The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Travellers with Pisa Duomo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is indeed leaning – a lot! One would expect that, ok. But nevertheless we were not prepared for this sight when we approached the famous Piazza del Duomo in the town of Pisa in Tuscany. The tower at the end of the cobbled road really looked like it was about to fall over.

A dangerous imbalance

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Surprised as we are by the dangerous-looking angle, we remind ourselves of what we read in the guidebook. The tower is not even leaning as strong as it used to be! In 1990 the Leaning Tower had become so slanted that the authorities closed it for tourists. It was simply too dangerous for so many visitors to climb to the top. And the danger of a complete collapse grew.

Determined to save the landmark, engineers stabilized the base over a period of ten years. They removed earth from the opposite side to tilt the tower in a more upright position. (But not too upright, mind you! Who would want to visit a straight tower of Pisa?). Moreover, they stabilized the upper part with steel brackets. After they had achieved a substantial reduction of the tilt, the Leaning Tower opened to the public again in 2001. Engineers claim to have secured the tower’s future for at least 300 years. To be on the safe side, only 40 visitors are allowed on the tower at any one time.

Instable almost from the beginning

The tilt of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not a new development. Indeed, it began already during the construction of the tower the 12th century. Plans were to build an almost 100 m high bell tower, or campanile, for the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral. But soon the first problems occurred due to sandy building ground. In the end the builders had to stop at 55 m height.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Since then, the failed campanile became a landmark, and presumably a laughing stock. But reportedly, in the 16th century the famous scientist Gallileo Gallilei was the first to take advantage of the funny tower. According to a biographer, he dropped two cannonballs of different weight from the top of the tower. When both reached the ground at the same time, he took it as proof of his gravity theory: Everything falls at the same speed no matter whether it is heavy or light.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

By the 18th century, the Leaning Tower of Pisa had turned from an embarrassment into an asset. Travellers from Britain and elsewhere in Europe included Pisa in their “Grand Tour” of must-see attractions. And it still is on that list for modern travellers. In 1987, the UNESCO included the leaning tower of Pisa and the adjacent monuments on its UNESCO World Heritage list.

Pisa Duomo

So, after taking pictures of the Leaning Tower we visit the other monuments of the UNESCO ensemble. The lavish Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta itself is stunning from the outside as well as inside. We marvel at the golden apse mosaic of a sitting Jesus Christ and the marble pulpit by the local artist Giovanni Pisano. And last but not least we pay our respects to Pisa’s city saint, St Rainier, who rests in a glass sarcophagus in the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral. Unfortunately it is very noisy inside the church due to ongoing restoration work when we visit. The same goes for nearby octagonal Baptistery.

The Camposanto – an unusual graveyard next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Last Judgement fresco in Camposanto

The most unique spot in the Pisa ensemble is the Camposanto. Camposanto translates as holy earth. The building got its name from the fact that it was built around some soil from Golgotha, which crusaders brought back from the Holy Land during the 12th century. Over the years, tombs and sarcophagi from the area were moved to the Camposanto. The layout looks like a walled courtyard, but the structure is that of a three-nave basilica without a roof. The middle nave consists of a green lawn.

Pisa Camposanto

In the aisles, by contrast, the floors are covered with tomb stones. Religious frescoes decorate the high walls, looking like giant comic books. We had not known about the Camposanto previously and did not expect anything special, but then we spent quite some time inspecting the drawings. The stories had explanations in info panels, but we also liked the colourful details of Renaissance life (and death!).

The Sinopie Museum

Stories of saints and hermits in the Camposanto fresco galleries

To learn more about the gruesome frescoes we visit the Museum of Sinopias, also on the premises. Sinopia is a brownish colour which artists used for preparatory drawings of frescoes. Accordingly, it is also the name for those sketches. During the restoration work the original drawings came to light. Amazingly, the restorers could separate these layers and exhibit the sketches in the museum, while leaving the final painting in place.

In one of the Sinopia panels, the virgin Mary is depicted as a young and lively woman. We rather like her. But then we see a photo of the final fresco put up next to it for comparison. In the newer version, Mary had turned into a haggard woman with a headscarf! A later editor had apparently found Mary not puritanical enough. By contrast, the angels who help the dead climbing out of their tombs for the Last Judgment all sported paunches in the original sketches. But they look slim and slender at the Camposanto wall today. For art historians it is obviously interesting to compare the two versions. But even we find ample opportunities to wonder how attitudes have changed.

Pisa – an old university town

Old town of Pisa on the Arno River

Most visitors come for a day trip from Siena or Florence. They get off at the nearby station San Rossore and only see the Piazza del Duomo. But the small town of Pisa has more to offer. One of the oldest university towns in Italy, it still has three universities and a maze of small mediaeval alleys. Around half of the inhabitants are students, making for a vibrant night life. If you have some more time to spend in Pisa, do not miss the Gothic church of Santa Maria del Spina. It is weirdly situated directly at the shore of the river Arno. In town, the big mural by Keith Harring is also worth a look.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa

A typical specialty of Pisa is cecina, a savoury chickpea flatbread. It is vegan, cheap, and very tasty.

Cecina Foccacia made from chickpeas in Pisa

Is the Leaning Tower of Pisa worth a visit?

Of course we had seen photos. It’s not that we didn’t believe it was so tilted. But still, seeing for oneself how much that tower is leaning to the side is quite baffling. You can visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa and its adjacent monuments in half a day if you rush a little bit. In our opinion it would be better to spend a whole day or even stay the night.

Pisa Duomo

There are several combination tickets on offer. You will find details on the official homepage here.

How to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa by public transport

Leaning Tower of Pisa at night in green light

Local trains from Florence go to Pisa half-hourly. The nearest station to the leaning tower of Pisa is the station San Rossore, but unless you are in a hurry, you might as well get off in Pisa main station. That way you see the old town and arrive at the Leaning Tower on a normal old town street. We found the tilt from that side even more shocking.

visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the Pisa Old Town

The nearby Tuscany towns of Florence, Siena and San Gimignano are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage. All of them are worth a visit.

NB: Our travel to Tuscany and to Pisa and its Leaning Tower was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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11 Comments

  1. I am surprised that we have not yet visited Pisa. An a civil engineer, the leaning tower was something I wanted to see. It is the kind of engineering lesson we learn from. But great to read that there are some other great sites to visit in Pisa as well. Good to know we could do it as a day trip.

    1. Dear Linda, Tuscany is quite small actually and most cities and places can be done as a day trip from Florence or Siena. However I would say it is really worthwhile to spend some time in the smaller towns as well. And it is much cheaper too!

  2. Your post brought back such wonderful memories of my trip to Pisa. Indeed it is quite fascinating to see how leaning the tower of Pisa is. More than the leaning tower of Pisa, my fav place was the Camposanto. I was truly bewildered by the gruesome frescoes there. Indeed Pisa has much more to offer. I stayed there overnight and being a vegetarian, I was really happy at the variety of food I got there!

    1. Dear Bushavali, great to hear that you had a good time in Pisa too! We are also vegetarians and enjoyed the food there. As Pisa is a university town and many students live there as well, prices are quite affordable compared to the bigger Tuscan towns like Florence and Siena.

  3. It looks like such a strong slant! I had no idea they did work on the 1990s to reduce the slant and reduce likelihood of collapse! Eek! And interesting to read about the history and that it was originally intended to be almost twice as high! I’d not seen much mentioned about Pisa Old Town before, and it looks well worth a visit.

  4. As I read your article, I am regretting my choice to skip Pisa on my last visit to Italy. I didn’t realize so many things you pointed out to enjoy in Pisa! Now, I know that in addition to seeing the iconic tower in person, I would also enjoy visiting the Camposanto, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, and Santa Maria del Spina. I will definitely get there on my return visit!

  5. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is indeed a perfect example of how you turn a problem into something positive. Good job to those who decided and worked to save it.

    Also, I did not realize that there are many things to see and do in the area. I would love to explore the Sinopie Museum as well. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. This brought back great memories, I remember the be amazed the first time I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I have visited twice and walked to the top once. I did not have time to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta or museum. This shows me I need to go back for a third visit, and try the chickpea flatbread while there

  7. We love day trips and visiting Pisa to see the leaning tower has always been in our thoughts. Good to learn that there is enough to do in addition to this marvel. Thank you for this wonderful journey till we are there in person sometime.

  8. I have never been to Pisa, but just read about it in General Knowledge book. Now it is great to know about the place in real. I am amazed to know that it is not as leaned as it used to be. Also, being a vegan, you surprised me with the cecina, I am surely going to try it when I visit Pisa.

  9. I am visiting here in July as i’m staying in Tirrrenia following my wedding for a few days. I was wondering if the other buildings and area is worth visiting and you have convinced me. The cathedral looks absolutely stunning and we’ll keep an eye out for the chickpea bread.

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