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Bill Mills

 Visit to Pisa

by  Bill Mills

One of the many places in the world that I had always wished to visit was Pisa, with its famous Leaning Tower.

         We were fortunate to approach Pisa by ship as this allowed us to soak up the atmosphere of the area gradually and prepare ourselves for Pisa, rather than be dumped down at an airport and suddenly – there you are!

         The trip with a boyhood friend was by way of an escape valve from the pressures of business and home. My wife had become a bit of a virago and I needed a break.

         It was the last week in September and the weather was ideal. The sun shone with pleasant warmth rather than the enervating heat of high Summer. The sea was exactly what you think of when the word Mediterranean is heard: the blue so lovely of sea and sky, contrasted with the curling white bow wave being pushed ahead of us and the occasional fluffy white summer cloud above.

Sailing across the Tyrrhenian Sea I thought of the Etruscans, that great race of people that so little is known about, yet left the legacy of their craftsmanship in bronze, silver and gold to the Romans and to their descendants today. This was really their sea and Pisa had been part of an extensive confederation. In their time the sea probably reached right up to the city instead of the six miles distant that it is today.

We docked in Livorna , which to me sounds kinder to the ear than Leghorn as it is also called. I remembered that the Scotsman, Henderson, had traded here for marble and other goods, while building up the well-known shipping company

P. Henderson & Co of Glasgow- sadly now swallowed up by other maritime interests – and the changing faces of many of the great ports that accept the millions of tonnes of diverse cargoes from the world’s mighty oceans.

Customs clearance was quickly over with and we hired a car at moderate cost to take us to Pisa. We drove through the unique Tuscany countryside to the town where we walked around the shops. The fruits of tourism beckoned to us from their high priced branches; Madonna’s, leaning towers, cathedrals, baptisteries. Your choice in gold, silver, bronze, clay, china and of course – plastic. Postcards in thousands and like the colour transparencies – some of good quality and a lot of poor quality pirate stuff.

We turned away, for this was not what we had come for. As we walked over the ground towards the Campo Santo, our steps slowed and we experienced a peculiar feeling of – something – I can’t really explain what, from knowing that the earth underfoot had been brought from Mount Calvary in the holds of fifty-three fully loaded ships in the year 1203.

Now the tower. There it was – and from where we were standing with one of the vertical corners of the cathedral almost in line with the top edge of the towers, the actual tilt was shown rather alarmingly. We paid our money and started to climb the 296 steps it takes to reach the top, one hundred and a half feet above.

Near the bottom there is an inspection window through which you can see a long arm resting on an inside wall. This is part of the equipment that measures the angle of inclination which when we were there was over 17 feet.

We were told that the walls are 13 feet thick at the base tapering to about six feet at the top. Impressive, but unfortunately we had already read beforehand that the foundations were not more than 10 feet deep and not wider that the circumference of the tower. Admittedly they have poured cement in to slow the process down but when you are, more or less, walking up and then down, to get up; you don’t have any great feeling of security. The Americans offered to put jacks underneath one side and heave it back up one and a half feet, but the offer had not been accepted – just in case!

Two-hundred-and-ninety-six steps are bad enough but when you are also going round and round a leaning tower, you have the feeling on one half that your going to fall out the way and on the other half, fall in the way. When, as well, you have to contend with squeezing past large, sweating sweet-and-sour female tourists, fresh air becomes a paramount necessity. Frankly, by the time we had rolled upwards to the halfway mark I wished fervently that the American offer to reduce the tilt had been taken up. All the way back to the vertical.

At last we popped out at the top arcade and went forward to the steps to see better. We stepped down one step and with a jerk sat down on the steps with our hands behind us taking the weight. Undignified we must have looked. Embarrassed we certainly felt. After climbing all the steps we had suddenly come out on the lower side of the tower and that first step down had given us the dreadful feeling of falling forward and down and there was no railing to stop you.

What made it worse was that several women with children came out onto the steps and acted quite normally but looked at us sitting there hanging on for dear life, like fools. We withdrew from there. That is probably as good a way as any to describe our scrabbling back up the steps.

Later, I found the incident thought provoking.

We climbed to the Bell Tower. Up there you are protected by railings and we could relax and admire the countryside sweeping away to the hills of Lucca in the distance. Looking down, immediately beneath us was the dome of the cathedral. And following along the cathedral length– the baptistery. The area around all neat and clean. These three buildings standing proud, alone and immeasurably rich in spiritual as well as material things.

There is one arch on the Bell Tower that when you look through it, you can see the bell hanging and the outside edges of the bell just seem to touch the dome of the cathedral on one side and the acorn of the baptistery on the other. Through this arch your eyes carry you on away out over Tuscany.

My recollections of the cathedral are of a large building built of white marble with black and coloured bands round it with a beautiful dome at one end. Wonderful to look at from the outside and awe inspiring inside with it’s wealth of gold on the ceilings and cornices and the fabulous paintings of the masters on the walls. I appreciated the hushed tones of everyone there and wondered if it was due to the holiness of the place or were they just strangers in strange surroundings that were a bit gloomy. The whole atmosphere exuded great age – but then – they started to build it three years before the Battle of Hastings.

The Baptistery I found a much brighter building, circular and built almost entirely from marble. It has a wonderful octagonal font and a pulpit of hexagonal design by Pisaro that is really worth seeing. Perhaps the baptistery appears brighter because of the amount of new life that has passed within its massive walls. It has been used for christenings since the early thirteenth century.

The circular shape with the great dome above gives extremely fine acoustics. One of the guards gave a demonstration. He lifted his head and in a very fine tenor voice, sang ‘Ave Maria’ – just the two words but my goodness how beautiful they sounded and so clear. The words seemed to linger on for a long time. Not as an echo but like the original sound, held captive and clean. I would have liked to be present during a christening when the choir was singing. I can imagine that would be an experience not easily forgotten.

We left the baptistery and went along to a position where we could see all three buildings. The baptistery surmounted by the acorn that gave it an oriental appearance when seen beside the cathedral with its more traditional dome. The tower – the Campanile – leaning over with great dignity, seemed to be saying ‘Old as I am, and I may be slipping a little – but I have no intention of falling.’

The visit had been worthwhile and very satisfying and we both felt grateful for having the opportunity of seeing and entering the group of three buildings in the Piazza de Duoma. The Square of Miracles.

A year later I returned to Pisa with my wife, who had been getting even more tedious, irritating and possessive. As we arrived at the top of those dreadful stairs and out onto the leaning steps – I lost my balance a bit –and plunged into my wife’s back. It only took a little heave for her to go over the edge.

The enquiry went very well and I have just about got over feeling apprehensive every time the phone rings or someone knocks at the door. My new partner is a lovely girl.

Bill Mills