Europe’s Leaning Tower of Pisa - A Historical Lesson

  • Print
Europe has a habit of putting structures in place that are inherently flawed and then trying to come up with all kinds of ways to cobble together a short-term fix in order to survive any immediate danger and, just like the marble tower in the Piazza del Duomo, the European Union is in danger of toppling over.

Given enough time, one would assume it should possible to build a perfect stucture, but, in the middle of the Piazza del Duomo in Tuscany stands proof positive that, if the foundations are imperfect in any way, the amount of time spent in assembling the structure becomes irrelevant.

leaning tower of pisaBehind the Duomo and the Baptistry lies a structure instantly recognizable to millions of people throughout the world for one reason – and one reason only – the basic flaw in its construction; The Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the Cathedral of Santa Maria assunta otherwise known as The Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Be honest, how many of you recognized the structure in the photograph above after I rotated it so it sat perfectly vertical? Thought so).

The Leaning Tower of Pisa took 177 years to complete after ground was broken on August 8th 1173 as a series of circumstances dictated that work be stopped for lengthy periods.

After construction of the white marble tower had reached only the second floor, in 1178, the structure began to sink into the soft, unstable subsoil as the shallow (3m) foundation proved to be a (fairly obvious) design fault. Work was halted and, due to a series of wars between Pisa and Florence, Genoa and Lucca, nothing further was done for almost a century (during which time, luckily, the subsoil settled and compacted to the point where continuation was possible).

In 1272, Giovanni di Simone took over the project and his engineers came up with the brilliant idea to build the higher floors with stones taller on one side than the other to compensate for the tilt – thus making the structure curved – but, after defeat for the Pisan navy in the battle of Meloria, construction was again stopped in 1284.

It wasn’t until 1319 that the seventh floor was finished (complete with a northern staircase consisting of two fewer steps than its southern counterpart) and the bell chamber itself was finally added in 1372.

The tower is 55.86m in height on the low side and 56.70m on the high side. The walls are 4.09m thick at the base and 2.48m thick at the top and the structure leans at roughly 3.99 degrees (which means the top of the tower is displaced by 3.9m from where it would be if the tower were perfectly vertical).

Prior to 2001, the tower leaned at an angle of 5.5 degrees.

It was on February 27, 1964 that the Italian government announced they were accepting suggestions on how to save the famous structure which, experts predicted, was toppling fractionally every year and was in serious danger of collapsing if there were an earthquake or a severe storm, and, after several flirtations with plastic-coated steel tendons, underground drilling, counterweighting and liquid nitrogen, a process of slowly excavating soil from under the North side of the tower was begun in 1999 which reduced the tilt by eighteen inches and, supposedly, gave a further 300 years of life to the Leaning Tower.

Europe has a habit of putting structures in place that are inherently flawed and then trying to come up with all kinds of ways to cobble together a short-term fix in order to survive any immediate danger and, just like the marble tower in the Piazza del Duomo, the European Union is in danger of toppling over.

Cue short-term fix.

This week, the Brussels Touts finally agreed the long-awaited bailout for Greece but not before some very strange events took place that, to anybody watching closely, spoke volumes about what is really going on behind closed European doors.

The UK Daily Telegraph published a refresher for those of us suffering from Crisis Fatigue and it is a useful exercise to go back and remind ourselves just how the whole leaning tower of the EU began to lean:

(UK Daily Telegraph) The first sign of trouble in Greece was when George Papandreou took over as prime minister in October 2009 and found that the government had been understating its public debts for years. Two months later Fitch downgraded Greece’s debt to BBB+, the lowest credit rating in Europe. Financial traders scrambled to work out the implications of a European Monetary Union that contained members with such different profiles as Greece and Germany.

But the reality was that the EMU was a very thin veneer over deep economic, political and cultural divisions.

Despite being poor, the Greek government has for decades sought to be generous to its people. Historians point to the war-torn decades, including a civil conflict after the Second World War that wiped out 10pc of the population followed by bloody clashes between Cyprus and Turkey in 1974: the Greek state has tried to soothe its people by creating a big welfare state and generous pay and pensions - including low retirement age and the famous 13th and 14th monthly salaries.

When it came to joining the euro in 2001, it should have been obvious that Greece did not meet the debt conditions. But, by spin-ning the numbers, Greece gained entry, not just to the single market but to debt markets that allowed it to borrow as though it was as dependable as Germany.

Greece went on a spending spree on infrastructure, services and public sector wages. Meanwhile, the Greeks stopped paying taxes. To Athens’ delight, banks and the financial markets filled the gap by lending billions of euros. With the onslaught of the credit crunch, Greece’s vast debts were exposed - but so was the exposure of European banks. If Greece went bust, untold damage could be unleashed across Europe and beyond: for a global economy still shattered from the 2008 banking crisis, the prospect of another one was intolerable.

At every bump in the road between 2009 and now, the circling of the Euro wagons has been consistent and, for the most part, the party line has been toed. We have discussed in these pages at length just how keen those involved in the discussions about Greece’s (and, by extension, Europe’s) future have been to convey the notion that there was no way Greece would be defaulting and no way ANY country would be leaving the Euro. With great fanfare it was pointed out that, when the Maastricht Treaty was drawn up, there were, quite deliberately, no mechanisms put in place for either a withdrawal or an expulsion of any member state.

zsa zsa gaborBut, then...Zsa Zsa Gabor promised to say together 'until death do us part' nine times.

Incidentially, Ms. Gabor finally seems to have found a husband who can maintain her in the manner to which she has become accustomed and finance her extravagant lifestyle.

Funnily enough, he is German.

But I digress...

Continue Reading

CLICK HERE to subscribe to the free weekly Best of Financial Sense Newsletter .

About Grant Williams