The Leaning Tower of Pisa is probably one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Europe and probably the whole World.
I can certainly remember it from a school encyclopedia article and when I was a schoolboy I was always intrigued by the concept of a building listing so perilously to one side that it was apparently just waiting for a strong wind to topple it over. I had secretly suspected that the pictures had exaggerated the buildings predicament so I was astounded when I actually saw it for the first time and was able to satisfy myself that this tower really does lean over a very long way indeed. The tower actually leans at an angle of five and a half degrees and this means that the tower is four and a half metres from where it would stand if it was perpendicular. That may not sound like a lot but believe me this thing really leans.
Although obviously intended to stand vertically, the tower began leaning over soon after construction began in 1173 due to a poorly prepared ground that allowed the inadequately prepared foundations to shift. Today the height of the tower is nearly fifty-six metres from the ground on the lowest side and nearly fifty-seven metres on the highest side. The width of the walls at the base is a little over four metres and at the top two and a half metres. Its weight is estimated at fourteen thousand five hundred tonnes so little wonder then that it started to sink.
Impending collapse brought construction proceedings to a halt for a hundred years while architects and builders considered what to do and over the intervening years there have been a number of attempts to prevent the whole thing giving in to the law of gravity and crashing to the ground.
In 1272, for example, builders returned to the project and four more floors were added at an angle to try to compensate for the lean. Their answer was to build the support columns higher on one side than on the other to get the whole thing vertical again. Now I am not an engineer but I think that even I would have spotted the inherent problem with this particular solution that has resulted in the curious curve in the structure about half way up. It continued to lean of course because more weight meant even more pressure on the dodgy foundations. Then in the 1930’s Benito Mussolini ordered that the tower be returned to a vertical position, so concrete was poured into its foundation. This was a massive engineering cock-up and the result was that the tower actually sank further into the soil and there was a real danger that it would suffer the same fate as the Venice campanile which collapsed in 1902.
In 1964 Italy finally had to concede that it couldn’t maintain its erection any longer, called for help and requested aid in preventing the tower from falling over completely. A multinational task force of eggheads was assembled to come up with a miracle Viagra cure. Then, after over two decades of serious cranium scratching, the tower was closed on 7th January 1990 and work to stabalise it began. It took a further ten years of corrective reconstruction and stabilisation efforts before the tower reopened to the public in 2001.
I am glad of that because I visited in 2007 and purchased a ticket for the trip to the top. There are two hundred and ninety four steps up a spiral staircase that take visitors up and which due to the absence of windows, and therefore orientation, is reminiscent of a fairground wacky house attraction, especially when although you know that you were ascending sometimes according to the extreme angle of the tilt of the building it feels as though you were going down at the same time, which, believe me, is a very weird experience.
I liked the Leaning Tower of Pisa because it lived up to all of my expectations, I tried to bring to mind anything else that was famous for leaning but all I could think of was Oliver Reed after forty pints of beer and George Formby who used to lean on lamp posts looking at ladies but that was in a previous age when this was still an innocent and acceptable thing to do.
In London St Stephen’s Tower at the Palace of Westminster which contains the clock Big Ben is leaning to one side and may eventually become unstable – but only in thousands of years and it will take a long time to challenge the Leaning Tower of Pisa for tourist bragging rights. St. Stephen’s Tower leans 0.26 degrees to the north-west, putting it out of alignment by about 0.5m at its highest point but right now the 0.26 º angle is one 16th of the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s tilt.