Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slightly off balance

The next day, our last day in Rome, we had left free intending to use it for a day trip by train to either Pompeii, to the south east, or to Pisa, to the north. The forecast the night before had been for all day rain which we decided would make exploring Pompeii fairly miserable so Pisa it was. We woke early to a damp, grey morning, rugged up and trudged, umbrellas in hand, the by now familiar path to the tram then the central station where we bought return tickets from the yellow automated ticket boxes for the not quite three hour trip to Pisa.

Pisa, population about 87 000, manages to feel both quaint and working class at the same time. The twenty minute walk from the station to the world famous Leaning Tower takes you through cobbled pedestrian streets dodging bicycle riding locals, past cafes full of university students, through narrow lanes lined with fabulous doorways, balconys and arches, crosses busy 'main' throughfares where Italians drive Italian made cars at break neck speed ignoring both lights and pedestrian crossings- felt right at home we did!- and over the thick grey Arno River.

Finally at the end of the street we saw this...

...emerging like a fairy tale, out of the mist. The tourists, the rain, the cold all fell away muzzled by the dreamlike scene that was unfolding at the end of the road.

The tower is part of the aptly named Square of Miracles, a world heritage site. It's historical name is the Piazza del Duomo, a walled area inside the city walls of Old Pisa that encompasses the Duomo, the Baptistry, Camposanto and two museums, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Museo del Sinopie and of course the Torre pendente di Pisa. Entry tickets can be bought separately or in combinations. Of course we went for the upsized whoppa combo and booked in for the next time slot, in a not too shabby 45 minutes time, for the tower tour. With time on our hands, after a quick stop at the some of the cleanest toilets in Italy, we headed towards the main door of the Duomo.

The heavily decorated cast bronze doors of the Cathedral are incredible and were made by students after the originals were destroyed by fire in 1595. Each of the six doors is made up of narrative panels of biblical scenes like pages of a story book.

The outside of the church, like it's accompanying campanile (the bell tower we all know better as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and Baptistry, is embellished in exquisite detail like sugar icing on a wedding cake...

...with the delicate columns and fine rounded arches that are characteristic of the Romanesque style.

Inside the nave is all slim striped arches, tall columns and for the size of the church an abundance of large luminous pieces of Renaissance art, huge golden mosaics and colourful wall frescos.

The bronze chandelier, hanging at the centre of the nave, is known as Galileo's chandelier due to an impossible legend that claims that Galileo Galilei's theories relative to the pendulum, came to him while he was at mass and became distracted by the oscillating chandelier. Unfortunately, although it does paint a fabulous image of a pew bound Galileo eyes heavenward, the story of the chandelier can't possibly be true since the light was hung four years after he went public with his theory. Galileo was, however, born in Pisa and even taught at Pisa University where in his notes he uses the tower to dispute Aristotle's theory that objects fall at a speed proportionate to their weight. While Galileo didn't actually drop anything from the tower, as his experiment described, a student of his did only to find one of the balls did hit the ground slightly faster satisfying Aristotle's smug followers who obviously hadn't read about Galileo's theories of viscosity or wind friction.

Amid all the clean simple lines of the churches interior a heavily ornate piece stands out. The pulpit- just seen in the left of the picture- by Giovanni Pisano took eight long years to complete then, considered a gothic eyesore during the renovations after the fire, was dismantled and stored in a crate for the next 330 years. Rediscovered in 1926 it was painstakingly reassembled (although slightly differently from it's original) and placed further from the altar than its original place on the north side of the nave.

The lower supports are a combination of simple colums and sculptured figures. Pisa or Ecclesia is shown suckling two newborns and the female personification of Fortitude holds a lion. Prudence is depicted as 'Venus pudica', with her modesty intact unlike poor Hercules, seen above, who is shown older than his usual six packed form and with a vaguely resigned look about him I thought.

The platform of Pisano's elaborate rostrum has nine carved panels that lean outwards slightly, towards it's audience. Again they depict biblical stories and are packed tight with animated characters. The undercutting is so deep in places the figures seem to animate right out of the reliefs.

Being inside Italy's churches is like being inside a prism with treasure all around. Walls, floors and ceilings all hold eye candy and food for the soul.

Our next stop in the Square of Miracles was the probably the most famous and the most visited campanile in the world.

You are not allowed to take any bags, purses or 'containers of any kind' up the tower so after depositing our one handbag sized backpack at the bag check we waited, as we'd been instructed, in the warmth of the waiting room for the clock to tick slowly past our ticketed time. The 'guide' our small group had been told would meet us in true Italian style never eventuated so with the intention of clarifying the instructions we approached the two guards at the towers entrance. They checked the ticket time and then simply waved us through the scafolding to the bottom of the 294 helicodal steps. The passageway is not really wide enough for the two way traffic it services although it's definately wider than the climb up to Saint Peter's cupola. The marble steps were wet because of the rain, worn away in the middle by centuries of footfalls and tilted outwards and then inwards with the tower's inclination as we spiraled our way to the top. It was not quite enough to make me dizzy but definately left me with a heady sense of pending nausea. The cool misty air at the top was welcome relief.

The main steps come out at the seventh level, the logge, a viewing platform from where the whole of the grassed area of the square can be clearly seen. It is thought that on festival and market days dignitaries and visitors would climb the tower for the best view of the proceedings below. There is another tunnel like set of steps leading to a circular walkway at the very top of the towers apex where you can see J in the photo above.

The platform area also houses the 'bell theatre'. Five big bells hang in a circle tuned clockwise to a rising musical scale though they haven't been heard for 60 years as there are fears their vibrations could cause a catastrophic collapse. The biggest bell, called L'Assunta, weighs in at 3620kgs. It really is no wonder the tower is slowly sinking into the tundra!

The towers first stone was laid in 1173 but it took twelve years to get as high as the third floor and by then the building was already beginning to lean. Built as a boastful statement to bitter rivals Florence (Genoa) it's construction was a stop start affair due to frequent warring with the neighbouring state. It must have made the Genoans smile to learn the tower skite was in fact sinking into the ground.

The problem was pondered for nearly a century while the ground beneath 'settled' then begun again by Giovanni di Simone, the architect of the nearby Camposanto (which we visited later), who made the subsequent floors higher in an effort to compensate. It didn't.

Over the centuries there have been a number of attempts to correct the lean and thus save the tower from it's eventual collapse. In 1990 the tilt was measured at 13 feet and it was promptly closed off while experts from around the world were called in to find a way to rectify the situation.  Straightening the tower enough to make it safe again without completely removing the character that gave it it's name, defacing the globally recognisable building in any way or adversally affecting any of the area in the famous square was a mammoth task. According to the lego animation of the restoration we watched at one of the museums on site; steel stabilising cables were first attached to the tower in a way such that they could be easily removed without damaging the towers exterior then 870 metric tons of counterweight added to the 'tall' side which not only halted the slippage but pulled the tower gently back towards centre. A wedge of soil was then carefully removed from the side opposite the tilt using a corkscrew like action correcting at the rate of about a degree a month and the existing foundation anchored in place with concrete. A complex system of computerised monitors measures the progress over several more months and eventually the tower is slowly, tenuously bought back to an acceptable lean. All of this took ten years. When the tower was reopened to the public again in 2001 it was 'guaranteed' for the next 200 years. Data from the still imbedded computers has suggested the tower has now actually stopped moving entirely.

All this meddling may have saved the tower but it's lesser tilt meant it lost its place in the Guinness Book of World Records to a German church steeple.


Natalie said...

Meravigliosa!What a fitting last day to your travels, like a romantic faerie tale.

Connie said...

I had not heard about the task to stop the tower from leaning. Thanks! Wonderful photos.

Anonymous said...

Love the photo of the bell. You've blown that one up for framing, right? Although HOW could you pick just a few to frame?

I did not know that about the efforts to stop the lean either!

We're going "sort of" in June ... via cruise ... did I already say that? SO excited ....

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