The simple fact that the Leaning Tower of Pisa still stands is a victory; a testament to modern engineering… and the stubbornness of the people of Pisa.
What we today call the Leaning Tower is actually the Campanile, or bell tower, of Pisa’s Duomo (Cathedral). It is one of four major buildings on the Piazza del Duomo, the others being the Duomo itself, the Baptistry and the Camposanto. Although Piazza del Duomo might be the official name, most people know it by the more romantic name of Piazza Dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles.
Construction on the Campanile began in 1173, but was halted five years later, with only three storeys completed, thanks to the fact the structure was already starting to tip, as a result of foundations that were too shallow and underlying sediments that were too soft.
It was almost a hundred years before building work recommenced in 1272. This second construction phase lasted just 6 years, before political unrest once again halted the Tower’s rise, which had at this point reached its 7th tier. A few years later, in 1298, the first official Commission into the Tower’s tilt was convened.
Around 1350, plans were made to finally place a belfry on top of the Tower – after all, that was the point of the whole endeavour in the first place. And in 1370, almost two centuries after construction first began, the Campanile was finally formally completed… already with a lean of 4.5 feet from the vertical.
The Piazza del Duomo, and the historic buildings within it, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.
In 1990, following the collapse of Parvia’s medieval Civic Tower the previous year, the Italian government stepped in, closed Pisa’s Campanile to the public, and set up the 17th Commission on the Leaning Tower.
By 1995, the inclination had reached an alarming 17.5 feet (OK, so the lean was pretty alarming long before this point). In fact, Pisa’s famous Leaning Tower almost collapsed during one evening of ‘Black September’ of that year, while stabilising cables were being installed.
Eventually, something had to give… and thankfully it wasn’t the Tower itself! In 1999, engineers began to very gradually extract 60 tons of sediments from beneath the foundations using giant drills. And for the first time in its history, the Campanile’s lean began to decrease.
In 2001, with its tilt now reduced to a mere 12 feet 10 inches, perhaps the biggest miracle ever to occur on the Piazza Dei Miracoli, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was reopened to the public.
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