The Story of the Leaning Tower

I decided to do this week’s post on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and not only because I was late getting to work on it. I’ve long been fascinated at how failing became such a tremendous success.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa leans. This, a tower is not supposed to do. For one thing, it’s terribly inconvenient when you’re trying to eat and the plate keeps sliding off the table. More urgently, there is a danger that the tower will tilt more and more until, finally, it falls over. That a tower is most definitely not supposed to do.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the campanile – the freestanding bell tower – of the Cathedral of Pisa. In the twelfth century, when construction began, Pisa was a city-state, one of Italy’s maritime republics. For a time it dominated trade on the Mediterranean. The city elders decided to build a cathedral square – erecting first the cathedral and the baptistry, and then the bell tower.

Now, the town of Pisa was named from a Greek word meaning “marshy land”. And they were only being accurate. The city “lies on a thin layer of soft alluvial silt, above a thick layer of even softer marine clay. It’s practically a bog.” (The Telegraph) So the earth was weak, and the foundation they laid was also weak. In 1173, building began; in 1178, after they had progressed to the second floor, the tower began to sink. It’s been tilting ever since.

War caused a halt to the building of the tower – and, many believe, prevented its collapse. During the long interim, the land stabilized as the tower’s weight slowly compacted the dirt beneath it. In 1272 work began again, under the architect Giovanni di Simone. He tried to correct the tower’s tilt (see, it wasn’t supposed to do that!), but he failed.

In the early fifteenth century, Pisa lost its independence. Eventually the Leaning Tower of Pisa became one of the monuments of Italy, enjoying international fame. The inhabitants of Pisa liked to say that only God was holding their tower up – in His love.

But there was a dissenting opinion; there always is. Mussolini didn’t like to have a lopsided tower as a national symbol. He took a course of action that was, for the class he belonged to*, very temperate: He had 80 tons of concrete poured into the foundations. The Tower of Pisa, in admirable defiance, continued to lean.

During World War II, as the Allies battled the Nazis for Italy, the German army used the tower as an observation post. When the U.S. military discovered this, the fate of the Leaning Tower was placed in the hands of an American sergeant. He decided not to call in an artillery strike, and the tower survived yet another war.

Of course, the existential danger of the Tower of Pisa is that it leans, and does so at an ever-increasing angle. As the twentieth century wore on, it became alarmingly clear that even a thunderstorm had the potential to knock down the tower. So, in 1990, the Tower of Pisa was shut down. After eleven years of structural strengthening, it was declared ready to go on standing – and leaning – for two or three centuries more.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “God only knows, man failing in his choice, how far apparent failure may succeed.” And that, in essence, is the story of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


* The Crazy Dictator class. He could have just blown it up, you know.

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