Pisa's Leaning Tower reopens to public after decade-long renovation to fix tilt

Saturday, December 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PISA, Italy (AP) _ Its long-stilled bronze bells ringing again, Pisa's Leaning Tower reopened its doors and dizzying stairway to the public Saturday after a decade-long renovation to reduce the famed tower's tilt.

Alfredo Bianchi of Milan was one of the first visitors to climb to the bell tower's eighth and highest story and catch the breathtaking view of Pisa's cathedral, the red-roofed Tuscan city and rolling hills in the distance.

``You can't explain what it feels like, you have to try it for yourself!'' he said. ``I knew it was opening today, but I couldn't imagine I would be so lucky.''

Lucky indeed. In addition to being randomly chosen for one of the inaugural climbs as he strolled in the tower's piazza, Bianchi and nine other first-climbers also didn't have to pay the $13.30 that visitors must pay from now on.

``It's the first time I've come up here, and it is just amazing,'' said Montserrat Vinardell as she and another tourist from Barcelona, Spain, Maria Carmen Navarro, frantically snapped pictures.

Construction on the 190-foot-high tower began in 1173 to celebrate the glory of Pisa, in those years a wealthy maritime republic.

The soil underneath its foundations began sinking before workers completed the third level, starting its centuries-long famous tilt. The builders forged ahead, however, completing it in 1360.

When the tower closed in 1990 for renovations, officials said it would be open again in just a few years. The ambitious plan to shave off some of the tilt _ at first regarded with some skepticism _ took far longer than expected, but it eventually succeeded.

``Many Pisans were saying: 'We'll never be able to go back up again,''' recalled Pier Francesco Pacini, the head of the committee in charge of the monument. ``Today is a very important day.''

The renovation plan included attaching a pair of steel ``suspenders'' to the tower, and then excavating soil under its foundations to try to realign it. The seven bells were stilled for fear that their vibrations would threaten the tower's stability.

Over the course of the renovation, engineers shaved 17 inches off the tower's 1990 lean and guided the monument back to where it was in 1838. The difference is not visible to the naked eye.

The tower now leans 13.5 feet off the perpendicular. Officials said it would take almost three centuries for the tower to go back to the tilt it had in 1990.

However, the days of unlimited visitors filling the monument's 293-step staircase are over. Guided tours of about 40 minutes for groups of up to 30 people will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

``The tower has recovered, but like elderly people it needs treatment,'' said Michele Jamiolkowski, the head of the $27 million project.

Jamiolkowski said a small committee of people would still monitor the tower's slant and said that the next step _ restoring its marble work _ is necessary to keep the monument in good shape.

Officials have estimated the marble restoration would cost $4.3 million, and said they intend to press the government to finance it.

Since being closed to tourists, only a handful of people have been inside the tower, which is on UNESCO's World Heritage List and which Mark Twain once called ``the strangest structure the world has any knowledge of.''

Among them were British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who often vacations in Tuscany, and first lady Laura Bush, who during a visit last summer struck the typical tourist pose, standing beside the leaning monument pretending to hold it up.