On seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa

“Surprise is the great enabler of seeing” Alan Jacobs

How can you see a place that you’ve seen a million times before, albeit two-dimensionally ? Lately I’m all about doing as little research as possible on a place before going there. A recommendation from someone whose opinion I value is enough to put a place on the travel list. Or even just a random idea from my art history days, like visiting the cities of the Etruscan League and then just showing up there, for maximum surprise. But how do you not go to see that icon of tourism, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, when you’re in the neighborhood?

From a Walter Percy essay (which I did not read, I found this quote elsewhere) “Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon…and see it directly for what it is?…It is because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, as been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing…it is rather that which has already been formulated, by picture postcards, geography books, and the words Grand Canyon.” I went to the Grand Canyon once and sat at the edge for maybe an hour. An endless stream of people came up, snapped a photo and left. They were done. It was now preserved for them, they could look at it later. All that way for a picture, the picture is now the experience. Bite-sized.

Though I doubt he was referring to tourist snapshots, more than a century ago Emile Zola said “In my view, you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it”, he was presciently describing our fixation on images and image making. So there we were, us and all the other day-trippers du jour, in Pisa to make our claim, taking the same photos because that’s what one does when one goes to Pisa. I saw the photos, and so I went to Pisa. I took my own photos, and now that I have, I can show the photos to those who haven’t seen Pisa, who will then be inspired to go make their own photos. Like the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, we’re recursively participating in the eternal tourist quest.

Lo, I have seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It looked just like the pictures. But now I can say I’ve seen it.

I’d like to think Zola would approve.

(Pisa, on the other hand is a pretty cool town. You might want to go check it out.)



  1. We have been to Pisa a few times. It appears to be a sort of regional air center so it became a regular spot on our Italian itineraries. I think the tower is intriguing. When I see something that high standing at such an angle, my engineering curiosity is pricked! And then my imagination trying to conceive the solution they had to implement to stabilize it. It was just a fascinating visit. One time is enough!


  2. I had one of my most magical Italian trip moments while on a bus from Montecatini to Pisa. There was a very elegant older Italian lady, very tiny, sitting in front of me with an Hermes scarf around her shoulders which I was admiring. When our bus stop came, As I looked up, she had left but her scarf was on the seat in front. I grabbed it and ran out the door to return it to her, frantically looking all around. She had disappeared into the rush of tourists. I adore that scarf. Also, I liked the leaning tower and thought it looked much better in real life than the photos.


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