When I first began thinking about visiting Italy, the leaning tower of Pisa was one of the many visuals that flashed in my thoughts. Built over 800 years, the bell tower of Pisa is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. However, with so many great Italian cities available, I realized planning a trip specifically to visit Pisa wasn’t likely to happen. The next option was to consider how I might work it in as a day trip while based in another city.
If you are vacationing in Florence or the Tuscany region, adding a trip to Pisa will make for a great daylong excursion. Travel time to Pisa is about an hour by train from Florence.
Entering the Piazza dei Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles), I am struck by the magnificence of these buildings. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair amount to do in Pisa and plenty of interesting areas to explore but everything else is…well, just everything else. This IS the show and Piazza dei Miracoli doesn’t disappoint.
There is an endless amount of awe inspiring architecture throughout Italy, but most landmark site seems to blend in with the surrounding area. Pisa feels different. Traveling through the city there’s no hint, other than a few signs, that you are getting closer to Piazza dei Miracoli. All of the sudden, you arrive and its like BAM! WOW! It’s as if they airlifted these structures in from Florence or Rome and sat them down in Pisa. My mind is spinning. Why are these crown jewels of architecture here? When were they built? How in the world has that leaning tower not fallen over by now?
Let’s start with Leaning Tower of Pisa because it also reveals the history of Pisa. The tower is actually the bell tower for the nearby cathedral – Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta. Construction on the tower began in 1173 and was halted due to war between the Italian city states. At the time, the tower was five stories tall.
In ancient times, city states (not nation states like we have today) were the norm. Florence, Venice, Siena, and Pisa are examples of independent city states on the Italian peninsula and each independently sought power, influence, and riches. This was the case for earlier power centers like Sparta, Athens, and Rome. The eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century AD left a power vacuum on the Italian peninsula which gave rise to numerous city states that sought to fill that void. They weren’t yet part of the nation state we know today as Italy which didn’t become a nation until the 1860s.
During 1000 – 1400 CE, Pisa was a Maritime Republic along with Amalfi, Venice, and Genoa. Wait, what? Pisa isn’t a coastal city. If you look at the map below, you see Pisa is several miles inland from the sea, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1000 AD, all of that green area between Pisa and the sea was water – sea, lagoon, and canals like Venice.
As silt filled the area around Pisa and sea-level retreated, it left behind marsh. A recent archeological find really drives home this point. In the late 1990s, land was being cleared for an office building foundation several hundred yards from the tower of Pisa when an ancient Roman ships was discovered. Archeologist were called in and the excavation eventually uncovered 30 ships. Amazingly, this area was once a harbor. A museum in Pisa now houses these artifacts.
This seafaring history influenced the design of the Tower of Pisa and also contributes to why it is now leaning. While most bell towers in Italy are square, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is shaped more like a lighthouse. The designers did this intentionally to acknowledge and celebrate the maritime history of Pisa. Because the water levels remain high beneath Pisa, the ground is less firm than soil further inland. This doesn’t have as much impact buildings with a wider base and less height. However, this less compacted soil caused major issues for the Tower of Pisa.
Construction began on the tower in 1173 and halted after the first five stories due to war. During this century of sitting, the tower began to lean as the soil below the foundation shifted and compressed. In 1275, building on the tower continued with design changes to help balance the center of gravity. Primarily, this involved shortening the ceiling height of one side while raising the other. It is almost imperceptible to the eye but the tower has a slight banana shape. You can see that the tower is leaning but the top is almost level…certainly flatter than the first level.
Despite these adjustments, the top of the tower still has an overhang of 12 feet beyond the base. Computer calculations in the 1990s assessing the stability of the tower indicated that it would collapse when the lean exceeded 4.7 degrees. This finding was alarming because the tower was already leaning at 5.5 degrees. This led to the immediate closing of the tower and the forming of a commission tasked with stabilizing it.
The efforts would keep the tower closed for over 10 years. What did the commission do during this period? Heavy anchors were buried 150 feet below the tower with steel cables connecting the tower to those anchors. Additionally, soil was removed on the side opposite the lean. Weighted blocks were also stacked on the base of the excavated side of the tower. This added weight slowly tilted the tower from a 5.5 to 4 degree lean as the weighted side of the tower compressed the excavated land below it.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the star of the Piazza dei Miracoli but there are two other significant buildings present. When you first enter the Piazza, you will see the Baptistery of Pisa. Construction on the Baptistery began in 1152. Galileo, the famous renaissance-era scientist, was baptized here in the 1500s.
Looking beyond the Baptistery, you can see what remains of Pisa’s ancient city wall.
The next building (below) is the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the Duomo of Pisa. Made of white marble, it is noted as an excellent example of Roman-Pisan Gothic architecture. Construction began the Duomo in 1093.
If you have time, there is more to see around Pisa. It is a modern college town with the University Pisa (founded in 1343) and the Scuola Normale Superiore, founded by Napoleon. The ancient monumental cemetery is another point of interest along the with all the old-world charm we find so fascinating in historic Italian cities. The Arno River flows through the city with bridges and walkways that double as great locations for taking a few photos.