I first got to see the famous Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower) at 1am.
We had just arrived in Pisa and were eating late. A friend of ours, Alessio, suggested seeing the Field of Miracles before we went to bed. And as Italians keep late hours, we tagged along to find that, apart from a couple of European backpackers lounging near the steps of the Ospetale, we were the only ones there. Imagine it? One of the most famous sights in the world, but with just you there. The Duomo, Baptistery, and Leaning Tower standing unmolested in their sea of green grass. The pure white stone gleams under the arc lights, and there is not a sound to be heard, except far, far away, the lone buzz of a lambretta
If you hit Tuscany, then you will hit Pisa just to see the Leaning Tower. You will not be able to resist having your photo taken at an angle where you are holding the tower up with your bare hands. The tourist circus around The Field of Miracles is very entertaining. Most have come on a day trip from Florence and have trudged up the Via Santa Maria from the stazione, or there are the tour groups who just stay for 1 hour before hurrying off to the bus for the next sight. But the Field of Miracles deserves a morning’s wander. A combined ticket to Baptisery, the Duomo, and the Tower can be had, and the green lawns surrounding it are a lovely place for a picnic. Lucky for us, the apartment we were staying in was a 20-minute walk away, and I saw it in the morning and combined it with a lazy afternoon on the beach of Torre del Largo (see other journal). Steve's idea of heaven - culture in the morning and sunbathing in the afternoon.
How get to the Field of Miracles is discussed in the Pisa journal. As you make your way down the Via Santa Maria, the great bulk of the Duomo will slide into sight. But to get there, you must run the gauntlet of African souvenir sellers and their plastic towers and Mussolini tea towels (I kid you not!). But once you are through, you will be standing in the northeastern corner of the field. To the south are the green lawns and the buildings of the Ospetale. Under the Ospetale walls are a legion of souvenir sellers and small restaurants, but it is the great tower in front of you that is the most interesting. To the south of this is the florid bulk of the Duomo, and at the end of the field is the wedding cake of the Baptisery. Each one is breathtaking and a beautiful example of Italian artistry. And to visit them all, you can buy a pass for 8.50€, which lets you into four sights (6€ for two or just 5€ for one monument).
Of course, you cannot not come to the Field of Miracles and not think of Galileo. His experiments with falling objects dropped from the Leaning Tower paved the way for Newton and gravity. But those experiments served a useful purpose - it was in this town that Galileo formed his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. This went against the official Roman-Catholic view that everything spun around the earth, and in 1633, he was dragged before the inquisition in Rome. The pope ordered him to renounce his conclusions publicly on pain of torture or even execution. He did so, but under his breath he whispered secretly, "E pur sì muove" ("But the earth does move"). Whenever I looked up at the tilt of the Leaning Tower, I could not help but think of Galileo peering up at the stars with his telescope.
It is the famousTowerthat you will make for first. It is bigger then I expected, and its tilt is not really noticeable from close up (see photo). It is made from gleaming white marble. There is a sort of helter-skelter effect as the swirling stories roll slowly upwards. Each storey is covered in pillars, and as you watch, you can see people slowly creep their way up to the very top. The tilt is 5 degrees to the south, and it slides another millimeter each year. They are trying to stop the tilt; the British came up with a way of reversing the tilt or at least stopping the continuous lean - they carefully extracted soil from around the foundation. It seems to have worked, and for the first time in 40 years, you can climb the tower for 15€. It looked too precarious for me, but Nic assured me that he had climbed it in his youth. It terrified him, and he inched his way upward while clinging to the sides.
Next is the colossal Cathedral (Duomo). This monster made of white marble is built in the shape of a cross. It soars into the air, and the gleaming white exterior contrasts nicely with the usually blue Tuscan sky. The facade is on the west side, and most people traverse the Duomo and pay attention to its beautiful exterior, which is unique and called Pisan Romanesque. The interior is exceptionally cool on a hot day and over 300 feet long. It has one of the highest ceilings I have ever seen in a cathedral. The ceiling is supported by a dozen or so columns and a frescoed dome. It is the fresco above the nave that I found interesting - Christ is flying above the altar with a golden gilt background. The lamps around it were meant to have inspired Galileo's theories about the movement of the earth. Speaking of which, when I was walking out, I noticed something about the cathedral - the massive building itself leans. As you walk away, the building looks as if it is falling ever so slightly forward.
And lastly is the Baptistery. It's a very strange shape, almost as if someone took a jelly bowl, turned it upside down, and started carving away (see photo). The decorations on the roof are all swirls and ornate filigree, and it tapers to a point. You can enter on a combined ticket with the cathedral, and the inside is rather memorable. It is hemispherical in shape, and very austere, brown, and grey marble dominate. Pillars hold up the gallery, running around the top of the hemisphere and looking down on a bronze statue of a man with a rod. You can climb the stone stairs to the gallery for a view down, and as a London schoolboy, I learned that domes carry noise and that you can have great fun with the acoustics.
Once you have finished, you must head for the southeast corner of the Campo dei Miracoli, where you can line your camera up for the classic view of Baptistery, Duomo, and Leaning Tower (see photo). The lean is at its most obvious from this distance, and I couldn't help thinking whether Pisa would have been so popular down the ages if it had been a "straight" tower? It must be one of the most famous failures in history. Whoever messed up in 1173 probably kept his embarrassed head down.
But little did he know that he provided this cosy town on the Arno with one of the world’s greatest icons and a very profitable tourist industry.