A little to the left

Anyone knows a decent white-icing wedding cake needs a nice firm base. Without a proper professional cake stand, underpinning it foursquare, it is simply pointless constructing other layers on top.

How mortifying, if the bride and groom were appreciating the wedding speeches over a glass of  bubbly, when the whole lot began to list dangerously and come crashing to the floor!

Any housewife knows that: but the architect of a confection built on a grand scale in 1173 seems to have dispensed with common sense and plunged in at the deep end of wishful thinking.

Pisa: sublime wedding of water and land, it reclines at ease between the Arno and Serchio Rivers, allowing them to form a laguna at the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Home of sophistication and taste since the 12th century, the bell tower of its cathedral is one of the landmarks of the world.

The ground floor of the campanile – how is it the Italians seem to make every word sing like a nightingale? – is like an intricate cake. It is a set of columns linked by arches, each filled in and elaborated with gorgeous design. It is built in white marble at a time when Pisa was both victorious and prosperous in its dealings with neighbouring city states.

But it appears they had more money than sense. With an outer diameter of more than 50 feet and marble walls getting on for eight feet thick, one might counsel firm foundations. Yet, as we all know only too well, Pisa’s early creators accorded it just under ten feet of foundation to shoulder the tower.

Five years later, as workers progressed to the second floor, the debacle began to be obvious to all. That, and squabbling with Genoa, Lucca and Florence, sheepishly  halted production on the tower for a hundred years.

All in all, it was not a bad move.  The ground floor settled into its life in the soil, and the two became well acquainted.

1272: and the towers began to rise, builders building the walls on one side taller than the other to compensate for the tilt. Thus, Pisa’s tower may look straight, but speaking in the language of geometry it is curved.

War stopped play once more twelve years later. It was not until 1319 that the finishing touches were put to the seventh floor.

Time was not kind to the leaning tower of Pisa. Though it never fell down it never stopped leaning further and further.By the millennium it was in a sorry state.

One day, recounts Ingenia Magazine’s Michael Kenward, a British Soil Mechanic got a phone call from his Italian friend. The story goes that the mechanic,engineer and emeritus professor at Imperial College, John Burland, enquired after his friend’s health.

“I was fine,” his friend told him, “until I opened today’s newspapers and found that I was chairing a committee to decide how to prop up the Tower of Pisa.”

John empathised. “Commiserations,” he told his friend kindly.

“Save them for yourself,” came the reply, “the paper names you too!”

He was whisked out to Pisa, and to an adventure which involved removing soil from the north side, encouraging the tower to nestle substantially back into its moorings. The tower was straightened by 45 centimetres initially, returning it to its 1838 position. In 2008, after the removal of 7o metric tons of soil, it was announced the Tower had stopped moving for the first time in its history, and was good for 200 years.

Bravo, Signor Soil Mechanic. Bravissimo.

You can’t keep a good soil mechanic down. And there he was, John Burland, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday morning.

Because one of our national monuments is in a spot of bother.

Big Ben and the Tower of Pisa: they both live near rivers. The Jubilee Line rumbles on underneath the nation’s favourite clock tower, and  Mr Burland has also been involved in building an underground car park beneath it.

This is nothing to do with the lean, says Burland, who advises the lack of cracks on the outer cladding would indicate the lean began before the cladding was put on, way back at its construction in 1859.

Chill, he says. We won’t be in Pisa’a predicament for another 10,000 years. Big Ben’s angle of lean is just 0.26 degrees, compared with the Pisa Campanile’s 3.99 degrees.

And so the The House of Commons Commission, charged with sorting the whole bally mess out, has taken a very British course of action.

The whole sorry business has been postponed until at least 2020, and the next Parliament.

The favourite media punchline of the day appealed to me, my politics scarlet. Burland told Today: “If you stand in Parliament Square and look towards it, you can just see that it moves very slightly to the left, but I wouldn’t put any political slant on that.”


33 thoughts on “A little to the left

    1. Yes, we can all heave a sigh of relief and watch it lean gently on its Thames moorings 🙂 I wouldn’t like to be the one to park in that underground car park, though!

  1. Pisa is a place that once you have seen it once, you need not go again! I did not know Big Ben was listing – but in typical fashion, the next Govt. will blame the previous one 🙂

  2. Ah yes, the political solution….let’s just delay long enough that it won’t be our fault and we can easily pin it on the next batch of dodos. A universal approach common among nations and politicos.
    I have visited the Tower of Pisa and it was just after the 2nd round of repairs and it was interesting to see, but, as Tandy said, no need to visit further. As to Big Ben, have only been there once and want to go back again as it is much more interesting.

  3. If Hollywood and the BBC are to be believed, the clock tower and its iconic bell will be crashed into by aliens and whatnot long before the 10,000 year mark, quite likely before the 2020 Parliamentary deadline… Smart thinking on your man Burland’s part.

  4. Ah, a little left leaning, or, more to the right. No, let’s wait and let someone else fix it. Rather like the lead up to the financial mess we’re into at present. I’d love to see Big Ben once before it leans too far.

    Wonderful post, as always.

  5. I have so many pictures of the clock tower, and I’ve never even noticed the lean! The solution is a typical political, and seemingly universal, one: just pass the problem off to someone else.

  6. Interesting stuff! Firstly, the cheap gags about the lean seem a bit too easy – after all, you could say that it is leaning to the left or to the right – it all depends on which side you are looking from.

    I thought about being a pedant and pointing out that Big Ben is the bell and not the tower, but looking at Wikipedia, I see that the tower is “metonymously” referred to as Big Ben, so I won’t, and I’ve learnt a new word today as well!

    As to the significance of the lean: again with thanks to Wikipedia, the tower is 96.3m high, and so a 0.26 degree lean means that the top is about 44cm off from the vertical – doesn’t seem too bad compared with Pisa, which despite being a considerably shorter tower (56m), is off by almost 4m at the top due to its more significant lean.

    So, Big Ben doesn’t seem to be too much of a worry at the moment, and as for Pisa, we have a cunning plan – check out my blog (a bit later when I get around to writing it) for proof!

    Thanks for an interesting post as always.

    M xx

    1. Hi Miff! A fund of information as usual, thank you! When you do the Pisa Post I’ll link to it so folks can read. As for leaning to the left, I think Mr Burland specified you have to be standing in Parliament Square to see it from that angle 😀 I’m off to stand there and bask in the irony…might take a picnic….

  7. I love the comparative angle of dangle! 0.26 degrees, versus 3.99 degrees. Those three (and a bit) degrees are so significant 🙂

  8. Well maybe that’s why now all wedding cakes have such good foundations! Live and learn. I hadn’t realised that Big Ben was sloping, although 3.99 doesn’t sound so very bad at all for Pisa. Oh and I love that chap’s sense of humour, so dry! 🙂

  9. In south Florida along the Atlantic coast there are thousands of tall sun bleached condo like rows of dominoes ready to be toppled by the next category 4 or 5 hurricane. And the people moving to coastal cities wonder why the first street at the shore nowadays is 4th street.

    1. We do get complacent in Europe, don’t we, Carl? I hear a comment like that and realise a little leaning is nothing to the things some of the world’s buildings have to put up with.

  10. Great post once again Kate! Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow…?! You never know, it may get knocked upright once again, before 2020, by that falling satellite thingy! 😀

  11. Whether the lean is eradicated, or not, it shall always be the Leaning Tower of Pisa to me. I’m glad to know that Big Ben is in no immediate danger . . . I love that clock tower. 😀

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