Torre Pendente: Still Standing in Pisa after all These Years

July 31, 2015 / Places
Pisa, Tuscany
Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.com The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a free-standing campanile (bell tower) in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) of this former medieval city-state. It’s defect, a prominent tilt to one side, is world famous.

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.comBuilt in three construction phases between 1173-1372, the massive wedding cake-like tower, when completed, tilted at a 5.5 degree angle, but late 20th-early 21st century ingenuity righted the eight-story landmark to only a 3.97 degree angle.

So, why does the torre pendente, as local pisani call her, lean?

Well, the problem wasn’t created up on the drawing board, but underneath, where the Tuscan sun doesn’t shine, as the tower’s foundation was built on very soft silty soil that had difficulty supporting the 14,500 ton, bright-white marble tower. It wasn’t until the second tier was completed that the lean became noticeable, and it only worsened as the tower slowly grew.

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.com
Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.comIt’s unclear who the original designer was, but during the three phases of construction at least five prominent Italian architects took part in trying to straighten the 56.67 m (185.93 ft.) tall Romanesque tower as it continued to tilt with each new tier.

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.comThe “Big Lean” remained an 800-year-old mystery until John Burland, an English geotechnical engineer, renowned soil mechanics expert and professor at Imperial College London, arrived on the scene in 2003 and discovered the cause: a fluctuating underground water table that perched higher on the tower’s north side, causing the tower’s characteristic slant to the south.

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.comBurland, introduced a new drainage system beneath the north side of the square allowing the water underneath to flow away from the tower’s base. Problem solved.

For his efforts in preventing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the jewels of this UNESCO World Heritage site, from toppling over, Prof. Burland was awarded the Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Francis I by the Duke of Castro.

The Leaning Tower is undoubtedly Pisa’s most recognizable image and one of its main attractions. Despite its prominent 17 feet off vertical tilt, it’s still standing after all these years.

Torre Pendente | ©thepalladiantraveler.comFeel free to climb the spiral staircase of 297 steps up to where the tower’s seven bells hang.

Don’t worry, it’s safe.

Isn’t that right, Prof. Burland?

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian Traveler.com, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based TravelingBoy.com, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

16 Responses to “Torre Pendente: Still Standing in Pisa after all These Years”

  1. It is certainly safe. Husband and I climbed up there in 2008. It was such a surprise to feel the way gravity took hold when climbing ‘against the tilt’ but also very rewarding.

    Reply
  2. Gian Banchero

    Thank you Tom for the stellar photographs of the Torre Pendente, it wasn’t until viewing your photos in depth that was realized than other than the lean that the tower is really a masterpiece of balance of design, which is worthy of a long study. Is that Vivaldi I hear?

    Reply
  3. Jack Litewka

    Interesting article…though I was surprised by the fact that even after the “fix”, the lean was still 17 feet off the vertical.

    Reply
  4. Maria Galeota

    What an accomplishment is was back in 1962! …and then it really leaned! Loved the view. ..an amazingly beautiful monument!

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  5. Bob Paglee

    Great pictures, and a fine story. The photos show a leaning but fairly straight-looking tower. It’s not really so.

    The tower was built over a period of a couple hundreds of years, from AD 1173 to 1372. But the beautiful pictures don’t depict a slight change in angle starting at the fourth story that was initiated in 1272 by a new architect/engineer/builder, Giovanni di Simone (one of my great-great-great-uncles-thrice removed-on my third cousin’s side?).

    Giovanni (my Uncle Joe, P.E. Emiritus?) added four floors to his monument-to-be, and this, plus the addition of subsequent floors plus a bell-tower caused the then slightly dog-legged tower to lean even further.

    There have been lots of modern trial fixes to stabilize the worrisome leaning, including using some massive lead counterweights, cryogenic freezing of the subsoil, etc., and maybe now a control of the water-table..

    I visited Pisa’s magnificent Piazza Del Duomo and its incredibly-standing tower may times when living in Italy during the early 1950’s. But now being a ripe 91 years of age, I hope something works OK for another thousand years or more.

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  6. David Barneby

    The tower could have been made to stand vertical , but then it would no longer have been the leaning tower tourist attraction . I climbed to the top many years ago , the biggest danger was slippery the green slime under foot . From these photos it looks to have been considerably cleaned up . I consider it as shame that the leaning tower is so treasured , when in fact the cathedral is architecturally more beautiful .

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  7. Michael Yaccino

    Everyone knows that it did not start to lean until the American tourists arrived and disrupted the water table by taking too many showers.

    Reply
  8. Excellent story and amazing photography as always.

    Grazie mille Tom

    Reply

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