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Favorite mistake

June 28, 2011

This summer, thousands of tourists will head to Europe's most famous architectural mistake: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After more than 800 years, the tower still leans - but now it's cleaner and more stable than ever.

Tower of Pisa
Pisa is proud of its famous blunderImage: AP

Legend has it that construction on the Pisa tower began after a widow bequeathed 60 coins to buy the first stones in 1172. The port city decided that the structure should be a symbol of Pisa's power. While most bell towers were attached to a cathedral, this tower would stand alone.

"The tower was supposed to be straight," explained Gianluca De Felice, who directs Opera della Primaziale Pisana, the non-profit organization that oversees the tower and surrounding piazza. "But after constructing the first few floors, the marshy land under the tower began to sink. Historical accounts indicate that this certainly wasn't what they wanted. Their sign of strength became, instead, a sign of weakness."

Yet masterpieces occasionally emerge from mistakes. The tower with its gleaming white marble seems to be stretching to touch the nearby cathedral. Pristine green grass criss-crossed by paths surround it. The beauty dazzles - but also frazzles, since its dimensions and lines are unlike any square any where.

De Felice, a native of Pisa, admits that he's still moved when he comes to work at the world-famous architectural blunder. "The tower's history is unusual since it was once considered an embarrassment, but today is a monument that we want to preserve," he told Deutsche Welle.

An aerial feat

In 1990, the tower was in danger of collapsing forcing and was closed for a major stabilization project. It reopened in 2001, but work continued in a second phase of strengthening and cleaning the marble. Researchers analyzed the stone to determine the proper approach to take.

"There was tremendous concern that the marble was falling apart and therefore threatening the structure's stability," De Felice said. "There were cracks so large in the top of the columns that I was able to put an entire hand inside them."

Getting skilled hands to reach these details and safely apply treatments required superhero skills. Not exactly Spiderman, but close. Mountaineers scaled the tower and attached lightweight aluminum platforms that hung off the monument. Traditional scaffolding wasn't suitable due to the tower's circular shape and the risk of unsettling the soil in which the tower was secured. The brave technicians made the tower into their own tilting K2.

"They would pass up pieces to construct a new level of scaffolding while taking apart the scaffolding below, all this while suspended in the air," explained De Felice. "This scene fascinated tourists, who watched these basically crazy people spinning around and climbing up and down."

Spring cleaning

At least the show entertained them since the monument itself had little visual appeal at that point.

"All the buildings right here including the tower were terribly black," said Roberto Bello, a born-and-bred Pisan who leads tours in eight languages. "It was not a very lovely view for those that came through the door and saw the tower for the first time."

Bello explains that gusts from the nearby Mediterranean Sea batter the belfry with salty wind. Air pollution is limited in the pedestrian-only piazza, yet there's another polluter - pigeons. And, of course, the tourists, who leave behind gum and graffiti.

The tower's tilt also contributes to the filth and decay. The compression cracks the marble. Rain doesn't flow evenly over the leaning tower, leaving some places wet and mossy and other areas covered with a black crust from air particles.

Restorers embarked on a 5.5 million-euro ($7.8-million) endeavor that lasted the better part of a decade. They injected chemical products in the marble to strengthen it while water sprays, solvents and even lasers were used to clean the stone.

Crooked panorama

For the first time in about 20 years, the tower is no longer dirty or obstructed by scaffolding and entering the so-called Piazza dei Miracoli, where the structure is located, really does seem like - well, a miracle.

"It's just out of this world," said Australian tourist Julie Miller. "It's not like any of the picture books or any of the postcards. It's really different."

Miller and her tour group get the full effect of this tilting tower. On a sticky, hot day, they huff and puff up the 296 stairs that make up the narrow internal staircase. At the top, they gasp.

The group is greeted by a spectacular view Pisa's red rooftops and the surrounding Tuscan countryside. But this is no ordinary panorama, since the horizon is not exactly horizontal. The tilt provides this optical allusion. The tourists wander the rim, forced to don sunglasses due to the stone's new shininess.

"The reflection of the marble is beautiful," said Lee Best of Perth, Australia. "It looks like a wedding cake."

A piece of Pisa

The success of the tower restoration is unusual in Italy. Many of the country's archeological and heritage sites are poorly maintained or falling apart due to slashed budgets and corruption. Last year, Roman-era walls collapsed at Pompeii. Meanwhile, the tower is secure for at least the next 200 years.

Some credit the tower's status as a non-profit organization which receives limited government funding. At more than 15 euros a person, the entry fee has helped cover the cost of restoration.

Pisa no longer needs a straight tower to show off its maritime strength. Its banana-shaped belfry has become its symbol - but one that it happily shares with visitors.

"The tower doesn't belong to me," Pisan tour guide Roberto Bello said. "It doesn't belong to Pisa, it belongs to the world: the Pisan past for all the world's people."

Author: Nancy Greenleese

Editor: Kate Bowen