ROME, July 14: Italy is taking steps to straighten its famous leaning tower of Pisa but only by 40 cms, compared to the four and-a-half metres the building is off kilter.
The $23 million government plan includes the laying of foundations from which thick steel cables will run up to the tower, which they will surround 22 metres above the ground. The cables, similar to those used by funiculars, will be 103 metres long with a six to ten-cm diameter, covered by a protective two-cm thick sheathing of plastic.
Installation of the cables began this month. If the operation is successful, then real work will begin: Straightening the tower through a series of controlled demolitions. The tower leans towards the south, so part of the terrain on the northern side will be blasted away, and the cables will be removed once the inclination of the tower has been adjusted 40 cms.
The project should conclude next year, before the start of celebrations marking the year of Christian grand jubilee -- the 2000th anniversary ofthe birth of Jesus.
If all goes according to plan, underground anchors proposed by other engineering experts will not be unnecessary. The project aims at respecting the tower as much as possible, and the cables will remain in place for only one year, the time needed to carry out the work on the ground. Both the cables and the lead blocks will then be removed, and nothing will remain to mar the tower's image.
The government hopes to be able to reopen the tower to the public for the first time in ten years. The famous building, whose construction began in 1173, is one of Italy's most outstanding tourist attractions, drawing visitors from all over the world.
A number of proposals to ``fix'' the tower have been sent to the northwestern city of Pisa, one of the most outlandish being from Japan. Mutsuharu Takahashi suggested the installation of platforms to incline part of the plaza where the tower is located, thus providing a vision of a straight tower.
As a temporary measure to keep the tower fromleaning further, 830 tonnes of lead blocks were installed on its northern side as a counterweight. The blocks and other works aimed at restoring the building began in 1990.
Residents of Pisa, however, remain sceptical about efforts to save their tower, after no less than 18 commissions of experts have been set up this century to study ways to keep the edifice standing. Pisa Mayor Piero Floriani said ``the city is impatient and finds it hard to believe that any real solution will be found.''
But Giorgio Croci, a professor on the faculty of engineering at the La Sapienza university in Rome and a member of the committee which came up with the latest plan, was optimistic about the future of the tower.
``I am a scientist rather than a salesman, so I cannot talk about guarantees.But we believe it highly probable that the project will be a success,'' he said. ``And if it is successful, no more work will not be needed, and the tower will be definitely secured.''
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.