11 Things You Didn’t Know about the Leaning Tower at Pisa

One of the most well-known buildings is the Leaning Tower in Pisa. It has equal parts beauty and folly. Behind that iconic tilt lies a fascinating story, including plunder, treacherous soil, hundreds of years worth of engineering mistakes, and one proud Italian dictator. Here are 11 interesting facts about the Leaning Tower at Pisa, which is history’s most notorious architectural disaster.

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Photo by Steve Slater

To show off (with stolen cash), the tower was constructed.

Pisa’s 12th century was a great one. Their once-small seaport became a regional powerhouse, increasing their military, commercial and political importance. Pisa, like any other wealthy medieval Italian city, began to invest in the construction of grand buildings. After seizing Palermo, the city government wanted a place to display the treasures brought back by adventurers from Sicily. So they built the “Field of Miracles”, which eventually would house a Cathedral, Baptistery and cemetery. The bell tower was actually meant to be the highest of its age, and it probably would have been if not for circumstances.

Lean did not happen overnight

You would expect that when building a tall bell tower, the architects of the cathedral would have considered the subsoil. They didn’t. They inadvertently didom the tower by giving it a weak and heavy foundation. The tower started to sink on one end only as the second story was being constructed. Unfortunately, it was too late. The builders attempted to correct their error by building taller columns and arches at the south end of the tower. They reached the fourth story, out of a total of 8, and had to make arches on South Side two inches higher than the ones on North. The tower continued to lean even though they did this. The builders were unsure of what to do next and stopped construction for nearly a century.

It’s not the only tower that leans in Pisa


The San Nicola Church’s octagonal bell tower leans too! Photo via VisitTuscany

Because of the soft subsoil throughout the area, several leaning towers can be found in Pisa. Two more can be seen in Pisa’s Borgo Stretto. After the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the bell tower of Church of St. Nicola may be the most well-known. This octagonal bell-tower, built in 1170 around the same period as the tower, also has a noticeable, but not unmistakable, slouch. The bell tower is also located at Viale delle Piagge, in the church of St. Michele dei Scalzi. The name Piagge actually comes from Latin meaning “low plains susceptible to flooding”.

The tower leans in many directions

Over hundreds of years, multiple engineers attempted to correct the lean. Engineers tried to correct the tilt when construction resumed on the third floor in the 13th Century. However, the center of gravity was moved and the tower began to lean in another direction. The tower settled into its southern tilt as construction progressed. This is where it has remained ever since.

Lean can create interesting imbalances

Pisa’s leaning tower was supposed to reach 60m (196.85ft). The tower’s highest point, at 56.67m (or 186ft), is now on the lower side. The lowest point, at 55.86m, is 183ft.

The tower was tilted 5.5 degrees by 1990, which is almost 15 feet away from its base. This tilt was enough to cause it to be thrown over by most calculations. This tilt was sufficient to overcome the inertia of the Italian bureaucracy, and to kick-start a massive restoration project that saw the tilt drop to 3.97 degrees. Due to the original tower’s list, the north staircase has 296 steps to reach the top. The south side only has 294.

The tower may have been saved by war and economic strife

While war and debt are not usually a boon to large-scale construction projects in Italy like the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, they could have been a blessing in disguise. Some structural engineers theorize that continued delays in construction over 200 years may have given the soil underneath the already-slightly-leaning tower time to compress, ultimately saving it from toppling over.

It is possible to climb up to the top

You are allowed to visit the most notoriously unstable building in the world. Despite its restoration and minor un-tilting the structure’s integrity has been monitored continuously and it hosts large numbers every day. Book tickets in advance if you plan to climb to the top.

Since last century, the seven bells at its top have not rung.


One of seven bells from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

Each bell, which weighs in at nearly 8,000 pounds, represents a musical note on the major scale. You can still see them from the top of the tower. However, they haven’t tolled since the early 20th century. Engineers and restorers worried that their movements might cause the tower to lean more.

Mussolini loathed the tower and made it even worse

Benito Mussolini was embarrassed by the Leaning Tower at Pisa. He was Italy’s 20th century dictator. Its erroneous construction and subsequent lean were a national embarrassment and a disgrace to Italy’s reputation. He set out to correct it, as he did with other things he saw as a weakness in Italy. It didn’t work out like other projects such as draining the swamps in Sicily. It was planned to drill hundreds of holes into the tower’s base and then pump grout and mortar to ballast the structure and make it straight. This was a mistake. It made the tower more lean by creating a heavier base.

During WWII, the Allies wanted to demolish the tower.

American soldiers were given orders to demolish any buildings in Italy that could be used as “nests” or lookout points for enemy snipers during World War Two. The tower was used by the Germans who were in Italy at the time as a lookout. However, it is believed that the Allies were so impressed with the beauty of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Field of Miracles surrounding it, that they did not decide to level it.

The tower is stable at the moment


During restoration in 1998, lead counterweights were stacked on top of the tower. Photo by Rolf Gebhardt

The tower survived hundreds of misguided but well-meaning attempts to fix it. There were engineers who added different levels and arches to the tower, and an overzealous group that dug underground tours around the tower. This only served to flood the area with more water. In the 21st Century, someone finally did it right. The tower was declared stable for at most 200 years. Engineers discovered that the tower was no longer moving in 2008 – it is the first time that it hasn’t been slowing listing to one side. Let’s hope that 200 years from now we have the technology necessary to save the tower.

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