CHIAVARI, Italy – Chris and Gary, are coming for a visit around the end of June. I’ve known Gary for a long time. We met about 20 years ago, when we both lived in Milan and we have been friends ever since.
Gary is a world traveler, and after having lived in Italy for several years, he knows all the tourist hot spots better than I do. His partner Chris has traveled a little less, and so he’s the one I think about when I’m collecting ideas of things to do when they are here.
The towns of Portovenere and Vernazza, both in the Cinque Terre, will most likely be part of the plan. They are both just a boat ride away from Chiavari, and a nice day trip. Chris would like to go back to Montallego, the sanctuary high in the hills above Rapallo, and since it is one of my favorite places, I am happy to oblige.
Another day trip I’ve been thinking about is Pisa. If we take the train from Chiavari, we can spend the better part of the morning visiting the Tower of Pisa, the Cathedral and Baptistery, enjoy a Tuscan feast at lunch time, take a stroll around town and be back in Chiavari before dark.
The Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous landmarks in Italy, as easily recognizable as the Coliseum in Rome, so you would think it would be a familiar sight when you see it in person. But every time I take visitors to Pisa, the same thing happens. As we turn the corner and enter the Piazza dei Miracoli and the tower comes into view, the first words I hear are “Oh my God – it really does lean.”
Looking at Pisa today it’s hard to imagine this quiet Tuscan town was once one of the greatest Maritime Republics in the world. Along with the city states of Amalfi, Genova and Venice, Pisa was one of the powerful Maritime Republic of Italy - the Repubbliche Marinare.
Each of the maritime republics dominated different overseas lands, including many Mediterranean islands, lands on the Adriatic, on the Aegean and Black Sea (Crimea), and also several commercial colonies of the Near East and North Africa. Pisa took control of the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and had a leading role in many of the successful raiding expeditions of cities in Tunisia and the Balearic islands, all controlled by Muslims. They also raided territories closer to home.
In the year 1063, the Pisans were both powerful and rich. In keeping with their new status, they decided Pisa needed a grandiose cathedral. They could have paid for the cathedral with the gold they found when they raided Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy, but they didn’t. Instead, they used the massive amount of gold they discovered when they raided Palermo.
At the time Palermo, and the rest of Sicily was an Islamic state, the Emirate of Sicily. It was ruled by an Emir and therefore a safe haven for Saracen pirates. When the Pisans ransacked Palermo they couldn’t believe their luck. They discovered sacks and sacks of gold - the pirates hidden treasure.
|Cathedral of Pisa|
Construction of the Cathedral of Pisa began in 1093 on the site of old Etruscan and Roman temples. About a hundred years later, work on the bell tower for the Cathedral began. They located the tower apart from the Cathedral for they wanted it to become an attraction on its own. They knew a seven-story structure in a town where three stories were considered a “high rise” would be a marvel to see. Much like the Empire State Building was when it was first built.
There were problems right from the start, and no sooner was the first floor completed that the tower began to lean. The problem was the land they were building on. It was mostly sand and clay.
Then fate intervened. The bell tower project, which was in its early stages, had to be put on hold for nearly a decade as the Republic of Pisa was involved in constant battles with the Genovese, who were trying to take over their territories.
|It Really Does Lean|
As it turned out, the decade long interruption in the construction of the bell tower was actually beneficial. It allowed time for the soil under the tower to compress, and that compression of soil stabilized the building which otherwise would have toppled over.
Work began again in 1292 and three more levels were added before construction stopped again. This time it was because the Pisans had been defeated by the Genovese. Construction didn’t start up again until 1319 when seven bells were added to the bell section of the tower, one for each of the seven notes of the musical scale.
While the 14,500 ton tower has undergone repairs in the past, in 2001 it was closed to the public for nearly a decade while the foundations were reinforced and water was drained from beneath it. Almost immediately the tower began to straighten itself. It will never be completely straight, but nonetheless it seems incredible that a building that dates back to 1275, that had serious engineering flaws from the beginning, is still standing.
I have yet to conquer all 287 steps to the top of the tower, although I’m sure Gary and Chris won’t have any problems with them at all. I can usually get about a third of the way up, but after that I have to go back down. I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m a sissy and once always a sissy always a sissy, at least that is what my excuse is going to be.
The Tower of Pisa is an amazing experience, but if you think the tower is the only building in Pisa that is leaning, take a closer look at the Cathedral and the Baptistery. You just might be surprised at what you see.