Day 24 – Pisa
- Barb: Gelatolicious!
- Mike: Oops!
- Jen: Enna-me! (“Look at me” in baby-Brett speak.)
- Barb: Treed avenues
- Mike: Forecast schmorecast
- Jen: Wonky perspective
Three or Four Words
- Barb: Out of whack
- Mike: Cliched, disruptive posing
- Jen: Campanile or campa-lean-eh?
- Barb: Despite the crowds, there’s something singularly beautiful about Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli.
- Mike: You drive through the cluttered, nondescript outskirts of a small city, past billboards and gas stations, park along an old, bumpy, buckled road, get out and look up, and there’s the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa, about which you’ve heard and read so much.
- Jen: We might have saved 1.20 euros and a trip to the car if we could read the parking signs.
“The Leaning Tower of Pisa.” That’s a descriptive name, no? I mean, you know what you’re going to see when you visit the site, right? And we’ve all heard about the leaning tower. So I thought I knew what I was in for. I was wrong. I gotta say, I wasn’t expecting it to lean that much, and I hadn’t really considered the tower (campanile) as part of a baptistry/cathedral/campanile whole. It’s a lovely white marble medieval ensemble set in a green grassy field.
Tower construction began in 1173, and the base began to sink while the second level was being built. The problem? A measly three-meter-thick foundation set into unstable silty soil. Construction stopped for nearly a century while Pisa battled Genoa, Lucca, and Florence.
In 1272, with architects and builders a hundred years wiser and more experienced and the ground 100 years more settled, construction resumed. Upper floors were built with one side taller than the other to compensate for the lean. Because of this, the tower is actually curved, but this is very hard to discern. I could imagine I noticed it, but I’m not sure I believe me. Twelve years later, construction was again halted when Genoa defeated Pisa. I’m not sure when construction started again, but the tower is said to have been completed in 1350.
In 1964, the Italian government sought international help to prevent the still-sinking tower from toppling. However, they wanted to retain the tilt because it was vital in drawing tourists to Pisa. An international group of engineers, mathematicians, and historians convened to brainstorm ideas for stabilizing the tower.
After more than two decades of study, deliberation, and thumb-twiddling, the tower was closed to the public in 1990 and corrective reconstruction began. Upon reopening in 2001, experts declared the tower would remain stable for the next 300 years. In 2008, after more reconstruction (ahem), experts declared the tower would remain stable for the next 200 years. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to believe them or not. I’m skeptical.
Today was some sort of civic holiday in Pisa. There was a small parade of people dressed in medieval garb playing trumpets and drums, marching about the piazza and into the cathedral, and performing some sort of ceremony. We never learned what the occasion was, probably because we did everything we could to avoid the crowd gathered around the festivities.
We did climb the tower (taking our chances) for a wonderful bird’s-eye view of Pisa and the surrounding area. Climbing the tilted tower was an exercise in wonky perspective. On one side, you go downhill while climbing uphill, and on the uphill side, the uphill stairs are especially steep. The stairs are worn in different places (on the outer edge, on the inner edge) according to where one is in the lean. Hundreds of years of being climbed by millions of tourists mean the steps are quite worn. Galileo is said to have climbed these very steps, even to have dropped some objects from the top as part of his experiments on the velocity of falling objects.
Check out the picture below—and appreciate it because I got very dizzy taking three of these images while climbing. Notice how the step is worn under Mike’s foot, then notice how the steps above and below him are worn. As Mike’s going up, the steps are worn more and more to the outside because that’s the direction of the lean. On the opposite side of the spiral, the stairs are worn on the inner edge. Neat, eh?
Of course, the view from the top was spectacular. I appreciate how the powers that be keep visitors off the grass so the white marble buildings have a vivid and lush contrasting base. The red roof tiles have been removed from most of the baptistry and cathedral. I wonder if they plan to replace them. I vote yes, replace them. I like how they also contrast with the white marble.
You can see a tiny bit of the civic ceremony on the left side of this photo of the city of Pisa.
The circular baptistry—the largest baptistry in Italy—is said to have perfect acoustics, and every hour the park service plays a recording of some tones to prove the truth of this claim. We heard them. They sounded good to me. As always, what I liked best were some colorful mosaics.
Then there is the cathedral which by all accounts gets short shrift. It has every right to be grumpy—it was supposed to be the star attraction—but it remains quietly cheerful and beautiful, not at all resentful.
The interior had lovely and interesting paintings, patterns, stories, mosaics, carvings, statues, and more.
We were inspired to try some proprietor-made gelato at a nearby shop and discovered it to be some of the best we’ve had to date. Mike initially passed on the treat, but he was persuaded to get some after Barb and I raved about it.
We ventured a short way into the city to see Santa Maria della Spina, which sits all by itself along the Arno River. It reminded us of Charles Dickens’ description of Scrooge’s apartment building in A Christmas Carol:
They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.
This little church had clearly gotten lost while playing hide-and-seek. It was closed, and judging from the puddle we saw on the floor when we peeked through a window, I suspect it’s not currently in use.