Leaning Tower of Pisa

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:04:51
Year Produced: 2009
Description:

One of the finest examples of medieval Italian Romanesque architecture is year by year, slowly, relentlessly inclining to the south. Despite all efforts to correct this, it remains one of the continent’s premier attractions, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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Transcript

Lead: One of the finest examples of medieval Italian Romanesque architecture is year by year, slowly, relentlessly inclining to the south. Despite all efforts to correct this, it remains one of the continent’s premier attractions, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Intro.: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: During the medieval period, the Italian city-state of Pisa derived wealth and power from its dominant commercial location on the Mediterranean coast west of Florence, northeast of Corsica.

As municipalities are oftentimes prone to do, the Republican fathers translated evidence of their civic wealth into architecture. Pisa chose to build on the Piazza del Duomo--or called by some the Piazza de Miracoli--in gleaming white marble, a magnificent set of ecclesiastical buildings: a cathedral, a baptistry, a cemetery structure, and a 16,000-ton isolated belltower.

This last structure begun in 1173 has, from almost the beginning, continued to list to south. Even if it had remained absolutely erect, it would have been a stunning piece of architectural design. That it remains fully functional more than eight centuries later, while maintaining an increasingly precarious tilt, makes it extraordinarily interesting and attracts thousands of visitors to Pisa long after the city has seen its better days.

The original architect is a matter of some dispute, but like most buildings of that period, there were probably many hands in on the process over the nearly two hundred years it took to build it. There were two long construction pauses at the fourth level and at the seventh level, apparently attempting to correct the drift to the south that gives the tower its unique character.

The tower tilts about 17 feet off perpendicular and is quite noticeable--shocking even--to those who see it for the first time. The declination is due to its being built over an ancient underground estuary and on earth consisting of water and silty sand. On a wide foundation structure such as the cathedral that poses no problem--there is enough shared weight to keep that building in repose--but with a relatively narrow base the tower puts too much weight on too little space and therefore makes it subject to the tilt that gives it its name. Despite the lean, the tower withstood a formidable earthquake in 1846, but the declination picked up speed--if you can call it that--in the twentieth century, so much so that it was closed in 1990.

By 1999, engineers had come up with a scheme that seemed to correct the problem. Each day over several months, small amounts of soil were extracted from the north face, which caused the tower to right itself 18 inches in that direction; and authorities were able to reopen it to those daring visitors who might desire to climb into the lean. This has seemed to give 300 years more life to the fascinating Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Research by Kendra Lahue, at the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.