Tuscans Hold Their Breath /
How to Keep the Monument From Falling
Putting a Modern Slant on the Tower of Pisa
By John Tagliabue
New York Times Service
PISA, Italy - As if a girdle of steel cables around its base, 830 tons of lead ingots
stacked on the rim of its foundations and a steel fence skirting its perimeter were.not
enough, the alluringly leaning tower of this maritime Tuscan city appears about to suffer
If the plans of engineers entrusted with its welfare come to fruition, the 800 - year -
old marble pillar will be girded sometime this spring with a heavy steel strap about one -
third the way up its 187 - foot (57-meter) height. From the strap, two steel cables will
be strung, then anchored to the ground nearly 350 feet away. The maneuver, which Italian
newspapers have loosely compared to outfitting the - structure with suspendes, may for a
while mar its marble grace.
But strapping the pillar is a first step in an elaborate plan to prevent it from tumbling
The bracing cables will enable experts to work toward a more elegant and enduring solution
to the central problem: the centuries-old slow tilting, by about one twenty-fifth of an
inch every year, which if untended will cause the tower ona day to fall.
"I am not a technician, but it gives me peace of mind," Ranieri Favilli, the
tower's octogenarian keeper, said of the plan. "I have the greatest confidence in the
The experts are on an international panel entrusted by the Italian government with finding
a way to protect the tower. Announcing the $7 million plan recently, Michele Jamiolkowski,
the Turin University professor of engineering who heads the panel, said it.would
"give us greater tranquillity in the pursuit of our labors."
What those labors consist of is a process called "controlled subsidence,"
meaning that the ground below the northern flank of the tower will be lowered to provide.
a more level base. (The tower tilts south.).
Restoring it to the vertical is out of the question, of course. To begin with, the base is
treacherously slanted. After the pillar was about one-third finished, and its perilous
lean became obvious, construction was halted. It later continued closer to the
perpendicular, but that could not offset the base's tilt.
Ultimately, Mr. Jamiolkowski says, the aim is to reduce the tower's lean to about five
degrees from about five and a half degrees - and hold it there. That, the professor told
Italian newspapers recently, "is enough to guarantee our tranquillity for hundreds of
But in a country where the best - laid plans often fall victim to procrastination or
politics, skeptics abound. Over the years, some Pisans point out, the tower has shown
greater stability than, say, Italy's governments, of which there have been more than 50
since the end of World War II.
Others, like Rina Staderini, one of 101 stallholders along the tower's western flank who
peddle items like miniature plastic replicas of it, favor a strict hands-off policy.
" If they touch it, it will topple, " mrs. Staderini said. "If they leave
it in peace, it will stay on its feet."
In 1965, after a drop in Pisa's water table caused the tilt to accelerate, a new law
trasferred responsibility for the tower's well-being from Pisa to Rome. But the experts
disagreed on a choice of therapy.
"It is as with a sick persón," said Mr. Favilli, the tower keeper. He is a
retired agronomist appointed by Pisa's archbishop as the 97th holder of an office fohnded
in 1089, before the tower was built, essentially to oversee construction of thé adjacént
cathedral and baptistry.
"At times the choice of therapy is difficult," he said. "The experts are
all luminauies, and are not always of one mind."
Work on the tower began in 1174, under Bonanno Pisano. It was completed when Tommaso
Pisano capped it in 1350 with a belfry. In January 1990 the tower was closed to the
roughly 800,000 energetic visitors who, despite its incline of roughly 16 feet from the
perpendicular, clambered up its 294 steps yearly to enjoy the splendid panorama from the
The plan hit upon by Mr. Jamiolkowski and his panel is to exploit the stability afforded
by the strap and cables to perform the riskiest part of the projett: pouring a ring of
concrete underground around the foundations, then driving 10 steel cables from one side of
this ring and anchoring them in firm layers of soil about 165 feet below the base.
This anchoring is necessary if, as the experts hope, the tower is to be reopened to
visitors someday. The two cables and strap can afterwards be removed, though no one is
willing to guess how soon that will happen.
Just how risky the operation is became evident in 1995, when excavations around the base
suddenly caused the 14,000-ton tower to lurch nearly onetenth of an inch in one night. To
pull it back, 230 tons of lead ingots were added to the 600 tons that engineers had begun
gradually amassing on the rim of its base in 1992 as a counterweight.
Still more support was then provided by a girdle of cables wrapped around the lower
portion of the tower; these are to be removed when all the work is finished.
Some Pisans do not want to see another corset and cables of steel go up.
"I am convinced that the tower will lose its fascination," said Francesco
Giagnoni, a Pisan who has admired the structure's profile for 35 years while hawking
woodel Pinocchios, leather purses and little Leaning Towers.
Yet, the tower as building site appears not to put off the tourists who are the source of
livelihood not only for peddlers like Mr. Giagnoni, but also for Pisa's tour operators,
hoteliers and holse-drawn-cab drivers.
"We'd read about it," said Teresa Marra, an American lawyel. after photographing
three companions in the obligatory leaning pose in front of the tower. "In fact, I
thought it would be more covered."