The Leaning Tower Straightens Up

In Pisa the tilted one is back in business after an 11-year effort to keep it from collapsing

"Descending the 293 worn steps of the spiral staircase, my unruly feet display a mind of their own. On the higher north side, I lurch into the inner wall and seem to go uphill even though the steps go down. Rounding to the south, I carom back into the outer wall and careen down double-time. In this zigzag, up-and-down fashion, I wobble like a toddler down to terra firma, giddy with disorientation," writes Richard Covington of his barely controlled walk down the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After 11 years of restoration, the famed 14th-century bell tower is reopening this month, slightly more upright and deemed safe for tourists to clamber up for the next 300 years.

Located on the Piazza dei Miracoli, the white marble-clad tower is the square's crowning glory, rising 190 feet above it. The nearby cathedral, baptistery and camposanto were built by Pisans who believed themselves to be the indisputable heirs of the Roman Empire.

Construction began in 1173, and the tower leaned almost from the outset. It was unwittingly built on the soft silt of a buried riverbed in three different stages. Over the centuries engineers and builders made efforts to correct the lean using schemes that only made the tower slant farther. More recently, the public weighed in as dreamers and practical visionaries sending countless proposals. At last, in 1990, Italy's prime minister appointed a panel of experts to find a definitive solution to stabilize the landmark.

For years the panel's solutions were met with doubt and derision, and often became the subject of political haggling. There was at least one near disaster, and in the end, the project cost $30 million. Finally, committee member and engineer John Burland promoted soil extraction as the best and most noninvasive technique to correct the lean. It worked, and now the bell tower's tilt is 16 inches less and it's safe. But as Covington concludes, "If this masterpiece of hubris in stone can blithely defy gravity and subvert the laws of physics, then there's hope yet for folly, romance and all the other enigmas that don't quite add up. That is what truly draws four million visitors to the piazza—the summons to witness a persistent miracle."

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