del Duomo. Looking at the Tower for the first time can be an almost dream-like experience. We all know what it looks like, we’ve seen it in countless pictures, movies, even in Bugs Bunny cartoons—but to actually see it with your own eyes, leaning there next to the Cathedral, is something entirely unique. The beautiful white marble columns and arches winding their way in a slow spiral up the seven layers of the edifice sparkle in the Tuscan sun. Your eyes try to make sense of the slight kink halfway up, and rebel at the sight of the top floor’s obvious angle.
The Tower, which weighs and estimated 16,000 tons, began sinking into the soft soil on one side during the construction of the second level in 1178, due to faulty planning of the foundation. If construction had continued, the structure would no doubt have toppled; however, near continuous battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca for domination of the region halted work for almost a century, giving the underlying soil time to settle. The unusual shape is a result of attempts to correct the tilt (or at least, prevent it from becoming worse) once construction resumed.
In spite of its design flaws, intense engineering efforts and sometimes pure chance have conspired to keep the Tower Leaning since the bell tower was finally completed in 1372. For example, although the region has experienced four major earthquakes since its construction, the soft soil that caused the lean apparently also provides a measure of protection. Engineers have determined that the combination of the tower’s rigidity and height, combined with the softness of the ground, results in a dampening effect that prevents the tower from resonating with the quakes.
The Tower also narrowly escaped destruction during World War II, when it was reported to the Allies that German soldiers were using it as an observation platform. A U.S. Sergeant was dispatched to check it out, and to order in an airstrike if it was true. Fortunately, he was so impressed with the beauty of the cathedral and baptistry that he chose to commit troops to guard the site rather than destroy it.
That sergeant did the world a great service, as the cathedral and baptistry are just as impressive as the famous Tower and are worth a visit in their own right. The Cathedral of Pisa, which pre-dates the Tower by about a hundred years, is also slowly settling into the soft ground. The rich exterior decoration contains multicolored marble, mosaic, and numerous bronze objects from the spoils of war, among which is the griffin which was taken in Palermo in 1061 and later placed on the eastern part of the roof. In the early 19th century the original sculpture, which can now be seen in the cathedral museum, was removed from the roof and replaced with a copy.
The heavy bronze doors of Saint Rainerius is decorated with 24 bronze relief sculptures showing stories of the New Testament. This door is one of the first produced in Italy during the Middle Ages. Above the doors are four open galleries, with, at the top, the Madonna and Child and, in the angles, the four evangelists. The tomb of Buscheto (the architect) is found to the left of the north door of the facade.
Inside the cathedral, along with the incredibly detailed marble, bronze and gold carvings and a superbly ornate pulpit, are 27 paintings that cover the galleries behind the main altar, depicting stories of the Old Testament and stories of the life of Christ.
The Baptistry by contrast, is quite bare in the interior, although the exterior blends wonderfully with the rest of the walled square. The Pisa Baptistry is the largest in Italy and is an example of the transition from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style: the lower section is in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches, while the upper sections are in the Gothic style, with pointed arches. The Baptistry is constructed of marble, as is common in Italian architecture. And yes, it too is slowly settling into the sandy soil, and has a slight lean of its own.
In 1987, the entire Plaza, including the walled Campo Santo (which is said to be built around a shipload of sacred soil from Calvary) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are planning a visit to Pisa (and you really should be), there is no need to hurry; after extensive engineering work where soil was removed from under the raised side of the Tower to restore it to a safer angle, engineers in May of 2008 announced that the slow tilt to the side had been halted, and that the Leaning Tower of Pisa should continue to stand for at least the next 200 years.