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Professors with leaning difficulties

By Domenico Pacitti

A commission of 14 university professors has been given an 18-month deadline to reduce the tilting of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The brief,  from Italy's vice-premier and minister for national heritage, Walter Veltroni, is part of an EU-funded campaign to conclude restoration of  the world-famous landmark, and reopen it to the public.

Visibly shaken after his meeting with the minister, commission coordinator Michele Jamiolkowski, a geotechnics professor at Turin Polytechnic, said: "We very probably won't manage to meet the deadline and are now about to enter a new phase of this Calvary called the Tower of Pisa."

Meanwhile, consortium site manager Paolo Heiniger confirmed that the next step to correct the 4.6-metre incline would be to substitute the 835 tons of lead ingots placed at the north base of the tower between 1993 and 1995, with an underground anchorage system. Details of further measures, he said, would be released only after work resumed in the autumn.

But Vittorio Novelli, founder and chairman of an international cultural association for the protection of the tower, said that if project details were not forthcoming, it was a sure sign the commission itself probably did not know what it was going to do next.

"The real problem is that they are more concerned with prestige and easy money than they are with saving the Tower," said Mr Novelli, who has been following the project closely for eight years. "Some of these experts are normally highly competent, but Italian academic commissions tend to conform to strict codes which seriously distort normal, accepted behaviour. The many millions of pounds that have been squandered could have been spent on a more just cause. It is a disgrace."

Abnormally high fees, superfluous research and a system of patronage within the commission have been widely reported. Altero Mattioli of the National Alliance Party, who is said to have called for a government investigation, puts total spending on the tower to the end of 1995 at 40 million. The tower has been closed since January 1990, and over the past seven years almost 10 million of public money has been paid to the local church authorities, which own the tower, as compensation for lost revenue from tourism.

The tower, which was begun in 1173, registered a five-centimetre inclination to the south only ten years after construction began. By a sort of miracle of architecture the galleries of the top three levels were built higher on the south side to counterbalance the lean. With the belfry in place and work completed in 1372, the inclination was 143 centimetres. It later evened out at about 1.2 millimetres per year.

Since 1908, there have been 16 commissions with 150 members, almost all university professors. The 1990 commission was to have done its work in three months, but seven and a half years later it still has not completed the project. It was nominated by former premier Giulio Andreotti, now on trial for criminal association and complicity in murder, and budget minister Cirino Pomicino, imprisoned for theft and corruption.

John Burland, professor of geotechnics at Imperial College, London, and commission member since January 1990, has been heavily criticised in Italy on the grounds of lack of adequate historical research and failure to carry out the necessary site surveys in connection with his lead weights project and its allegedly disastrous consequences.

Professor Burland, who proposed and piloted the ingots project though he does stress the ultimate collective authority and responsibility of the commission explains: "In order to gain temporary stability, in May 1992 we applied 12 steel tendons to the first storey to secure it against collapse, and in July 1993, we placed 600 tons of lead ingots on the masonry to the north side. The next step, required for aesthetic reasons, was to substitute the lead weights with an underground anchorage system, called the 10-anchor solution."

"But on the night of September 7 1995 things began to go wrong. Localised ground freezing for the instalment of the system went amiss owing to the presence of an unforeseen obstacle - an undocumented ring of concrete joining the circular walkway to the tower. As we began to freeze, the tower began to move and we stopped the works.," said Professor Burland. "To control the movement we rather urgently added another 235 tons of ingots and at one point the crane itself. Over the last year the tower has been remarkably stable." He added that a new method of excavation has now been developed for permanently stabilising the tower. It involves the extraction of very small quantities of soil from the north side."

"This should take about two years," he said, "and will allow the tower to settle and gradually reduce its inclination. The final reduction of inclination would be to 0.6 of a metre, a difference in overhang that would be imperceptible to tourists and which should last a while, perhaps 300 years."

One of Professor Burland's critics is Piero Pierotti, who teaches history of mediaeval architecture at the University of Pisa, and who is considered by many to be the world's leading historian of the tower.

Professor Pierotti said: "The project was badly conceived from the start by engineers who had to spend a lot of money in a short time. The first negative signs were the steel tendons applied directly without a wooden interface, and the absence of support beams to protect its hollow walls the 835 tons of weights which cannot be moved have blocked the tower for four years now."

In the most important study of the history of the tower, which concluded that the best policy was one of non-interference, Professor Pierotti explains how, by a dual sinking and inclining process, the monument had, through the centuries, achieved a delicate balance, the disturbance of which might easily prove tragic.

"The work of Professor Burland on what has now gone down in history as Black Saturday has totally cancelled for posterity the relevance of all previous data," Professor Pierotti says. "It has also done incalculable damage to the tower. Professor Burland now holds the distinction of being the fourth person in history to have made the same howler of interfering with the cemented sunken path."

"Professor Burland has enormous potential since he now holds in his hands the future of the two most famous bell-towers in the world. I just hope for the sake of the good people of Britain that he doesn't do to your Big Ben what he has managed to do to the Leaning Tower."

In the wake of a disconcerting chain of disasters to some of the country's major monuments in Turin, Florence, Venice, Bari and Sicily, Mr Veltroni has taken a refreshingly efficient managerial approach to the conservation and exploitation of Italy's immense artistic patrimony.

The setting of firm deadlines will have been the key to getting Rome's magnificent Borghese gallery open again. It has been fully restored after 14 years and is now able to show off its splendid Canova and Bernini sculptures and paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian.

A properly restored Leaning Tower of Pisa would, for Mr Veltroni, be the icing on the cake of other initiatives, such as the 40 million for security to 1,000 museums and archaeological sites, the summer evening opening to the public of 33 national museums, plus the improved facilities in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

Other recent successes include the European Commission's approval of the new Raphael exchange project for the purpose of comparative studies of restoration techniques, the new degree courses in cultural heritage management at the University of Florence, and the attempted elimination of complex laws that have hindered new initiatives.

Whether this first step towards a renaissance of Italian culture marks a genuine change of attitude or is simply a short-term measure destined to end with Italy's 55th post-war government, only time will tell.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on August 19 1997.