Every child has heard of it, and every visitor to Pisa, in all probability before doing anything else, goes to marvel at what is undoubtedly the world's most famous tower: La Torre Pendete, the leaning campanile on the Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral square.
According to legend, when first completed, the tower stood absolutely straight.
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The master-builder, his job well done, approached the city fathers for payment; but they tried to renege on the contract, claiming the tower was built to honour God and hence no payment was due. This unscrupulous behaviour so angered the builder that he ordered the tower to follow him as he went on his way. To the horror of the assembled company, the campanile was seen to bow down slightly, at which point the city fathers hastily handed over the previously agreed sum. Still disillusioned the builder departed from the city, leaving the tower with an irremediable tilt.
An inscription to the right of the entrance records that the foundation stone was laid in 1173, at which time Pisa was the most powerful maritime republic in Italy, able to employ the most celebrated architects and stone masons to execute the work. Two architects were jointly responsible for the early stages of construction, Guglielmo di Innsbruck and the Cathedral architect Bonannus; the loggia-like tiers were modelled on the Cathedral facade. Even before the third storey was completed however, the tower had already begun to sink alarmingly on its south side. When counterweights on the north side and slightly increasing the height of the walls on the overhanging side proved ineffective, construction was halted. Almost 100 years passed before, in 1272, Giovanni di Simone risked a resumption of the work, attempting to counteract the tilt by angling the axis of the upper storeys more towards the vertical. The bells, installed in 1301, were initially hung on the sixth storey, the open bell-chamber being added to the dazzling white marble tower later, in 1350-72, by Tommaso Pisano. It is said that in 1590, while studying gravitation, Galileo Galilei took advantage of the tower's tilt to conduct his famous experiments on the acceleration of falling bodies.
Seen from close, the free-standing bell tower, a little under 57m/187ft high, is far more curved than you would expect. The base, well over 4m/13ft in heigh rests on an artificially-constructed bed of gravel. The load-bearing walls of the upper storeys - internal diameter of the cylindrical shaft 7.4m/24ft - reduce in thickness to 3.3m/11ft, sufficient nevertheless to house a spiral staircase of 294 steps ascending to the topmost platform.
In the more than 800 years of its oblique existence up to 1900, Pisa's curious landmark titled 5°22', a deviation of some 4.86m/16ft from the vertical; at the same time the foundations on the south-east side sank 2.25m/7.25ft. With the angle of tilt increasing by an estimated 1mm/0.5in. a year, it was calculated that the tower would topple by the year 2000. When rotational movement around the axis was also detected, revealing a further source of risk over and above those already known - including sudden, unpredictable subsidence of the subsoil, an earthquake, or material failure - the tower was closed in November 1990 to allow an expensive programme of restoration, aimed at averting danger of collapse.