Though Pisa boasts a sizable number of attractions beyond its much-photographed Campo dei Miracoli, visitors will always be drawn to its headliner: the precariously Leaning Tower. It’s one of those great ironies of what constitutes an historic monument and makes it an inescapable icon. Had the tower not begun to loosen within its soft soil since construction commenced in 1173, it would have been just another Gothic bell tower among thousands. But perhaps its aesthetic sense of danger and the asymmetrical perspective it lends to Pisa’s Field of Miracles (including the Duomo, Baptistery and Camposanto, or Cemetery) make La Torre Pendente one of architecture’s happiest mistakes.
I first visited Pisa many years ago. Besides the usual curiosity over the off-kilter landmark, I had an idea to harness it as a means to overcome my fear of heights. This was prior to a long series of closures and renovations (particularly between 1990 and 2001) that involved grand-scale efforts to correct the tilt. For what seemed like ages, no tourists were allowed to climb it. Since then, upon my return to this generally unassuming Tuscan town – and usually following a visit to the perfectly intact walled city of Lucca – I’ve found the Tower to be an object of gratitude but also one that today, in its much-jostled state, is not quite the Romantic challenge it was for me when it had no guardrails and basically stood as a monstrous taunt to enter at one’s own risk.
On that inaugural trip, I remember that the Tower seemed to unexpectedly find me after a nighttime arrival by train. I happened to be wandering down a narrow street (like most streets in Italy) – Via Santa Maria, to be exact – when a hulking apparition overtook me. I gazed upward, startled by the Tower’s nocturnal nakedness. At first it didn’t even look like the mythic edifice. Only its askew angle gave it away. It really resembled one of those paper-accordion skeletons that bob from light fixtures during Halloween. The two bell niches on top looked like hollow eye sockets, and its curved white-marble columns reminded me of exposed human ribs.
At that time, on a student budget, I stayed at a spartan B&B that I have since dubbed Pensione Kennedy because the signora was particularly proud of her shrine to President John F. Kennedy, complete with an American flag, candles and vintage photos (including one of the fatal motorcade). Surprisingly, my small room – provided I thrust my entire torso over the window’s ledge – caught a fraction of the Tower’s skeletal gaze. I discovered this after locating a drawstring tangled in heavy layers of mismatched drapery, then hoisting up shutters that required super-human strength to move them a few centimeters.
I must admit that I’m enamored with Pisa’s lesser-known sights, including one of my all-time favorite churches – Santa Maria della Spina – an intricate Gothic wonder named for its prized relic: a thorn from Christ’s crown. The city in general has an exceptionally high number of churches and palaces, as well as the University of Pisa, whose history dates to the 12th century. And one simply cannot underestimate the wealth of museums, including those dedicated to art, royal heirlooms, and scientific instruments (especially those used by native physicist Galileo Galilei). But I also could not escape the lure of the Leaning Tower.
Like the Eiffel Tower, Pisa’s inescapable symbol has an amoebic quality. Depending on the angle from which it’s viewed or the time of day, it takes on divergent shapes. There are even vantage points where it appears to stand upright. But its lean always manages to poke through the city’s winding arteries.
While I don’t intend to chronicle the Tower’s building phases – that, incidentally, took close to 200 years to complete, including an entire century of work stoppage due to the Republic of Pisa’s ongoing wars with Genoa, Lucca and Florence – I find it intriguing that even the real architects, from Diotisalvi to Giovanni di Simone, have been debated. Another historical sticking point: no solid proof that Galileo used the Tower to conduct experiments on the velocity of falling objects. Its one consistency, however, has been a steady and prolonged shifting in and around Pisa’s unstable subsoil – a fact that may be connected to a singular natural phenomenon.
It’s difficult to fathom today, but between the 11th and 13th centuries, Pisa was a formidable maritime power. Before that, its port flourished during the Etruscan age and the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, Pisa constantly fought in campaigns against potential nearby usurpers – a fact that underscores Italy’s once-contentious city-state model. Victorious for a time, it also lost to Genoa in 1290. Adding insult to injury, the Genovesi poured salt over its port as a sort of curse toward any powerful future aspirations. Oddly enough, around the same time, the Arno River changed course. By the 15th century, the river silted up and essentially closed the chapter on Pisa’s nautical supremacy.
But at the time of the Tower’s initial construction, the city was enjoying sizable prosperity. Its sailors were responsible for bringing back a substantial booty they snared from Saracen pirates during conflicts in Palermo. The money from this treasure was used to build the Campo dei Miracoli – figuratively, quite a shaky foundation upon which to construct a holy shrine. Of course, most of those realities are lost on the millions of spectators who marvel at this stunning piazza of white marble, green grass and blue skies. And that brings me back to my decision to try to conquer my fear of heights so many years ago.
It happened to be an early-spring day with warm but forceful gusts of wind that made everyone and everything look hopelessly disheveled – except the two older women who unexpectedly inspired me to make the treacherous climb. It wasn’t anything they said. It was what they were wearing: fancy dresses, thick strands of pearls, and high heels. I thought, if they could do it in high fashion, I could in jeans and flats. In such ferocious winds, though, the approximately 200-foot-tall Tower felt like it was swaying and pitching forward. The interior circular stairway also made me a bit dizzy. But I did make it up to the outdoor portion of the bell tower only to deflate at the sight of a frightening obstacle. To get to the pinnacle, I would have to climb a small wrought-iron ladder surrounded by two gigantic bells. This is where I caught up with the two doyennes in their couture attire.
With howling winds lifting and rustling their dresses well over their heads, these two fearless ladies were in the process of anchoring their stiletto heels into the stepladder (which, I might add, was partially suspended in mid-air). To my amazement, they catapulted themselves and landed unscathed. It was my turn. But, once at the top rung, I froze. Seeing my distress, the women loudly encouraged me to just jump. Between their shouts and the sudden clanging of the bells (close enough to make me envision Quasimodo hopping around Notre Dame’s noisy belfry), I flung myself over and lived.
I was rewarded with a spectacular view of Campo dei Miracoli encompassing the warm Pisan-Romanesque Duomo and the gorgeous stitch-like details of the Baptistery, its barrel shape reminiscent of a tasseled bishop’s cap. The living postcard was framed by the medieval walled Camposanto, many of its frescoes and monuments heavily damaged during World War II, and adjoining museum.
Paradoxically, I took in the surrounding architectural wonders from a structure that may not stand the test of time or, more accurately, the shifts in Pisa’s temperamental soil. I then prepared to descend the ribbed colossus. But no longer did I cling to the outer columns with sweaty palms. I believe I even skipped down a few steps and snapped several photographs. I still marvel at how this slowly stooping structure helped me find my backbone.