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Pisa tower to lean less

December 12, 1998
Web posted at: 9:20 a.m. EST (1420 GMT)

PISA, Italy (CNN) - After years of indecision, city officials have initiated a bold plan to prevent the Leaning Tower of Pisa from toppling. They cautiously predicted on Saturday the popular tourist attraction could open to the public next year for the first time in almost a decade.

Workers attached giant steel braces to the 700-year-old marble monument this week to protect it during excavation planned to start next month.

Workers will remove dirt from the north side to stabilize the bell tower and ease it gradually toward a perpendicular position. The process should take six to eight months, said Michele Jamiolkowski, head of the commission safeguarding the Renaissance masterpiece.

"From a technical point of view, we don't believe there will be any more obstacles to visiting the tower," Jamiolkowski said Saturday.

CNN's Gayle Young reports on the leaning tower
Windows Media 28K 56K

Started in 1173 as a belfry for a nearby cathedral, the 58- meter (189 feet), 150,000-ton white monument began listing to the south when a third story was added in 1274. It was completed in 1350.

Built on spongy Tuscan marshland, it now leans six degrees or five meters (16 feet), has sunk about three meters (10 feet) and been shut to tourists since 1990.

The excavation is supposed to reduce the tilt by half a degree, or one-eleventh of its current inclination, which will be invisible to the naked eye, Jamiolkowski said.

If all goes according to plan, preliminary excavation -- through small sloping holes under the tower's north side -- will begin in early January and last six to eight weeks, he said.

Visitors watched from the ground Saturday as a handful of workers in blue overalls girded the monument at its second segment, 23 meters (77 feet) up, applying wooden planks to the body of the bell tower before attaching cabling on top.

tower and stake
The current solution is similar to staking a plant  

The cables should be in place by the end of next week.

The usual throng of tourists crowded Pisa's Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), home to the picturesque tower, cathedral and baptistry.

Some thought the cranes were there because the tower was about to fall. Others needlessly worried that the historic tower, where legend has it Galileo tested his theories about falling objects, would be completely straightened.

Locals were there as well, curious but skeptical about the latest plan to save their bell tower.

"How many earthquakes has the tower withstood? Dozens," said Tuscan artist Andrea Nidiaci. "You don't need to do anything to save it. It has already survived more than 800 years."

Such attitudes are typical among the local population, said Valeria Caldelli, a Pisa resident and journalist.

"Many people here see the tower as something miraculous and think it should be left alone," she said. "They see it as having its own soul. They think that if you touch it, you offend it."

Testament to past failed attempts to cure the ailing tower are the lead blocks stacked at its north side -- hastily installed to counterbalance the monument after a doomed 1995 attempt to freeze the surrounding earth and limit its movement.

That salvage attempt sent the graceful tower lurching 2.5 millimeters (0.07 inches) in just one night, about 10 percent of the lean that the Pisa Commission had corrected since 1990.

And what if the current plan backfires and the tower topples?

"If we did nothing that would happen. The worst we could do is nothing," said John Burland, a professor of soil mechanics from London who worked on the tower restoration plan.

Laura Frangioloi, whose family has run a souvenir stand in front of the tower for more than 30 years, frets that "if it collapses, we might as well all go home."

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