Where Angels Fear to Tread
But, like many a project where enthusiasm
and visions of grandeur override thoughtful planning, the warning signs of potential
failure came early. Though the emerging tower was beautiful the marble pure,
the columns geometrically precise this façade hid an underlying weakness.
First the builders noticed little problems bricks that didn't align; cracks that
formed seemingly overnight; an odd shift in the way things were sitting in relation
to the ground. Then finally, a distinct lean to the north.
This testament to symmetry the marble glory
of Pisa it seemed, had feet of clay. Or silt to be more precise. Nobody had
bothered (or known) to check the substrate on which the tower was being built.
Instead of a solid foundation of bedrock, the glorious Tower of Pisa was being
constructed over the soft shifting silt of a long-buried riverbed. And she was
The entire project was now on shaky ground.
Literally and figuratively.
Not deterred however, the team continued
forward. Rather than disrupt the project timeline and start over on firmer footing,
or god-forbid redefine the project in its entirety, they would simply compensate
for the lean. Surely it didn't matter if the tower had a bit of tip to it, as
long as it appeared level to observers on the ground. To this end they came up
with an ingenious plan: to make the columns and arches on the north side of the
tower slightly taller than those on the south. This would serve to lift the north
edges of the floors and make them level. With that quick decision, their structural
problem was solved or so they thought.
For five years they built steadily, always
with one eye on the gradually increasing slant of the floors, adjusting column
height accordingly. But the project lost steam in 1178 and the builders ceased
work. The tower was taking too long, the workforce was needed for more important
matters of state, the imperfection was an eyesore, apparent even to those who
would have rather turned a blind eye, and Pisan leaders needed to turn their
attention to more worldly issues of the day, like war for example. After only
three and half floors, the project was put on indefinite hold.
Now, it turns out that this was fortunate
if not for the overall project, at least for that project team. The compensating
fix that the builders were applying was threatening the very integrity of the
tower itself. Had they continued with their construction and finished the fourth
floor, the pride of Pisa would have surely toppled over.