Restorers put finishing touches to Leaning Tower
As a biting wind howls through the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Marco
Berettini pulls his hat down closer over his ears and struggles across
the slanted belfry to shelter behind a medieval pillar.
Berettini is battling the elements to put the finishing touches to an
eight-year restoration project to remove sea salt, pigeon droppings and
tourist graffiti from the tower before the scaffolding comes down early
At just 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Mediterranean shores,
the tower is frequently battered by storms coming off the coast. Its
wide, open arches also provide scant shade for the restorers from
blistering hot Tuscan summers.
Pisa tower. AFP
“You have to be really passionate about wanting to save the tower, or
you’d never be able to make yourself get up at dawn and spend all day
leaning,” said 41-year-old Berettini.
“The conditions are extreme and we often have to work in excessive
temperatures. But it’s a job you do for love,” he boasted with a grin.
Armed with lasers, chisels and syringes, the 10-strong team has taken
eight years and three months to clean the 24,424 blocks of stone that
make up the 56-metre (183-foot) high tower, sometimes working well into
“The stones were in an appalling state, mainly due to air pollution,
though tourists and pigeons played a part,” explained Anton Sutter, the
Swiss-born head restorer, who attended art restoration school in Pisa 25
The distinctive, yellowish stone came from the quarries of San
Giuliano, visible from the top of the tower, which scar the green hills
“The columns are decorated with capitals: flowers, ghoulish faces,
fantastical animals,” Sutter said.
“But sea salt carried on the wind and rain water that collects in
certain areas because of the tower’s tilt have damaged many,” Sutter
said, explaining that the water could not drain properly because of the
“We’ve taken out the concrete used in past restorations and cleaned
up the pigeon dirt, graffiti and hand-prints left by tourists as they
struggle to keep their balance while climbing the winding stairs to the
Legend has it the tower was begun in 1173 after a Pisan noblewoman
left 60 coins to the city in her will to build a magnificent belfry.
But after just three levels had been built, the tower began to lean,
sinking into its foundations on one side. Though panicked architects and
engineers have been trying to stabilise it ever since, the tower has
continued to tilt.
In 1987 it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nation’s
cultural organisation UNESCO, but as fears grew that it would topple
over it was closed to the public in 1990.
“The tower was on the verge of collapse, but we managed to stop the
tilt and secure it. It’s now out of risk for at least the next 200
years,” said Giuseppe Bentivoglio, from the Opera Primaziale
organisation that preserves the tower.
The tower was reopened to the public in 2001 and has remained open
throughout a restoration costing around 7.0 million euros (9.3 million
dollars) — partly to keep tourists happy, but partly because the revenue
from ticket sales helps pay for the upkeep.
Around a million visitors a year come to the tower. Young couples
pose with comically strained expressions and one arm out-stretched,
pretending to single-handedly stop the tower from falling over.
Those who have already climbed the 296 steps laugh in sympathy with
others who come stumbling out of the tower’s door, disorientated by the
descent down the slanted stairs.
The building’s circular structure and the unstable surrounding
terrain meant traditional scaffolding for the restoration was not an
option, so engineers designed a unique aluminium framework that
compensated for the tower’s lean.
“We get a team of mountaineers in to move the scaffolding from floor
to floor,” said head engineer Giuseppe Carluccio, from BCD Progetti in
“They’re fantastic, these kids are passionate about climbing, know
how to use their ropes, but most importantly, aren’t afraid of heights!”
The mountaineers moved the scaffolding gradually up the tower to the
last floor and will return one more time to take it down for good.
Debate has raged in Italy recently over the upkeep of important
heritage sites, following the collapse of an ancient Roman house in
Pompeii in October, and major austerity cuts in Italy’s culture budgets.
But the restoration of the Leaning Tower could be seen as a success
Bentivoglio expressed pride at the project and said tourist numbers —
and therefore funds for the work — have held up despite the economic