The Leaning Tower of Pisa: A Standing Miracle With a Fascinating History

The Leaning Tower of Pisa: A Standing Miracle With a Fascinating History
(Sergey Peterman/Shutterstock)

Out of context, without the background, it would appear to be completely bizarre behavior. Gathered here in this plaza by the hundreds, everyone is doing strange things. One man holds his arms up and to the side, the palms of his hands flat, as if pushing back some strong, invisible force. A woman in a sparkling dress pretends to kick something down, a look of determination on her face. Still others squeeze their fingers together, seeming to dangle an unseen object. And everybody’s getting their photo taken in the act.

Behind them all—the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

A marvel born out of mistake, today the image of the tower is unmistakable.

It's one of those ubiquitous landmarks that’s instantly recognizable, from film and television to the wallpaper of every old-school pizza parlor that you’ve ever visited. And while taking and posting a joke photo pretending to hold it up, push it down, or dangle it from its tip-top may be an essential part of any visit there, a day in Pisa, Italy, is more than just a Kodak moment.


The Square of Miracles

Despite its familiarity, when you first see Pisa’s (in)famous tower, it will still shock you, even if just a bit. Built in the 12th century on soil too soft to support it, the structure began to shift immediately during construction. Walking up a nondescript street lined with a few souvenir vendors just opening up for the day, we reached the gate for the Square of Miracles, a walled space home to the city’s cathedral and baptistry as well.

“The biggest miracle—that we come at the end of the day, and the tower is still standing,” the guide said, just before we rounded the corner. “OK, are you ready for your wow moment?”

Everyone in the group said it, despite ourselves—an audible "wow," as we walked through the gate and saw it on the far side of the square, rising more than 185 feet. Somehow, the lean is even more pronounced when you see it in person, and those first few moments are spent sizing it up and reconciling its distinctive tilt.

Political Powerhouse

Pisa never wanted its tower to lean. In fact, from the start, this was an architectural embarrassment, a smudge on the city’s pride. Today, Pisa is a very pleasant Tuscan center. Home to about 200,000 people in its metro area, the capital of the Italian province of the same name is surrounded by small mountains and set on the curving bends of the Arno River, very close to the Ligurian Sea. It's peaceful, if a bit sleepy, the streets near Miracle Square (even more lyrical in the Italian: "Piazza dei Miracoli") filled with patio restaurants serving al fresco pizza and pasta and Tuscan favorites.

But in the 1100s, Pisa was a powerhouse looking to flex its muscle.

“You need to remember, Pisa was an independent republic at the top of its power,” the guide said. “They built this to show that Pisa was the new Rome.”

One of four major marine republics, Pisa profited as a commercial center and from its navy and merchant fleet. They fought successful battles against the Sicilians, Saracens, and Genovese and expanded their influence across the Mediterranean, all the way to the Levant and North Africa.

By the late 12th century, Pisa’s power was on par with Venice, Italy, and the two signed a peace treaty. Gathering wealth from these adventures at sea, the city fathers back home began to build structures worthy of their new, impressive standing in the world. The tower is actually the campanile for the cathedral, and work on the latter began in 1064 in Romanesque style, with Byzantine influences.

The Corinthian columns were taken from a mosque in Palermo, Italy. The facade is gray granite and white stone. Galileo even formulated his pendulum theory there, hanging an incense lamp from the church’s nave. They spared no expense—neither there nor on the new city walls, nor on the massive baptistery, located just next door, which dates back to 1152. (All of it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.)

But alas, it didn't go well. They built all of the structures on that same, soft, marshy soil, and all of them lean—if you look very carefully, you can see it, these grand buildings set off by just a fraction. But none tilts so dramatically as the tower—at an angle of less than 4 percent. Over its history, architects made various efforts at correction. During a subsequent phase in construction in the 1270s, engineers tried to compensate by building walls on one side higher than the other, resulting in a permanent curve.

 (Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)
(Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Finally, in 1990, with the lean 15 feet off, the Italian government, fearing its collapse, closed the Tower. They evacuated surrounding apartments and shops and embarked on a decade-long project. Spending a total of $27 million and removing 77 tons of soil, they shored things up for the next 300 years and corrected the lean—by just a fraction (by now, straightening the famous marble Tower entirely would be unthinkable).

I didn’t make it to the top. I didn’t walk up those famous stairwells, wide enough for a man and his horse. I didn't stand in the spot where Galileo dropped two cannonballs to the ground, proving that objects fall at the same speed of acceleration. But I did stroll through the grassy square, watching everyone having their fun, lining up their perfect photo, all of those hundreds of years of history—a miracle—right behind them.

If You Go

Fly: Pisa’s Galileo Galilei International Airport welcomes flights from across Europe, meaning that you can fly directly into the city from the United States with a single connection in places such as Paris, London, or even Helsinki. However, many of these flights are seasonal, so you’re likelier to land in Rome or Venice, then take a fast train to town.
Getting Around: Although the city has a very serviceable public transit system, which includes surface trams and buses, the city, which is flat and compact, can be well explored on foot. If you want to travel to the nearby mountains or sea, you’re best to rent a car.
Stay: Newly renovated, the four-star Grand Hotel Duomo is within easy walking distance of the Square of Miracles and provides views, from both suites and the restaurant, of the Leaning Tower.
Take Note: Less than a half hour’s drive away, Lucca—Pisa’s favorite rival city—is a beautiful and historic place and worthy of a visit. It's home to its own towers and a distinctive oval-shaped main square, which is set on the footprint of the former Roman amphitheater.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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