A slim, top-drawer chronicle of Pisa’s wonderful, drunken campanile.
For more than 800 years, the Romanesque bell tower “has teetered on the brink of oblivion, but neither earthquakes, war, misguided architectural interventions, nor the relentless onslaught of contemporary tourism has ever managed to topple it,” writes Barcelona-based journalist Shrady (Sacred Roads, not reviewed) in this clear-eyed yet delightfully infatuated tribute to the tower. He sings its praises—the lustrous marble, the weightless open galleries: a column of columns—while at the same time sending a few of its myths to the trash bin. It lists, for instance, not because of devious laborers or incompetent craftsmen or God, but because it was built on the shifting ground of a bog; nor is it likely that Galileo ever threw anything more than a gaze from the top of the tower. Still, there are mysteries: Who was the architect, why did construction start and stop and start and stop again and again, and why, with its progressive degrees of inclination—slowly, implacably on the move until it was over five degrees out of plumb—has it not simply gone south? Helping to make sense of this unintentional folly, Shrady situates the campanile within the sublime landscape of the Campo dei Miracoli, with its cathedral, hospital, baptistery, and graveyard, and also within the greater context of Pisa’s rise and fall as a city-state and maritime power. We also meet the many individuals who had a hand in the centuries-long construction of the tower, and the commissions seeking to right the tower’s skew, including Mussolini’s near-disastrous tinkerings (Il Duce hated the tower, making it that much more lovable). And running through the story is the tower’s evolution from civic embarrassment to a source of pride: “this tilting, defiant campanile symbolizes all that is wondrous and strange in a world that is fast losing good measures of both.”
Comfortably erudite, Shrady covers the tower’s history without diminishing its gratifying improbability. (17 illustrations; the book itself will be printed in a slanted format)