Solving the 800-year mystery of Pisa's Leaning Tower

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Professor John Burland has spent the last two decades striving to save - and understand - the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After defying gravity, Italian bureaucracy and accusations of corruption, it seems he’s finally cracked the case....

Burland had helped save Big Ben from collapse during the Jubilee Line extension of the early Nineties, but progress in Pisa was far less smooth.

‘There were 14 egos at work and little common ground between people from such different disciplines,’ says Burland. ‘As opposed to rational, British-style discussion, meetings were emotional, with polemical speeches in Italian for hours on end. Often my translators struggled to keep up and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.’

Broadly speaking, the structural engineers disagreed with the geotechnical engineers over whether the key lay in the tower itself or in the earth beneath it, while both were at odds with the art historians, who feared intervention of any kind and demanded the belfry’s ‘character and integrity’ be observed. A permanent prop, for instance, was a definite no-no.

‘It was a constant impasse. I often doubted we’d ever reach a resolution,’ recalls Burland, one of only two non-Italians on the committee. The other, an American geotechnical engineer, died of a heart attack in 1996, partly brought on by the stresses of working in Pisa....

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