Humanity has long been preoccupied with building towers that give the illusion of reaching the heavens. The Biblical story of the tower of Babel is one of humankind’s earliest recorded attempts to construct a way to access these celestial heights.
Ancient cultures such as the Sumerians, Egyptians and Mayas built complexes that featured towering structures which were used for ceremonial purposes and as astronomical observatories.
The term ‘skyscraper’ was first coined in the late 19th century to describe buildings over ten stories high which were being constructed over steel frames in Chicago and New York.
Today, cities all across the globe are recognized by these phallic spires that mingle with the clouds, projecting a sense of economic dynamism on the one hand, while on the other, thumbing their noses at the natural world.
Above all else, skyscrapers are symbols of wealth, power and humankind’s domination over nature. Just as contemporary global cities jostle for the superlative of having the world’s tallest building, ancient cities used building height to project a similar sense of strength and dominance.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the city of Bologna, in what we know today as northern Italy would surely have deserved the title of the world’s skyscraper capital. While the number of tall structures in medieval Bologna is still a matter of debate, most reputable sources estimate there were at least one hundred towers dotted around this bustling city.
As is true of other Italian city-states of this period, there was a great deal of competition between wealthy families as they vied for power and control over land. Bologna’s towers were presumably built as iconic displays of superiority over one’s rivals. They also gave military advantage and were used to watch over each family’s land holdings.
These engineering marvels were built out of bricks, wood and stone and soared hundreds of feet into the air centuries before the manufacture of steel beams made modern skyscrapers possible. Of the more than one hundred towers, only twenty-four remain standing in Bologna today.
Due Torri (two towers)
The skyline of today’s Bologa is dominated by the two tallest of the city’s surviving towers. The Torre degli Asinelli is the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world, standing 97.2 meters (319 feet), while its little sister, the Garisenda Tower, is 48 meters high (157 feet).
The Asinelli Tower, built between 1109 and 1119, has seen its share of history. Over the centuries, there have been at least two documented large fires, plus the building has been struck by lightening multiple times. In fact, a lightening rod wasn’t installed on top of the tower until 1824.
The Asinelli Tower is open to the public and the incredible views of the city from the narrow viewing platform at the top can be enjoyed after climbing 498 steps up an ancient wooden staircase. As one ascends the staircase, there’s plenty of time to marvel at the construction techniques used to attain such a height 900 years ago.
Or perhaps, it’s best to simply observe one’s feet as you ascend all those steps and not contemplate how easily the entire structure could collapse. After all, most areas of Italy are seismically active. 😉
Inside the Asinelli Tower
If you share my fascination of construction methods, especially partially crumbling ancient structures, you’ll love the interior of the Asinelli Tower. Remember that the tower has been partially rebuilt many times over the centuries which allows rich layers of history to be revealed.
Don’t be a wimp
While I was enjoying the panoramic view from the top of the Asinelli Tower, a man who must have been in his 80s, walking with a cane, arrived at the viewing platform. The human spirit is truly amazing! I had to congratulate him on his triumph!
If tower gazing and stair climbing aren’t your cup of tea, Bologna is also renowned for the world’s oldest university, miles of architecturally interesting covered porticoes–so you’ll never worry about the weather–and some of the best Italian food to be found anywhere.
Header Image Credit: Toni Pecoraro/Wikimedia