The Leaning Tower of Pisa
One of Italy’s must-see sights, the Leaning Tower of Pisa took almost 200 years to build. When it was completed in 1372 it was already listing. Over the centuries the tilt has worsened almost to point of collapse. A major stabilisation project in the 1990s finally halted the tilt.
– The world-famous tower stands 56.7 meters on its highest side.
– It now has a 3.99-degree angle of tilt.
– The top of the tower is displaced 3.9 meters from the vertical.
Climbing to the top of The Tower is a unique experience and offers fantastic views. If you want to climb the Tower be sure to buy your ticket in advance. There is a restriction on the number of people allowed in (45). It is highly unlikely you’ll be able to purchase a ticket on the day as it’s always busy.
After a member of staff gives you a brief history of the Tower, you’re ascent up nearly 300 steps of spiral staircase begins. The tower has eight levels, and six of them are open galleries, meaning you can enjoy wonderful views of the city and the surrounding countryside as you climb. The visit last about 35 minutes.
The Tower is more accurately called the bell tower, or campanile. Four buildings occupy the site that makes up the Cathedral complex. This is called the Campo dei Miracoli, which means Field of Miracles.
Campo dei Miracoli
I am quite sure that if the tower had remained upright, the other buildings would be more well known. They are all amazing structures and just as impressive in their own right. Of course, leaning towers are rare, and that makes the Tower in Pisa a lot more interesting. Don’t let that detract from the design though, it is a stunning piece of architecture. The whole site quite rightly has UNESCO world heritage status.
The site attracts millions of visitors every year, and as a consequence, it’s usually bustling with people. Visit during the middle of the day, and you’ll find jostling crowds of tourists from all over the world. The majority of these seem to have arrived here for the sole purpose of pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower while having their photo taken. Definitely, if you can visit early or later in the day.
If you are staying overnight in Pisa walk down to the complex for an evening walk. Floodlights illuminate the Tower at night, making it appear even more spectacular. As an added bonus there’ll only be a handful of other people there in an evening.
The Leaning Tower – A Brief History
Back in Medieval times, Pisa was a powerful maritime republic with trading ports all around the Mediterranean. This all changed in the 13th Century when access to the sea was lost following the silting up of Pisa’s River Arno. The power of Pisa declined and Florence conquered it. The religious buildings that make up the Campo die Miracoli date from the period of its greatest glory.
The ground here is marshy and yet it was chosen to build a cathedral. Construction of the splendid Duomo was started in 1064 and continued until the 13th Century. This building isn’t quite vertical. A large bronze lamp hanging over the main aisle is clearly a little off-centre.
The adjacent bell tower suffered even more. Its foundations laid in 1173 were shallow and when the structure was only three stories high it began to tilt. At this time Pisa was constantly at war and work stopped for 100 years. When it resumed in 1272 the upper floors were adapted to try and correct the tilt. Finally, in 1370 the Belfry at the top was added. Two centuries had allowed the spongy ground underneath the tower to compact underneath the tower’s weight. It would surely have collapsed otherwise.
Straightening the Tower
By the 19th Century, the angle of tilt had increased. Mussolini tried to straighten it by having concrete poured into the foundations. However, this just made the problem worse. By 1990 the masonry was cracking and the Tower had to be closed. It was saved by a combination of steel tendons, lead weights and anchored cables. Collapse was narrowly avoided. Soil was excavated from under one side of the Tower allowing it to settle back to its 19th Century angle. It is now said to be at it’s most stable and it’s possible once again for visitors to climb its 294 steps.
Duomo di Pisa
The first building to be built and the centrepiece at the Campo dei Miracoli is the Cathedral or Duomo di Pisa. You can admire the outside of this beautiful building while walking around it on a white marble pavement. The pavement is surrounded by one of the best-kept and greenest lawns you’ll ever see.
The Cathedral is an impressive example of Romanesque architecture. The dome though looks Islamic and to my mind looks like it belongs somewhere else.
The arches on the facade are made from grey and white striped stone which is unique to Tuscany. Inside the Cathedral the spacious interior features 68 massive stone columns, topped with arches and naturally leading your eye to the ornate pulpit and altar.
The cathedral is full of Italian art. The octagonal pulpit made by Giovanni Pisano is one of the best examples of Italian Gothic sculpture. There are seven hundred-year-old relief panels depicting biblical scenes. Also, there are several paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, a man who taught Michelangelo.
Another example of Romanesque style, this was begun in 1153. The exterior has arches and columns like the Cathedral, capped by a distinctive dome of red tiles.
Equally impressive are the acoustics inside the building. This beautiful baptistery was built not only for baptisms (during a time when you could not enter a cathedral until you were baptised) but surely with such lovely acoustics there was some intention to hold musical performances of some kind.
Each hour on the half-hour the doors are closed and a member of staff demonstrates the acoustics by a short singing performance. Definitely time your visit so you don’t miss this. Close your eyes and you’ll find it hard to believe there is only one person singing, as the sound naturally reverberates around the walls.
On the upper level, one of the windows gives you the perfect photo point as it looks out onto the Duomo and the Tower.
Flanking one side of the piazza is the Camposano or cemetery. This is a gracefully elongated cloister enclosing a burial ground. It was built around a shipload of sacred soil reputedly brought back during the Crusades from Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified. This was created so that noble Pisans could rest in holy ground.
In the 18th Century, this was considered one of Italy’s foremost artistic places. Its fame declined during the last century because of the growing popularity of the Leaning Tower. Spare some time to walk around though, you can see many 19th Century sculptures and over 2600 square meters of frescoes, the earliest of which dates from 1336.
How to get to Pisa
It’s quite easy to find the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as the city is not that big. From the central rail station to the Leaning Tower is about a 20 minutes walk.
If you’re staying in Pisa overnight, you’ll most likely stay somewhere close to the Campo dei Miracoli as most hotels are located in the touristy district close by.
Its quite easy to get to Pisa from Florence and Rome, which are two of the more popular destinations where you can get a day trip to Pisa.
From Florence to the leaning tower of Pisa.
There are several direct trains from Florence each day as well as guided tours. The train is convenient, cheap and fast. The journey from Florence central station to the Campo dei Miracoli can be done in an hour and a half.
Take the Regional Veloce train from Firenze Santa Maria Novella station towards Livorno Centrale. These depart at regular intervals throughout the day. Once you have arrived in Pisa, it’s a short walk to the Campo dei Miracoli. There are also a number of organised tours from Florence to Pisa with transport and tickets included.
From Rome to the leaning tower of Pisa.
There are no direct trains from Rome to Pisa. But you can take the direct train to Florence and then switch and follow the above route. The total journey time from Rome to the Leaning Tower is about 3 hours.
Train tickets and information can be found at – Trenitalia.com
Walking route from the Railway Station to the Leaning Tower
From the Railway Station, it’s about a 20-minute walk to the Leaning Tower straight through the city centre. The route is quite badly signed.
1. Exit the Railway Station.
2. Directly in front is the NH Hotel Pisa. Walk down the road to the left of the hotel.
3. After about 100 meters you’ll come across a large piazza. Cross over this and enter the pedestrianised road on the other side called the Corso Italia.
4. Follow the Corso Italia, this is the main shopping street through the city centre.
5. Eventually, you come to the River Arno and a busy road.
6. Cross over the river to the Piazza Garibaldi. Your route now follows the pedestrianised lane at the left side, at the back of the square, by the Gelato shop.
7. Follow this lane, Via Notari to reach a small square, Piazza Giovan Battista Donati.
8. Immediately after the square, fork left along Via Ulisse Dini which leads to the large Piazza Dei Cavaleiri.
9. Continue across the square where there are three exits. Take the exit on the left, the Via Corsica.
10. Follow Via Corsica over the crossroads where it becomes Via Dei Mille.
11. After about 75 meters turn right onto the Via Santa Maria, where there are lots of restaurants.
12. Via Santa Maria leads all the way to the Leaning Tower.
Pisa is a university town with many Romanesque and Gothic churches, squares, ancient streets and hidden alleyways. It has thousands of years of history which reached a peak during the age of the Maritime Republic, a period that turned the city centre into a treasure chest of artistic gems.
Three kilometres of Medieval walls still survive and occasionally these are open to the public. If you can, take the opportunity and see the city from another perspective.
June is a great time to visit because Pisa plays host to a number of traditional festivities, including the very famous Luminara, when more than 70,000 small lights and candles illuminate parts of the city. The city also hosts the regatta for San Ranieri (the patron saint of Pisa) and the Gioco del Ponte, a traditional medieval festival.
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