Why Does the Leaning Tower of Pisa Lean?

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In 1172, Donna Berta di Bernardo donated sixty silver coins to the local cathedral for the purchase of stones to be used in the base of a new bell tower.

The next year, construction on the tower began and almost immediately there were problems. The tower site sat on soft ground composed mostly of clay, fine sand, and shells (the city sits between the Arno and the Serchio rivers). By the time the builders finished the second floor in 1178, the tower was beginning to lean.

Soon, construction was halted for almost 100 years, as Pisa fought wars against Genoa, Lucca and Florence. This may have been a lucky break, as modern analysis says that the tower definitely would have toppled had construction continued without time for the soil to settle.

When work on the tower started again, it was leaning 0.2 degrees north of vertical, but by the time the workers started on the seventh floor, the tower was tilting one degree south. Around this time, construction stopped again for unknown reasons.

Don't Lean on Me

Over the next century, construction continued intermittently.

The tower’s lean gained another 1.6 degrees. To counteract the lean, the builders made the remaining floors taller on the south side of the tower. But the weight of the additional floors only made the foundation sink further, making the lean worse. Having done what they could, the builders finished up and officially completed the tower around 1370.

Since the tower’s completion, engineers and architects from all over the world have monitored the lean and tried to correct it. These attempts have involved adding grout to the foundation masonry, wrapping plastic-coated steel pieces around the tower up to the second floor, pouring a concrete ring around the base of the tower, laying lead counterweights to the north side, installing anchored cable counterweights, and extracting soil from underneath the north side.

After the removal of more than 70 metric tons of soil in 2008, engineers announced that the Tower had been stabilized enough that it had stopped moving for the first time since construction began. Its lean is now only about 4 degrees (prior to the all the restoration attempts, the lean was 5.5 degrees), or about 13 feet past perfectly vertical. The Leaning Tower of Pisa should be stable for at least the next 200 years.

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August 18, 2011 - 7:03am
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