By Nancy Greenleese
Tour guide Roberto Bello gazes up at the gleaming white tower framed by a baby blue sky and cotton candy clouds. The native Pisan said, until recently, the picture-postcard view was limited, well, to postcards.
"All the buildings right here including the tower were terrible, terrible, terrible black before because of the pollution of the salt wind," Bello said.
Gusts from the nearby Mediterranean Sea batter the belfry. But pigeons, tourists and regular old air pollution all contributed to the dirty look. Bello said for years tourists saw a filthy monument when they entered the so-called Piazza of Miracles.
"Now when they come and see the tower they say, "oh my God, that is really a very miracle."
But divine intervention didn't restore and clean the tower. A multi-million dollar restoration project did. This was the second phase of an effort begun in 1990 when the tower was in danger of collapsing.
At that time, it was straightened about 16 inches to stabilize it. The tower reopened to the public in 2001. Yet there was more work to be done, said tower director Gianluca De Felice.
"There were cracks so large in the top of the columns that I was able to put an entire hand inside them," De Felice said. "So it was going to be a major undertaking."
Restorers injected chemicals into the marble to strengthen it. Then they cleaned the surface with water sprays, solvents and even lasers for delicate spots.
Getting restorers close to the marble required near-superhero powers. Mountaineers scaled the tower and attached hanging, aluminium platforms. Traditional scaffolding could've unsettled the soil under the newly stabilized tower.
"The mountaineers were tied to an upper level and linked by ropes," De Felice said. "As work progressed from level to level, the workers would hand each other the pieces to construct a new level of scaffolding while taking apart the scaffolding below, all the while suspended in the air. This scene fascinated tourists who were basically watching these crazy people spinning around and climbing up and down."
And there was interior work too. For an entire winter, restorers toiled on the tower's internal staircase during chilly nights, to allow tourists to visit during the day —tourists who bring in receipts of up to $30,000 a day – funds needed for the restoration and upkeep.
There are 296 steps to climb – many worn into grooves from more than one million visitors every year. Visitors Lee Best and Murray Dyer — from Australia – are impressed with the newly restored tower.
"It looks like wedding cake, but it's lovely, the reflection of marble is beautiful," Best said.
"And the cleanliness of it. It must've taken a lot of work to restore it back to where it is. I noticed that they put the little pigeon protectors right around it. Yes, yes, very wise move, yeah," Dyer added.
The tower's restoration was completed at a time when other Italian heritage sites were falling apart. Last year, Roman-era walls collapsed at Pompeii, for example. But Italian officials say the Leaning Tower of Pisa is secure for at least the next 200 years.
Restored Leaning Tower of Pisa (photo: Luigi Fraboni)