Tower of Pisa and Unintended Consequences

  • The history of Pisa tower is long and varied. The designers didn’t realize back then that the tower would become such a major attraction.
  • The Pisa tower and its unintended consequence, makes Italy to rake millions of dollars with this touristic attraction.
  • Developing Our World, a small organization, is hoping to achieve a similar effect, focusing on holistic community development.
  • Developing Our World aims to improve Guatemala's conditions by offering various on going process and training solutions.

History has shown that unintended consequences are borne out of many things. From the simplest of decisions taken in the past to massive decrees, consequences have always followed in one way or another. One such example of historic elements that has had unanticipated consequences is the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

For its beauty, history and fortune, the tower of Pisa was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. This monument, conceived as a bell tower, is framed in the Romanesque style of the Italian Middle Ages. It is located in the place that writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) one day called “the square of miracles”, in Pisa, Tuscany, Italy.

The Pisa Baptistery (in the foreground), the Pisa Cathedral (in the middleground), and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in the background)

The tower of Pisa began to lean as soon as its construction began. However, this not only did not stop the effort and pride of that city, but more than 800 years later, the tower is still standing next to the cathedral or Duomo of Pisa, affirming itself as a true architectural miracle. The “square of miracles” is completed with the Baptistery and the Holy Field.

The construction process took about 200 years. This was due, first of all, to the technical difficulties they encountered along the way, because of their inclination. Second, to the political and military conflicts of those years that diverted attention and resources to other companies. Learn more about the history and characteristics of the tower of Pisa.

Contrary to what its name suggests, the tower was built to house an exemplary monumental bell tower, intended to accompany the cathedral. This tower, which was to be completely straight, has a slightly arched shape in the opposite direction to its angle of inclination.

The building was conceived as a cylindrical tower, divided into eight levels, formed by the base, six lodges or floors and the bell tower. In this, seven bells tuned with the main notes of the musical scale were installed (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si).

The bell tower is accessed by a single door, topped with a tympanum with three figures. The interior is surrounded by two walls of limestone and marble.

Hollow inside, in the tower there are only spiral stairs with 273 steps leading to the bell tower. In the first levels, the steps are made of marble, material that was installed during the Middle Ages to receive the nobles who visited the tower.

As is typical of Romanesque art, the walls of the base are extremely wide and solid, which explains its enormous weight. These walls narrow and lighten as the tower reaches greater height.

The columns are grouped in different quantities according to the level. At the base there are a total of 15 columns that order a succession of blind semicircular arches. The six intermediate lodges have a gallery of 30 columns each, while the bell tower floor, which corresponds to the eighth level, has a gallery of 12 columns.

All columns support semicircular arches. They are plain shaft and are topped with decorated capitals. You can see some capitals with scrolls and acanthus leaves that reveal the influence of Greco-Roman art. But some can also be seen with motifs such as mythical or fantastic creatures that reflect the Romanesque mentality, still in force in Tuscany at the time.

Construction stages

It is not clear who is the designer of the original bell tower project. Some suggest that it was Diotisalvi (Deustesalvet), which was building a section of the Baptistery at the time. Vasari suggested that it would have been Bonanno Pisano, but this attribution seems to be wrong. It is known, yes, that the tower was supervised by Giovanni Di Simone.

– First stage, 1173-1178

It was in August 1173 when construction work on the tower of Pisa began. In this period, the base and the first three floors or lodges of the tower are raised. However, at this point the tower begins its process of inclination in the north direction.

The cause will be in two key factors. The first one relates to the characteristics of the soil. The site was clayey and sandy. This was because the area had been a recovered swamp, the first cause of instability.

The second aspect had to do with the architectural project. In fact, the base of the building barely had a depth of 3 meters, which was insufficient to place the tower in a land of similar characteristics.

Without immediate solutions to contribute, it was decided to stop construction for the first time in 1178.

– Second stage, 1272-1278

Almost a hundred years had to pass before the project was resumed. It will be from the year 1272 that the fourth floor is completed and more levels are added, which were arranged at an opposite inclination in order to correct the imbalance.

By then, the tower had reached an approximate weight of 9.5 tons. But this time, the tower began to lean to the opposite side, heading south. To contain this process, they placed heavy materials in the northern section, insufficient strategy to straighten the building, so the work was interrupted again in 1278.

– Third stage, from 1360 to 1370

At least four strong earthquakes hit the region since 1280, but the apparently vulnerable Tower survived. The reason was not understood until a research group of 16 engineers investigated. The researchers concluded that the Tower was able to withstand the tremors because of dynamic soil-structure interaction (DSSI): the height and stiffness of the Tower together with the softness of the foundation soil influences the vibrational characteristics of the structure in such a way that the Tower does not resonate with earthquake ground motion. The same soft soil that caused the leaning and brought the Tower to the verge of collapse helped it survive.

The construction work on the tower was restarted in 1360, which represents about 82 years of waiting. This last effort made its culmination possible in 1370. The tower reached its final shape with the final closing of the bell tower.

Safeguard efforts

Many efforts have been made to prevent the collapse of the tower of Pisa. Several commissions have been formed throughout history to find the best solution. In this regard, Enrique Santoyo and Efraín Ovando report in a text entitled Parallelism between the Tower of Pisa and the Cathedral of Mexico , that:

The history of the commissions in charge of safeguarding the Tower of Pisa is very long. It could be said that the first dates back to the year of 1298, when the experts of the time gathered about the resumption of construction. In 1840 the Second Commission began to study the inclination and in 1907 the Third. Since then, prominent geotechnical engineers have participated, including C. Trevisan, AW Skempton, S. Marchetti, A. Kezdi, GA Leonards, C. Viggiani, JB Burland and M. Jamiolkowsky. K. Terzaghi (1934) also did a study of the Tower.

Some of the tried alternatives only sharpened the problem, sinking and leaning the tower more. To this was added that, in 1944, a bombing in World War II almost destroyed it.

Over time, efforts to protect the monument resumed. Santoyo and Ovando comment that in 1972 a contest was convened by the Italian government to protect the tower without its inclination having to be corrected.

As you can see, the history of the Pisa tower is long and varied. But, what the designers didn’t realize back then was that the tower would become such a major attraction. This is an unintended consequence, and today, the government of Italy rakes in millions each year because of the tourists who want to see the tower of Pisa.

Lessons for Guatemala

In Guatemala, there is a small organization hoping to achieve a similar effect. Developing Our World is a non profit organization focused on holistic community development. Guatemala is a small country in Central America, and Developing Our World aims to improve its conditions by offering various programs and training solutions.

Developing Our World focuses on building leaders instead of followers. Instead of simply training people to do something, the organization learns what the locals are doing, and helps them improve. Otherwise, they’d simply be following a rote-learned routine.

Despite the difference in culture, values, and feelings, the organization prefers working in a remote country. They are willing to adapt according to the assets of the people and prefer using the bottom up approach instead of the top down approach used commonly. Instead of imposing their will on others, they prefer learning from them and guiding them about particular things that they might be doing wrong.

They share, but never impose their accountability. Guatemala is a very different country when compared with the US, and the people express their emotions and feelings in a completely different manner. It is one of the main reasons why the organization is focusing on long-term results and processes that are designed to improve the general well-being of the people of Guatemala.

The aim of the organization is to build capacity and not dependency, and it is one of the main reasons why they are so focused on training the general population of Guatemala by launching projects on training nurses, teachers, and rural leaders. Instead of giving away stuff for free as many of the other organizations are doing, Developing Our World wants to train the leaders of Guatemala. If they do give, it’s only so that companies can start up their operations.

Developing Our World is leading the way in making sure that the people of Guatemala are able to come into their own potential without having to rely on outsiders. Their processes are going to foster growth and allow people to contribute towards a better world.

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Miguel Torneire

Is the founder and the Executive Director of Developing Our World, an organization that seeks to put holistic community development into action. He loves Jesus! And, he is a husband, a father, a Pastor, a Missionary, an Author, a flamenguista (a supporter of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo soccer team), and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.


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