The Leaning Tower Of Pisa: Stairmaster Prototype

One of things that we were unprepared for when visiting Pisa’s Leaning Tower, was the sensation of climbing spiral stairs in a tower that leans a few degrees to one side. The best way to describe it is to compare it to a Stairmaster machine, and I’m wondering if the Stairmaster engineers climbed the Torre Pendente prior to the first launch of their wildly successful exercise machine in order to make sure that they got it right.

We visited the tower on an overcast Tuesday and timed our visit perfectly to coincide with a rainstorm as we parked our car near the Piazza Dei Miracoli. In addition to the climb, we were unprepared for the tower’s beauty. The arches and columns were elegant and the marble walls and interior were polished to white perfection. The town had thousands of towers in the late 12th century but it lacked a bell tower. A wealthy Pisan patroness bequeathed funds for the tower but it took over a hundred years to ultimately complete. Even during construction the tower started to lean due the local water table being so close to the surface. Once finished, the tower blended in perfectly with the Romanesque Duomo and Bapistry in the Piazza Dei Miracoli. For all its medieval splendor, it was the comparison to the modern Stairmaster that stuck with me.

It’s not that climbing the steps is a great workout. There are only 294 of them and visitors are motivated to make the trip quickly before the structure completes what it has already started. (Only 40 visitors are allowed at one time to make sure the Leaning Tower doesn’t have to come up with a new name) The similarity to a Stairmaster is due to the sensation of climbing alternating gradients. In my limited experience on a Stairmaster, I’ve marveled at how it can simulate climbing hills of various gradients, mixing in “steep” and “flat” climbs to give the user a balanced workout and recreate the sensation of a brisk walk in the hills.

We entered the tower and started our clockwise ascent up the marble stairs that spiral their way to the top. Imagining the footprint of the tower on the face of an analog clock, the entrance is at 6 O’clock and the tower leans to 3 O’clock. By the time we climbed to 12 O’clock, the sensation hit us: the gradient eased and it felt like we were walking “downhill” even though we were still climbing. Continuing our climb up, we wrapped around back to 6 O’clock and experienced the opposite: the climb became steeper and we felt like we were working harder to make it up the tower. At 3 O’clock and 9 O’clock we would lean either towards the inside or outside wall of the staircase and I wondered if the smooth, rounded depressions in the marble steps were made worse from centuries of climbers leaning to and from and side to side.(see photo) The experience was like a “fun house” in a circus or carnival, where you walk through a dark makeshift structure designed to challenge your senses. Along with image-distorting mirrors that make you look either fat or thin, there is often the room with a floor that tilts slightly, making you feel off-balance.

After 294 steps, we were slightly winded and made it to the top and admired the views on a rainy Tuscan day. We had about 15 minutes on the top and then it was time to go back down. The next group of 40 visitors were about to take their turn on the Pisa Stairmaster.

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