Things you never knew about the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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Things you never knew about the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, with its equal helpings of beauty and folly, is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. But behind that famous tilt is a fascinating history including plundered loot, treacherous subsoil, hundreds of years of engineering missteps and one proud Italian dictator. If you’ve ever wondered how history’s most famous architectural mishap went down, check out our list of the 10 things you didn’t know about the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Tower was built to show off (Using Stolen Money)
The 12th century was a good one for Pisa; the city’s military, commercial, and political importance grew as their once small seaport became a regional powerhouse. Like any prosperous medieval Italian city, Pisa began to invest its new wealth in the construction grand buildings. After sacking Palermo in 1063 the city government needed a place to display all of the treasures that adventurers had brought back from Sicily so they decided to construct the “Field of Miracles” which would eventually be home to a Cathedral, Baptistery, cemetery, and one very tall bell tower. In fact, the bell tower was meant to be the tallest of its age and probably would have been if circumstances hadn’t thrown a wrench into the works.

The Lean did not happen in one massive engineering act
Given that the name “Pisa” comes from the Greek word for “marshy land” you would think that the cathedral’s architects would have taken the subsoil into account while building a very tall bell tower. They didn’t. By giving the tower a shallow and relatively heavy foundation, they inadvertently doomed it from the outset. But it wasn’t until the second story was being built that the tower began to sink on one side. Unfortunately, by then it was too late to turn back. As construction continued the builders tried to offset their mistake by adding taller columns and arches on the south side of the tower. But by the time they reached the fourth story (out of a planned 8) they had to make the arches on the south side a full two inches taller than those on the north and the tower still continued to lean. Unsure of what to do next, the builders halted construction for almost a century.

The 7 bells at the top of the Tower have not rung since last century
Each of these large bells (the largest weighs nearly 8,000 pounds) represents a musical note from the major scale. Though you can still see them if you climb to the top of the tower, they haven’t tolled since the 20th century – By now you can probably guess why. Restorers and engineers worried that their movements would make the tower lean even more.

Musollini never liked this tower
Italy’s 20th-century dictator, Benito Mussolini, was ashamed of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He considered its mistaken construction and subsequent lean a national disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. So as with many of the things that he considered shortcoming of Italy,  he set out to fix it. Unlike some of his other projects, like draining the swamps of Sicily, it didn’t go well. The idea was to drill hundreds of holes in the base of the tower and pump in grout and mortar to essentially ballast the entire structure and set it straight. In reality, all this accomplished was to create an even heavier base that made the tower lean even more than it had before.

The Tower is still surviving
The tower has survived centuries of well-meaning but misguided attempts to right it, including various engineers who added levels and arches of all different heights and one overzealous group who dug around the tower to open an underground tour (which only helped to fill the area with even more water). But someone finally got it right in the 21st century and as of 2001, the tower was officially declared stable for at least the next 200 years. In 2008 engineers found that the tower is officially no longer moving – the first time in its history that it hasn’t been slowly listing to one side. 

200 years from now, let’s just hope we have the technology to save the tower for another 200!

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