Campo dei Miracoli
Field of Miracles: how wonderful is that name!
Wonderful – and apt, I think. I can easily picture this as a centre of miracles: the blue sky, the green grass, the wonderful white constructions, the warm Tuscan terracotta wall, it’s all rather stunning.
The official name of the field is Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square). The piazza has an ensemble of four magnificent Romanesque marble structures. Masterpieces of medieval architecture, according to UNESCO. And it isn’t difficult to agree.
You could ask why this quartet of beautiful buildings were constructed in the first place. Though I suppose the reason is self-explanatory, isn’t it? To show off! We, Pisa, are important.
On the very left of the top photo there, is a bit of the camposanto monumentale, the monumental cemetery. Nearest to you, and very much dominating the photo, is the delightfully Gothic baptistry, leaning ever so slightly towards the duomo behind it. And peeking out behind that again, playfully: Now you see me…
Ah, you say. That erection looks familiar.
Familiar, indeed. Here it is again – all on its own, the bell tower of the cathedral, the campanile – arguably the world’s most famous tower. Most famous tower that isn’t straight, at least.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of most iconic images of Italy, and probably one of the most iconic of Europe, as well. And to think it’s all because of dodgy foundation and a construction failure.
Not that it isn’t a lovely tower. Though, in Italy, lovely towers are a dime a dozen. Even leaning ones; there are at least 10 others, including two here in Pisa alone, as well as in Rome, Bologna and a couple in Venice: you can see a photo of the one on the island of Burano in Venice Lagoon in this post. Tilting towers all over the place.
Why does the Leaning Tower of Pisa lean?
Construction began on 9 August 1173. Ground floor, first floor, second floor, wait a minute… seems this tower is settling somewhat erratically. Looks like it’s leaning southwards. And it was. As the ground consisted mostly of sand and clay and a bit of shell, it was simply too soft to carry such a structure. Marble is heavy stuff.
Then came war. Pisa, then an independent republic, fought with Genoa and other neighbouring republics. Tower building would simply have to wait. And so it did. For 100 years. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave the ground time to settle. Enough time for the tower not to keel over and end up prostrate on the soft soil. What a terrible fate that would have been, for a proud campanile.
Fast forward to 1272: peace has returned to the land (more or less) and Pisa is getting on with construction. The head engineer, one Giovanni di Simone, decides he has to compensate for the tilt. But how? Hm, let’s try adding extra stonework to the shortest side. Yeah… nice thought. But maybe not thought entirely through. The extra weight meant the tower began to lean even further.
Another century – we’re now in 1370 – and we have a gloriously erect, if tilting, tower. All done. Except…
it continues to lean, between 1 and 2 mm per year and rising
That doesn’t sound like much. But fast forward again, to 1990. 620 years have passed since the tower was completed and the tilt is now 5.5 degrees (about 4.5 metres). Now we’re talking.
Fortunately, Pisa’s authorities did more than talk, they closed the tower to the public, and fixed it (mostly by removing soil from underneath the high end). Predictions are now that it will remain stable for at least the next 200 years.
I imagine it would feel a bit off balance, climbing the campanile. Could be fun. Or vomit inducing. We didn’t climb it. Not because I mind the entrance fee – only right that visitors contribute to the upkeep of a place. But with a 6-year-old along, we couldn’t. 8 is minimum age for climbing those 294 marble steps (or 296, depending upon which side you’re counting). Though other reputable sources claim it’s only 251. With the current predictions I have ample time to return and count for myself. I’ll keep you in the loop. Fingers crossed there aren’t any earthquakes or the like in the meantime.
One of Italy’s most important architectural monuments, the duomo is dedicated to Virgin Mary. The cathedral is lovely to behold, inside and out, from the gorgeous bronze doors, to the magnificent gilded ceiling and works of art inside, including Giovanni Pisano’s octagonal pulpit with statues symbolising the virtues. Much of the artwork is too valuable to be in the cathedral, and is now displayed in the Museo dell’Opera, a 2-minute walk away.
Oh, and the cathedral is also sinking.
The musical baptistry
We’ll not forget the baptistry, the wonderfully Gothic Battistero di San Giovanni, in all its 55-metre-tall glory. All arches and columns and red-tiled dome. Like the tower, it took more than 200 years to complete – from 1152 to 1363 – also interrupted by those annoying wars. Like the campanile and the duomo, the baptistry is also sinking. Its tilt is not nearly as dramatic as that of the campanile; about half a degree in the direction of the cathedral. Leaning in.
Cool fact: Galileo Galilei was baptised here in 1565. Practically holy grounds for science and religion alike.
But there’s more. Not only is the largest baptistry in all of Christendom a beautiful sight, it is also an auditory delight. Acoustics here are out of this world. Did those Renaissance architects perhaps mean to build a grand concert hall? It’s an intriguing thought. In fact, I feel a song coming on just thinking about it.
There are worse things I could do, than go with a boy or two…
Perhaps not entirely appropriate…? I’ll have to think of something more solemn. Maybe some Gregorian chant.
Do not walk on the grass
On the August day the kids and I were there, the miracle field was busy, but not nearly as bad as I had expected. I couldn’t help but be amused by how hopeless it must be to set up signs prohibiting walking on the grass – and then, no one gives a damn.
It appears that without consequences, we’re nothing but disobedient children. Actually, the child here, when noticing the sign, insisted we get off the grass immediately. Had she known English at the time (or Italian), she would most likely have chased everyone off. Natural-born law enforcer.
People, people: Can you not read??? Do not walk on the grass! Hmpf… Well, I, at least, will not be touching the grass with the soles of my little shoes. Instead, I will swing on this chain and keep watch. Got my eyes on you! Yes, you!
Even the threat of an administrative sanction to the tune of €25.82 seems to have no effect whatsoever.
Visiting the miracle field –
- – is easy enough. We flew to Pisa’s Galileo Galilei airport for a holiday in Tuscany, and drove straight to the piazza. The airport is practically in the city, so the drive took about 15 minutes. Though with Italian traffic, it’s hard to predict – we may have been lucky. The railway station is about a 15-minute walk from the piazza, or you can take a bus for 2 € (price as at 2020). Public transport can be a bit sketchy in Italy, in my opinion, but perfectly all right if you have plenty of time – and patience (I have zero patience).
- The piazza is small and very easy to walk around. Though you may want to choose the off-season, i.e. not August.
- Climbing the tower cost 18 € (in 2020), no discounts. Children must be at least 8 years old to climb. 8 – 18s must be accompanied by an adult. Tickets are limited and reservations strongly advised.
- Entrance to the cathedral is free.