One feature of medieval Bologna that would have been hard to miss was its proliferation of tower houses. It has been claimed that between the 12th and 13th centuries there would have been as many as 180 in the city centre, all built by the leading families of their day, though others say around 100 is a more realistic estimate. Their purpose was in part defensive but also in part a display of wealth. In an early example of “keeping up with the Joneses”, as we say in the UK, a family would often try to out-do another neighbouring one by building a more impressive, i.e. taller, tower.
Over the years they were repurposed as shops, homes, prisons and more. Some collapsed, some were demolished (most recently in the early part of the 20th century). Today fewer than twenty remain, or maybe 24, depending on who you believe! Two of these, the Garisenda and Asinelli towers, are the unofficial symbols of the city and merit a separate tip which I will come to later in these pages. But it is worth seeking out the others and to do so you can download and follow a walking tour provided by the city’s tourist office here: Bologna towers tour (or pick it up from the office in the Piazza Maggiore).
We didn’t follow this to the letter but I did take it with me and we picked up on its guidance to help us seek out the towers when our wanderings took us close to them. Not all are easy to photograph as the surrounding buildings block the views, but some do stand out. My photos are of:
Photos one and two – the Torre Prendiparte, also known as the Coronata (“the crowned one”), built in the 12th century. It is 60 metres high, making it the second highest in the city after the Asinelli Tower. It has served as seminary, prison and as a house for Napoleon’s troops, but today is a B&B and (expensive) rooftop bar.
Photo three – the Torre Uguzzoni, a rather shorter (32 metres) and wider tower in the Jewish Ghetto area, which is best seen from Vitolo Mandria off Via San Simeon, where my photo was taken
Photo four - the Arengo or Podestà Tower, seen from the Piazza Maggiore, part of the Palazzo del Podestà
Photo five – the Torre Asinelli, one of the famous Two Towers, seen from Via Santo Stefano. Much more about this in my later tip …
But next let us look at another very distinctive feature of Bologna’s cityscape, its porticos.
Tower houses were a typical feature of medieval cities. The leading families built them both as a symbol of their power and wealth and as refuge during the frequent fights with their neighbours. Renaissance paintings show these characteristic silhouettes.
Only in a few locations they are still preserved in significant number. San Gimignano is known for them, also Regensburg in Germany – and of course Bologna.
The best known towers are Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, known as I Due Torri (see separate tip), but there are many more. In the old city’s skyline they are striking but from the narrow streets they are hardly visible if you don’t look up in the right moment. It is worth lifting up your eyes every now and then. I have not counted how many there are – two dozen for sure, probably more.
Bologna is called "La Turrita", which means packed with towers, because of its countless towers. Only fewer than 20 can still be seen today and among them Torre Asinelli and Tore Garisenda are the most famous and considered to be the emblems of the town of Bologna.
Between the 12th and the 13th centuries the number of towers in the city was very high, possibly up to 180 or 200. The reason for the construction of so many towers are not completely clear. One hypothesis is that the richest families used them for ofensive and difensive purposes. Besides the towers there are still preserved fortified gateways in the city, so-called "torresotti", that correspond to the gates of the 12th century city walls (Mura dei Torresotti or Cerchia dei Mille) which itself has been almost completely destroyed.
During the 13th century many towers were taken down or demolished and other simply collapsed. Some of the towers have subsequently been utilized as prisons or even residential buildings. The last demolitions of the towers took place during the first half of the 20th century.
The construction of the towers was quite onerous, the usage of serfs not withstanding. To build such an tower with a height of 60 meters would have required between 3 and 10 years of work. Each tower had a square cross section with foundations between 5 and 10 meters deep, reinforced by polles hammered into the ground and covered with pebble and lime. The tower base was made of big blocks of selenite stone. Usually some holes were left in the outer walls as well as bigger hollows in the selenite to support scaffoldings and to allow for later coverings and constructions, generally on the basis of wood.
Fondest memory: Conversely, Asinelli tower is considered as a heavy one, in fact it weights 8,500 tonsand features a quite low barycentre. In 1488, a military loggia, Rocchetta, was added to the tower.
Garisenda tower is co-called "leaning tower".
Favorite thing: When you finish with the visit of the two squares I descibed before you can go to visit the Torre degli Asinelli. You must take the road Via Ugo Bassi and you must walk until the end of it, there you can see the two towers. If you want you can go up on the tallest tower (the ticket is sold for 3.00 € and it's open all day until 6pm), because is very beautiful take a look of this wonderful city from there (the tower is a bit pending, so be careful when you'll see down).
Favorite thing: Visit The Two Towers. From the Asinelli Tower (the highest in the city) you have a beautiful panorama of Bologna.