When researching the current work, Pisa seemed the obvious hub to access northern and coastal Tuscany: its railway station is on direct lines to Livorno, La Spezia, Viareggio, Lucca and Florence, and its international airport is 1 kilometre from the station. We had decided to use public transport in order to meet some Italians and get a bit of local colour, and as the rail fares were cheap, we went first class. That was a mistake: we soon discovered that the first class compartments were full of American or Australian tourists with ‘Rover’ passes – which meant they were carrying three months’ luggage, which blocked the corridors and left nowhere to put your feet. If you want to meet Italians, we discovered, you travel second class.
Pisa’s literary credentials are impeccable: the Shelleys, the Brownings, Byron, Smollett, Dickens, Henry James, Mark Twain and many more literary exiles lived there. Not only has the city a Mussolini-esque railway station: it also has a Campo dei Miracoli – the Field of Miracles – with a magnificent cathedral, baptistery, and a well-known bell tower. As we walk up the Via Nicola Pisano, (named after the prolific Pisan sculptor whose work can be seen as far south as Sicily), the domes and pinnacles of the Field of Miracles appear and disappear like a mirage. Eventually, a cluster of 11th- to 14th-century buildings set in green lawns comes into full view: Cathedral, Baptistery and the most visited tilted tower in the world. The three buildings are a mix of Romanesque and Gothic - with a touch of Moorish: yet the whole harmonises as if planned that way.
But Pisa’s pride and joy - the magnet that pulls in the crowds - is the Torre Pendente, not for its inherent beauty, although it is beautiful, but because its top leans almost 4 metres to the south-east. Whilst the revenue it produces in admission fees and the sale of plaster replicas must delight its managers, (the Opera Primaziale Pisana), it must surely be frustrating for lovers of architecture to watch the hordes queueing up to pay €15 for the disorienting experience of climbing its 296 steps – or 294, depending which side you climb – while, barely 100 metres away, one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals stands gleaming in the sunshine, relatively ignored. It is now generally accepted that the white marble bell tower, the building of which began in 1173, was already leaning when its construction was less than half finished. Tobias Smollett, who climbed it in 1765, almost six hundred years after it was built, goes so far as to say, not only that the tower was built aslant from the vertical, but intentionally so. ‘I should never have dreamed’, he wrote, ‘that it was done on purpose by the architect’.
The tower had a narrow escape in 1945, during the last weeks of the war in Europe, when a group of soldiers from the US Army passed through the town and found themselves under fire from German snipers, who they thought were hiding in the tower. The Americans’ group commander, deciding that the appropriate retaliation would be to destroy the tower, ordered up the necessary heavy artillery, but, either by chance or thanks to some sense of history on the part of his superiors, , he was ordered to another position before his plan could be carried out and the tower survived undamaged – as did the commander. The only war injury suffered by the tower was to have one of its marble columns destroyed by Italian anti-aircraft fire. No aircraft were damaged during this process.
It was not until the 1970s that experts began to worry that, with the tower moving a millimetre or two every year, unless something were done it would fall flat on its south-eastern face, and that, while a tower with a tilt of 5 degrees may be one of the world’s wonders, a horizontal one would prove to be a fairly resistible tourist attraction.
So a worldwide call was made for solutions to the problem, eliciting hundreds of proposals, ranging from the inspired to the bizarre, and in 1990 the tower was closed while the alternatives were considered. After three years’ deliberation, the authorities chose the most mundane and least aesthetic solution: to attach huge lead weights to the north-west side of the tower, with the objective of lowering its centre of gravity. It did not take the Opera Primaziale Pisana long to notice that several tonnes of lead stuck parenthetically along the side of the tower detracted from its Renaissance beauty. It was then decided that the only acceptable solution had to be below ground, and the tower reopened for business in 2001, unleaded.
The tower is now more popular than ever in all its oblique splendour, apparently held securely at 4.8 degrees from the vertical by those thousands of public-spirited people who standin profile beside it with their hands raised, palms outwards, while their friends take their photograph.