Why Medieval Bologna Was Full of Tall Towers, and What Happened to Them

Image by Toni Pec­o­raro, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Go to prac­ti­cal­ly any major city today, and you’ll notice that the build­ings in cer­tain areas are much taller than in oth­ers. That may sound triv­ial­ly true, but what’s less obvi­ous is that the height of those build­ings tends to cor­re­spond to the val­ue of the land on which they stand, which itself reflects the poten­tial eco­nom­ic pro­duc­tiv­i­ty to be real­ized by using as much ver­ti­cal space as pos­si­ble. To put it crude­ly, the taller the build­ings in a part of town, the greater the wealth being gen­er­at­ed (or, at times, destroyed). This is a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, but it also held true, in a dif­fer­ent way, in the Bologna of 800 years ago.

There exists a work of art, much cir­cu­lat­ed online, that depicts what looks like the cap­i­tal of Emil­ia-Romagna in the twelfth or thir­teenth cen­tu­ry. But the city bris­tles with what look like sky­scrap­ers, cre­at­ing an incon­gru­ous but enchant­i­ng medieval Blade Run­ner effect. Bologna real­ly does have tow­ers like that, but only about 22 of them still stand today. Whether it ever had the near­ly 180 depict­ed in this par­tic­u­lar image, and what hap­pened to them if it did, is the ques­tion Jochem Boodt inves­ti­gates in the Present Past video below.

In the era these tow­ers were built, Bologna had become “one of the largest cities in Europe. It’s a time of huge, ambi­tious projects. Cities built cathe­drals, town halls, and pub­lic squares — and some peo­ple built tow­ers.” Those peo­ple includ­ed noble fam­i­lies who held to aris­to­crat­ic tra­di­tions, not least vio­lent feud­ing. Giv­en that “the city is no place to build cas­tles,” they instead inhab­it­ed urban com­plex­es whose town­hous­es sur­round­ed tow­ers, which were “more like pan­ic rooms” than actu­al liv­ing spaces. Ref­er­ences to these promi­nent struc­tures appear in sub­se­quent works of art and lit­er­a­ture: Dante, for instance, wrote of a lean­ing “tow­er called Garisen­da.”

The etch­ing that set Boodt on this jour­ney to Bologna in the first place turns out to be the rel­a­tive­ly recent work of an Ital­ian artist called Toni Pec­o­raro, who height­ened — in every sense — images of a 1917 mod­el of the city by the shoe­mak­er and “strange self-taught artist-sci­en­tist” Ange­lo Finel­li. Finel­li, in turn, drew his inspi­ra­tion from a study by the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry archae­ol­o­gist Gio­van­ni Goz­za­di­ni, him­self a scion of one of those very fam­i­lies who com­pet­ed to have the tallest tow­er, then got bored and pur­sued oth­er sta­tus sym­bols instead. Per­haps Bologna is no longer the cen­ter of aris­to­crat­ic and mer­can­tile intrigue it used to be, judg­ing by the sparse­ness of its cur­rent sky­line, but then, there’s some­thing to be said for not need­ing a for­ti­fied tow­er in which to hide at a momen­t’s notice.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

Why the Lean­ing Tow­er of Pisa Still Hasn’t Fall­en Over, Even After 650 Years

Venice Explained: Its Archi­tec­ture, Its Streets, Its Canals, and How Best to Expe­ri­ence Them All

A Guid­ed Tour of the Largest Hand­made Mod­el of Impe­r­i­al Rome: Dis­cov­er the 20x20 Meter Mod­el Cre­at­ed Dur­ing the 1930s

How the World’s Biggest Dome Was Built: The Sto­ry of Fil­ip­po Brunelleschi and the Duo­mo in Flo­rence

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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