Pisa -- As a biting wind howls through the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Marco Berettini pulls his hat down closer over his ears and struggles across the slanted belfry to shelter behind a medieval pillar.
Berettini is battling the elements to put the finishing touches to an eight-year restoration project to remove sea salt, pigeon droppings and tourist graffiti from the tower before the scaffolding comes down early next year.
At just 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Mediterranean shores, the tower is frequently battered by storms coming off the coast. Its wide, open arches also provide scant shade for the restorers from blistering hot Tuscan summers.
"You have to be really passionate about wanting to save the tower, or you'd never be able to make yourself get up at dawn and spend all day leaning," said 41-year-old Berettini.
"The conditions are extreme and we often have to work in excessive temperatures. But it's a job you do for love," he boasted with a grin.
Armed with lasers, chisels and syringes, the 10-strong team has taken eight years and three months to clean the 24,424 blocks of stone that make up the 56-metre (183-foot) high tower, sometimes working well into the night.
"The stones were in an appalling state, mainly due to air pollution, though tourists and pigeons played a part," explained Anton Sutter, the Swiss-born head restorer, who attended art restoration school in Pisa 25 years ago.
The distinctive, yellowish stone came from the quarries of San Giuliano, visible from the top of the tower, which scar the green hills behind Pisa.
Italy, Pisa : Tourists take pictures as restoration works are still going on at the leaning tower on 2 December 2010 in Pisa. The scaffolding is about to come off the Leaning Tower of Pisa following a painstaking two-year restoration that has restored the medieval masterpiece to its former glory."The columns are decorated with capitals: flowers, ghoulish faces, fantastical animals," Sutter said.
"But sea salt carried on the wind and rain water that collects in certain areas because of the tower's tilt have damaged many," Sutter said, explaining that the water could not drain properly because of the angle.
"We've taken out the concrete used in past restorations and cleaned up the pigeon dirt, graffiti and hand-prints left by tourists as they struggle to keep their balance while climbing the winding stairs to the top."
Legend has it the tower was begun in 1173 after a Pisan noblewoman left 60 coins to the city in her will to build a magnificent belfry.
But after just three levels had been built, the tower began to lean, sinking into its foundations on one side. Though panicked architects and engineers have been trying to stabilise it ever since, the tower has continued to tilt.
In 1987 it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nation's cultural organisation UNESCO, but as fears grew that it would topple over it was closed to the public in 1990.
"The tower was on the verge of collapse, but we managed to stop the tilt and secure it. It's now out of risk for at least the next 200 years," said Giuseppe Bentivoglio, from the Opera Primaziale organisation that preserves the tower.
The tower was reopened to the public in 2001 and has remained open throughout a restoration costing around 7.0 million euros (9.3 million dollars) -- partly to keep tourists happy, but partly because the revenue from ticket sales helps pay for the upkeep.
Around a million visitors a year come to the tower. Young couples pose with comically strained expressions and one arm out-stretched, pretending to single-handedly stop the tower from falling over.
Those who have already climbed the 296 steps laugh in sympathy with others who come stumbling out of the tower's door, disorientated by the descent down the slanted stairs.
The building's circular structure and the unstable surrounding terrain meant traditional scaffolding for the restoration was not an option, so engineers designed a unique aluminium framework that compensated for the tower's lean.
Italy, Pisa : A technician works on a marble column during restoration works at the leaning tower "We get a team of mountaineers in to move the scaffolding from floor to floor," said head engineer Giuseppe Carluccio, from BCD Progetti in Rome.
"They're fantastic, these kids are passionate about climbing, know how to use their ropes, but most importantly, aren't afraid of heights!" he said.
The mountaineers moved the scaffolding gradually up the tower to the last floor and will return one more time to take it down for good.
Debate has raged in Italy recently over the upkeep of important heritage sites, following the collapse of an ancient Roman house in Pompeii in October, and major austerity cuts in Italy's culture budgets.
But the restoration of the Leaning Tower could be seen as a success story.
Bentivoglio expressed pride at the project and said tourist numbers -- and therefore funds for the work -- have held up despite the economic crisis.
"We're lucky that people will always come to the tower, there's nothing quite like it in the world," he said.
"By February we should be restoring it to the public in all its original splendour," he said.
Gazing up at the gleaming columns, German 33-year-old Chrisjo Kunnathettu, on holiday with his girlfriend, praised the restorers for a job well done.
"It can't be easy to do, but the tower's a bit of history, it would be a huge shame if it was left to ruin."
"You can really see the difference between the cleaned tower and the darkened area of the Duomo next to it," he said, referring to the nearby 11th-century cathedral. "I hope they'll clean that next."
Ella Ide / AFP / Expatica