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Up the Inclined Planes of Pisa's Leaning Tower

December 06, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a nationally known travel writer who lives in Canoga Park. and

This is no bit of froth put out by the Pisa Tourist Bureau or the Friends of the Tower or some other entirely pro-Pisa or pro-tower outfit.

I will pay tribute to the Leaning Tower where tribute is due; the three white marble buildings of the Piazza del Miracole--the cathedral, the baptistery and the tower, are magnificent. They rank among the most beautiful religious structures in the world.

But it's not their beauty that brings the crowds.

It's the fact that the tower, being a full 14 feet out of plumb--a considerable degree for a building 180 feet high--is an anomaly of heroic proportions that, one gets the feeling, had better be looked at while the looking is good. The Leaning Tower is undeniably the world's leading crash-over candidate.

Construction began in 1174 and discontinued when the workmen, after finishing three stories, noticed the foundation settling on one side, causing the tower to lean.

Then, after a succession of city fathers thought it over for three or four generations, construction was resumed and 99 years after it was begun, the building was finished.

Early, the citizens answered the anxious visitors with: "Where is your faith? Would a loving God allow such a magnificent edifice, erected in His honor, to fall? Unthinkable!"

It's Thinkable

A few centuries later, however, after numerous engineers suggested that the failure of the tower might be a little thinkable because the tilt seemed to be increasing, Pisa began trying to reinforce the base by pumping in concrete. It didn't help.

The latest belief is that the tower will definitely fall over. Because it was my intention to take the climb to the top, I sought a few opinions on when the crash-over seemed most likely. An engineer in our group, on hearing the question, looked at his watch and said: "What time is it now?"

I chose to believe the second opinion. Our guide said: "They think perhaps it will last a few dozen more years if the problem isn't solved." He added that the danger is not great to tourists because the tower is only open eight out of every 24 hours and it is unlikely it would go down without a few grindings and rumblings first.

"Don't be afraid," he said. "There is absolutely no danger."

He was wrong on three counts.

First, the Italian custodians of this architectural marvel, not anxious to disfigure the structure even in the interest of public safety, have been a little short in their use of safety equipment. The eight-story structure has six open galleries around its circumference, all of which make the ground immediately accessible to the careless tourist.

No rails.

I asked a uniformed tower employee if anyone ever fell off. He said there had been about 253.

"Good lord!' I said. "Did any of them live?"

He answered that he thought they were all dead, hastening to explain: "After all, they've been falling off since 1174. Those who survived the fall would be . . . dead of old age."

Rule One: Don't Fall

Regarding danger No. 1, try not to fall off or out of the tower.

Second, because it never occurred to anyone during the building process that it would never be possible to straighten the 14,500 tons of tower, it was built as if it were vertical, which it is not.

This means that each of the 294 steps in the spiral staircase to the top is a little inclined plane of its own and the angles change for each step, forcing the knee, which is basically designed for vertical operation, through every possible angle except vertical. That's for 294 steps up and 294 steps down.

For most people it's only a minor problem, but if you've picked up a little wear over the years, take the advice of an ex-jogger and skip climbing the tower. Spend your time in the duomo, the cathedral. The six-foot bronze Giambologna crucifix over the main altar would be well worth the trip to Pisa even if it were the only attraction.

There is another facet of the 813-year-old tower that is seldom considered, but which the tourist would do well to keep in mind: the bell tower. There are seven bells at the top--a couple the size of cars, a couple the size of trucks . . . and three big ones.

Noting that there were no ropes attached, a firefighter in our group announced that they were probably ornamental. He then stuck his head inside one to see if there was a clapper.

The last intelligible words he heard that day were spoken by the guide. "Sir, the bells are not just ornamental and since it is now almost nine o'clock. . . . "

Amazing Place

The Leaning Tower's bells, reworked to be operated electrically with solenoid pistons, can be heard from Monte Pisano to the seacoast, five miles away. If you're on top of the tower when they ring, you'll learn what it's like to be in the presence of music you can hear with your bones. For all but one in our tour group the music was thrilling.

Regarding danger No. 3, keep your head out of the bells . . . particularly on the hour.

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