The story so far: Me and my wife Denise, along with our longtime pals John and his wife Bev, are on a three week road trip. We’re heading for Rome in my beloved Volvo S80 chosen for its Tardisian ergonomic spaciousness along with the unusual design characteristic of having no rear door window quarter light which means the rear seat passengers are treated to a full panoramic view with no interruption from window framework or glass. Despite suffering from a high susceptibility to travel sickness I too am enjoying the stunning scenery of France and the French Rivera from the backseat of my S80 while John drives thanks completely to my TravelShades. A simple, but life changing device. Without TravelShades I wouldn’t have relished the sea ferry to France and certainly not even entertained the possibility of 2000 miles on the back seat of my car. This travel sickness defying marvel has allowed me to travel with my wife and friends and see places I thought I never would. Yeh, life changing is spot-on!
And so after dropping in at Monaco for the afternoon we continue along the coast road of the Ligurian Sea which is one arm of the Meditteranea Sea, where the French Riveria morphs into the Italian one. The Italian Riviera itself is divided into two parts. East of Genoa, it’s called the Riviera di Levante (“the coast of the rising sun”). West of Genoa, it’s the Riviera di Ponente (“the coast of the setting sun”). Stacks up especially if you live in Genoa. Either way it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful. Very easy to see why the likes of Picasso, Monet and their peers found inspiration here.
We soon found ourselves with Jane’s help (sat nav calm and understanding lady) parked up close to the campanile, or freestanding bell tower, of the cathedral of the Italian city of Pisa, aka the leaning tower of Pisa. Very quickly I was targeted by a nice man with an array of cool sunglasses for purchase from which I took my pick so that I may appear much cooler I’m sure (see photos) while I take a look at Pisa’s remarkable tower.
Nobody seems to know for sure who designed the tower or even who built it. Indeed it is not even certain that Galileo Galilei dropped two cannonballs of different masses from the tower to demonstrate that their speed of descent was independent of their mass. All that is certain is that it has been leaning for a long time.
It is known that construction was started on August 14, 1173 and within 5 years the tower was already sinking due to measly 3 metre foundations in unstable subsoil. It was decided to give building work a rest for a hundred years or so mainly because Republic of Pisa was almost continually engaged in battles with Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. This break in construction was actually quite handy since this allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have gone over. When the new builders got on the job they built upper floors with one side taller than the other in an effort to compensate for the tilt. This resulted in the tower being curved. The seventh floor was completed in 1319 with the bell-chamber being added in 1372 although it took nearly 300 years before the largest of seven bells was installed.
In World War II, the Allies thought that the Germans were using the tower as an observation post. A U.S. Army sergeant sent to deal with them was so impressed by the beauty of the cathedral and its campanile, that he refrained from ordering an artillery strike, sparing it from being razed to the ground.
Many attempts have been made to restore the tower to a vertical orientation or at the very least keep it from falling over. Most of these efforts failed and some worsened the tilt. On February 27, 1964, the government of Italy requested help in preventing the tower from toppling. It was considered important to retain the current tilt however, due to it’s iconic nature and important part of Italy’s tourism industry. A multinational team of mathematicians, historians and engineers assembled on the Azores islands to discuss stabilisation techniques. It was discovered that the tilt was increasing in combination with the weaker foundations on the lower side. Ideas were put forward to stabilise the tower, including the addition of 800 tonnes of lead counterweights to the raised end of the base.
On January 7, 1990, the tower was closed to the public after more than twenty years of stabilisation investigation. This decision was prudently spurred by the sudden collapse of the Civic Tower of Pavia in 1989. The bells were removed to relieve some weight. Cables were secured around the third level and anchored several hundred meters away. It was decided that to prevent the collapse of the tower the solution was to slightly straighten it to a safer angle by removing 38 cubic metres (1,342 cubic feet) of soil from underneath the raised end. The tower was eventually straightened by 45 centimetres (17.7 inches), with the removal of 70 metric tons of earth, returning to its 1838 position, being only about 3.5 metres off plumb . After a decade of corrective work and stabilization efforts, the tower was reopened to the public on December 15, 2001. After giving it a while to bed in again, in May 2008, engineers announced that the tower had been stabilized such that it had stopped moving for the first time in its history. They boldly stated that it would be stable for at least 200 years.
The leaning tower of Pisa now has around 1,000,000 visitors a year who are undoubtedly as impressed as we were. A great addition to our itinerary and a marvellous backdrop to our tea time sarnies before getting back on the road.
By Tim Flaxman
#RoadTripper, inventor, blogger and all round old dude making the moments count…