The Asinelli and Garisenda towers (Torre degli Asinelli & Torre delle Garisenda), marking the heart of medieval Bologna, are just two of a number of towers remaining from the middle ages dotted around the city. They’re certianly the most impressive – standing at in Piazza Ravegnana, at the intersection of the roads that lead to the principal five gates of the medieval ring wall (mura dei torresotti – long since vanished, with just a few ornamental gates remaining), the two towers have rightly become one of the main symbols of the city over the centuries.
The medieval cityscape of Bologna would have been, obviously, very different to that of today, as the city had a huge number of towers, built by the richest families for defensive and showey purpose. Bologna was, in fact, once known as the la turrita or the Towered one – alongside its other nicknames la dotta(learned) and la grassa (fat). English travel writer Henry Vollam Morton, contemplating a print of the medieval city suggested it would have looked from a far like a “bed of asparagus”.
There is, to date, no entirely accurate record of the amount of towers built in the city from the 12th century onwards. In the 19th century Senator Giovanni Gozzadini, who unearthed the famous archeological remains establishing the Villanovan culture, conducted a study of title-deeds that suggested a number of around 180 towers. More recently scholars, having found methodological problems with Gozzadini’s approach, suggest that the maximum number was between 80-100 – still a huge number when considering Bologna’s size and wealth.
The towers started sprouting up for very practical purposes. During the 12th Century Italy was caught in the throes of a huge conflict between the Emporor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. Cities like Bologna were obliged to take sides, either with the Emporor or Pope in what became known as the investiture contest. The conflict, which was to endure in different forms long after the original protagonists had faded into history, took on a particularly bloody local role in Northern Italy, as cities sought advantage over neighbours in the power struggle.
Ironically, the towers which dotted northern Italy, and were a conspicuous sign of wealth, largely remain intact only in marginal places like the tiny Tuscan town of San Gimignano. As bigger cities, like Bologna, grew and set up communal defence structures, the need for towers diminished, and new building works paved the way for demoltion. The process of knocking down towers in Bologna continued right through to the early part of the twentieth century (when the Artenisi and Riccadonna Towers were demolished. It is extremely lucky, then, that the various urban planners who oversaw these demolitions never turned their attention towards the majestic twin towers at the heart of Bologna.
The Garisenda tower is the smaller of the two towers, with a marked subsidence – the tower extends out over three metres from its base – which is particularly impressive when seen from Via Zamboni. The Garisenda tower was built, supposedly, by Fillip and Ottone Garisenda in the early part of the 1100s, though the first references to the twin towers owners occur around 1185. It was originally a height of about 60metres. The tower was reduced in size to its current 48metres sometime in the 14th century due to the very real risk of collapse due to the subsidence.
The lean of the tower impressed a visiting Dante Alighieri enough to include the tower in the Divine Comedy. Dante spent a short period of his exile from Florence in Bologna, and it was probably during 1304, when he was working on his unfinished treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia”, that the tower first came to his attention. He was to famously include it to illustrate a scene in the inferno, when Virgil and the poet encounter Antaeus, the giant son of Poseidon, who, in mythology, was blessed with a superhuman strength while in contact with the ground, but who became weak as water when in the air :
As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
passes over and it seems to lean the more,
thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
as I watched him bend…
You can see the quote in its original Italian engraved on a plaque at the base of the tower. The impressive ashlar base is an innovation added at the end of the 19th century
The Garisenda tower was privately owned over the centuries by different families. In 1902, for example, the New York Times reported that the tower had been bought for a sum of roughly $2000 from the Marquis of Malvezzi by the composer Raimondo Franchetti. Both towers are now owned by the city of Bologna. The Garisenda tower is not, though, open to the public
The larger and straighter of Bologna’s twin towers, was built at roughly the same time as the Garisenda. Again, direct information is hard to find relating to its early years, but by 1185 it was commonly being referred to as the Asinelli family’s tower. The tower today clocks in at an impressive 102metres, and can be climbed using the 500 step rickety internal staircase. If you’ve a head for heights, and the day is clear, it’s an unmissable tourist attraction affording spectacular views of the city and the hinterland. Bologna viewed from the air is a completely different city. While you walk the streets the impression is of a red-bricked, cobblestoned city almost completely devoid of greenery. Climb the Asinelli tower and you’ll see a myriad of internal courtyards offering leafy shades and gardens hidden from view.
The Asinelli tower has undergone various innovations, rennovations, and changes in role over it’s lifetime. Initially, it has been suggested, the tower was only 60metres high, with further construction work later being undertaken to heighten the structure. It has been a family home, a prison, and at one stage formed part of an improvised castle constructed by the hated Archbishop Giovanni Visconti, who joined the two towers together into one structure with wooden ramparts, allowing him a vantage point to keep an eye on the troublesome citizens gathering in the Mercato di mezzo (current day Via Rizzoli). This improvised structure didn’t last long, prone to fire, lightning, and rebellions!
In more recent times the Asinelli tower was used as a strategic lookout post during the Second World War to co-ordinate fire-fighting and rescue work in the aftermath of allied bombing. In the post war period it was also host to a rather unsightly RAI broadcasting antenna, which has since been moved.
One of the most impressive times to see the twin towers is in the Christmas period, when the City lights are turned on. Both towers are the focal point of the decorations. There are few more beautiful sights than the medieval towers cloaked in tastefully simple beads of light, shrouded by the seasonal fog.