The joke is an old one. On a wall near Piazza dei Miracoli a local wag had sprayed the message, “Sorry, the tower is not leaning today”. It was in English, its target audience the multitudes of foreign visitors who flock to Pisa for its one truly world-famous sight, the 14th century Torre di Pisa. Flock to Pisa, that is, in normal years. This is not a normal year and there was only a light scattering of tourists.
Pisa’s iconic Leaning Tower must be one of the most photographed sights in Italy, possibly the world. Instagram catnip it may be, but the jaunty 3.9 degree lean is the result of serious engineering miscalculations made in the 12th century. Rarely has a mistake proven to be so popular, or enduring. In fact, modern tourism and merchandise sales demand it leans. Begging the question, would it be so popular if it didn’t?
Unstable soil on which the tower was built is to thank for its current celebrity. As the building sank it reached an alarming 5.5 degrees, forcing modern engineers to partially correct it. Despite every photo of forced perspective illusions that you’ve seen, the Torre di Pisa and the accompanying ancient buildings of the Cattedrale di Pisa, Camposanto Monumentale (with its wonderful and disturbing frescoes), and Battistero di San Giovanni, form one of Italy’s truly great architectural collections.
Collectively, these buildings carved from white marble make up the the Piazza dei Miracoli or Square of Miracles. The Torre di Pisa is actually the bell tower for the nearby cathedral. While the cathedral was consecrated in 1118, the tower was only started in 1173. Construction was slowed by the dodgy foundations, and stopped completely at times due to conflicts with other Italian cities. It was completed only 199-years later in 1372.
We arrived in Pisa after a 90-minute drive from the Cinque Terre, and although thunderstorms were forecast, the day was sunny and hot. We’d been lucky to find an extraordinary 1930s house for rent and planned to base ourselves here for a few days and visit other nearby places, such as Lucca and Livorno. The weather would intervene to keep us indoors and miss out on Livorno, but while the sun shone we explored Pisa.
Naturally our first port of call was the Piazza dei Miracoli. We arrived not too long after 10am and were pleasantly surprised to find only a small number of people milling around. The last time I saw this magnificent sight, I was on a day trip from Rome while travelling around Europe by train aged eighteen. I don’t recall much about that trip, and I was glad to have a chance to acquaint myself with Pisa once more.
The serene buildings of the Piazza dei Miracoli were built when Pisa was at the peak of its power. As one of the most influential Italian city states, it rivalled Venice and Genoa for wealth and military power, with alliances across Europe. The Pisan fleet was one of the largest in the Mediterranean and the city grew rich on maritime trade. All of which is odd, since today Pisa lies a good 10km from the sea.
Endless wars against its neighbouring cities took their toll, but it was the silting of the River Arno and the receding of the sea in the 15th century that did just as much to end Pisa’s dominance. Florence conquered Pisa in 1509 and it slowly declined into a provincial town, albeit one with a long and glorious history dating back to the Romans. It still has that provincial feel about it today, and despite the hordes who visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa doesn’t feel like a tourist town.
Combined with a renowned university that adds to the vibrancy of the town, and a decent reputation for food, Pisa is worth a day or two of anyone’s time.