TILT: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa. By Nicholas Shrady. Simon & Schuster. 161 pp. $21.95
Pisa’s problematic bell tower, the final component of a complex of religious buildings undertaken to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over Islam in general and the victory of Pisan forces over the Saracens in particular, began leaning soon after construction began in 1172. Six years later, when the tower was three stories high, work on it halted— nobody knows exactly why—and didn’t restart for a century. Between 1272 and 1278, the uppermost four stories were added, after which construction was once again suspended. In 1370, the tower was finally completed with the addition of the belfry.
Once the tower reached its intended height of 180 feet, the political fortunes of Pisa began to head in the opposite direction. After a century of sieges, the city surrendered to Florentine forces in 1509. It would have been symbolically logical for the tower to collapse then, but this was not to be. Instead, it went on to become the ideal setting for young professor Galileo Galilei’s experiments with falling objects, a story as appealing as it is unfounded.
In the 19th century, clever but desperate marketers concocted a different fiction about the tower in order to invert potential embarrassment. They maintained that the lean was intentional. The tower-de-force, so to speak, standing firmly on the brink of disaster, was meant to reflect Pisan survival and past glory.
In his enjoyable account of the creation and survival of the tower, Nicholas Shrady, the author of Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail (1999), rescues one of the world’s most familiar architectural oddities from the bin of one-liners. He reconnects the tower with the curious collection of people and events caught in the pull of its offkilter orbit. His pleasant, clear, and often amusing tale is weakened, however, by somewhat stingy illustrations and by all-toogimmicky packaging. Instead of the usual rectangle, the book has a slanted parallelogram shape intended to evoke the tower—as if the publisher lost faith in the content and felt the need to jazz it up.