Banana Tower

This story won an honorable mention in the 2006 Solas Best Travel Writing competition, and was published in 30 Days in Italy (Travelers’ Tales 2006).

Paris has la Tour Eiffel
Babylon had its tower as well
But neither has the power to seize ya
Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa

This was my father’s rhyme. When I was young, he bounced me on his knee, reciting the words in a hushed and tuneless monotone. Every time he got to seize ya, he grabbed my shoulders and squeezed, and I shrieked in a confusion of fear and delight.


My father taught high school physics and astronomy, and my bedtime stories often featured such heros as Copernicus, Borelli and daVinci. And Galileo. How bold Galileo seemed, overturning Aristotle and challenging the Inquisition! How brilliant his mind, to invent the telescope, discover the moons of Jupiter, and develop elegant theories of periodic motion. How many times I imagined him standing at the top of that famous bell tower in Pisa, holding a cannon ball in one hand and a wooden ball in the other, poised to demonstrate the laws of gravitational acceleration.

Few other cities inspire the imagination as Pisa does. Beauty, history, science, romance, religion: There’s the Santa Maria della Spina, a gorgeous, three-spired gothic church “somewhat hat-like in appearance” that houses a single thorn from Christ’s crown. The Campo Santo, a graveyard containing dirt the Crusaders brought back from the Holy Land, is filled with crumbling Roman sarcophagi “some of which have been used more than once.”

At the Arsenale, you’ll be transported back to Pisa’s glory days as a wealthy seaport when you view the remains of more than 15 ships and other artifacts, well-preserved in ancient silt. Elsewhere in Pisa you might wander intimate, arcaded streets, view 3,000-year-old Etruscan ruins, or absorb details of the art and architecture that inspired the Italian Renaissance.

And see the Leaning Tower! Presiding over the Field of Miracles (an orderly, manicured lawn), the tilting tower is a comical contrast. It is not simply a straight-but-slanted cylinder. The tower was built over the course of two hundred years, and the fact that it leaned was evident early-on. Builders attempted to rectify the situation by constructing the tower itself on a compensatory slant, and the result is a subtle but definite banana-shaped curve.

As a child, I imagined strolling across the Field of Miracles on a sunny day. I didn’t know why it was called the Field of Miracles, but supposed the Virgin had probably appeared to someone there. That, or an innocent baby had been cured of a horrible disease. Perhaps both, since it was called the Field of Miracles—plural. The sky radiated bright blue (it never rained in my imagination), the grass rolled out a perfect, verdant carpet (despite the lack of rain), and the bright marble of the majestic cathedral nearly blinded me. The Leaning Tower’s cool interior was a welcome relief.

Escaping the heat of the day, I entered a world of fantastic animals, with monsters and sea battles and hog-bears circling around me, no less frightening because they were captured in stone. Eight hundred years ago, children just like me had entered the tower and shuddered at the animali mostruosi “monstrous animals” then hurried up the steps to the comfort of plain limestone block walls, punctuated only by the sunlight streaming in at each window. We climbed the tower many times, those children and I, all …

Read the rest of this story in the Travelers’ Tales anthology 30 Days in Italy.