Italy’s towers are an integral part of her appeal, yet comparatively few remain. At the height of its development, Lucca boasted 250 towers; today has only 3. The hilltop town of San Gimignano holds the honor of best representing what a hilltop town looked like in days of old. Her 17 towers proudly nudge the Tuscan sky, asking if it remembers the day when there were 75 standing tall.
Pisa’s Other Towers
Of those remaining, a special handful do so in a most precarious way – they lean, just like that famous one. Of course, Pisa’s well-known leaning campanile is the world’s icon for off-kilter architecture, and stands (leans?) as one of Italy’s most recognizable features. This wedding cake style monolith graces travel brochures and pizza boxes worldwide, as well as many a bucket-list for visiting tourists.
While the Leaning Tower of Pisa may be the rock star of its genre, Italy is also home to a small group of surviving leaning towers worthy of note. However, these often go unnoticed by those other than locals.
Not unlike Cinderella’s step-sisters, two less-famous leaning towers of Pisa are often overlooked due to the reputation of the more acclaimed one.
The Campanile di San Nicola was constructed around 1170 and is believed to be designed by the same architect responsible for the Leaning Tower. Nearby is the tower of San Michele degli Scalzi, also displaying a noticeable lean. Built on the silty soil of the Arno River floodplains, these two tilting towers have maintained their degree of lean over the centuries without the intervention that has been needed to keep the Leaning Tower in existence. Although somewhat less unique and glamorous in design, the towers are remarkable representations of quality medieval architecture.
The Leaning Towers of Venice
In general, folks visit Venice for its impressive canals, a gondola ride, and some quality time with the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. However, the marshy soil and salty environment of Venezia also give rise -or shall we say sink - to several of its own leaning towers.
The most famous tower, of course, is the campanile of St. Mark’s Square – the proud red brick spire that announces the grandeur of Venice. But no matter how noble, the unstable soil, corrosive salt water, and wooden beam foundation have brought grief, and even full collapse in 1902, to this landmark. Fully rebuilt after the collapse, the tower began to show signs of compromise once again in 2008. Officials decided that one famous leaning tower was enough for Italy, and massive efforts to stabilize it were successfully put into place. The immense tower now stands straight and tall, hopefully secure for years to come.
However, three other Venetian towers of lesser fame retain their notable lean.
Not too far from the Bridge of Sighs, one can take in the slanting view of the Campanile di San Giorgio dei Greci. Built in the late 1500’s, this tower began to lean since the beginning of its construction. Being the first Greek Orthodox church allowed in Venice, its founders stubbornly continued through to completion.
Competing in degrees of tilt with Pisa’s tower, the leaning tower of Santo Stefano is Venice’s second highest bell tower. This stately tower exhibits an almost 7-foot lean from its base – another perfect “hold it up” photo op! Original construction took place in 1544; however, the tower suffered a direct hit by lightning in 1585. The strike was severe enough to melt the campanile’s bells and cause full collapse, yet the town rebuilt soon after. Standing perfectly erect for some 300 years, things changed when a 1902 earthquake caused its conspicuous lean.
Nearby, the Campanile of San Pietro di Castello rises like a regal white pillar... with a slant, and claims the title of Venice’s first Renaissance bell tower. Built in the 1500’s, this beautiful tower is covered in pearly but heavy Istrian stone, the source of its beauty and its lean.
Other Notable Leanings
Not far from Venice, in the seaside town of Caorle, stands a remarkable conical tower, the oldest surviving of its kind – the Campanile di Santo Stefano. Completed in 1070, this tower is believed to have served not only as a means of defense, but also as a lighthouse. Standing dignifiedly upright for over 800 years, the tower began to tilt around 1920 for reasons yet to be explained. In the meantime, it remains at attention, standing guard over the vast liturgical and artistic treasures housed in the Duomo di Santo Stefano.
In its heyday, the bustling city of Bologna was home to close to 200 towers, of which only a mere 20 remain. Notable, and probably a bit more well known, are the twin leaning towers that grace it’s historic cente. The taller and older of the two, Asinelli, comes in at 318 feet, while her sibling, Garisenda, stands at 157 feet. Like Bologna’s famous porticos and rich ragù, the twins are an iconic part of the city’s identity. Garisenda leans at a steeper angle than Asinelli, the tilt appearing dramatically dangerous as if they wished to embrace. Although not reinforced on the outside, the towers are fortified with scaffolding on the interior and considered safe for climbing to the top for a spectacular view.
Are They Safe?
Italy’s many ancient structures and monuments appear to have stood since time began, a testament to man’s conquering of the elements. But shifting soil, underground water movement, earthquakes, storms, the occasional war, and the passage of hundreds of years have combined to degrade and put at risk these icons of Italian heritage. So how do we know if collapse is imminent?
Sometimes we don’t, as with the case of the Torre Civica in Pavia that gave way without warning in 1989. But situations such as this are more the exception than the rule.
Fortunately, science and technology are providing some answers, as well as a layer of safety. Many of the larger and more famous towers are fitted with wire exstensometers, devices that continually monitor for movement and shift. Other forms of appraisal of soil and water conditions (geotechnical engineering) combine with these means of structural analysis to hopefully give experts data for decision making – and plenty of warning for tourists.
Saving Italy’s Towers…and More
Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly could buy the restoration of many of Italy’s at-risk heritage sites, towers included. With staggering debt, fewer funds for preservation, and a government that has not shown much focus on maintenance of historic sites, the peril is real.
Italy tops the list for UNESCO World Heritage sites, but unfortunately has witnessed a cut of more than half of its culture budget over the past 5 years. Italian cultural organizations are seeking other means to preserve their heritage, including movements seeking philanthropic “adoption” of sites or even cities.
Additionally, 2014 brought Dario Franceschini on as Cultural Minister — a man who realizes ways must change to save Italy’s cultural heritage. With Franceschini’s guidance, modern approaches such as crowd-funding and building a system of world-community support are being successfully utilized.
Hopefully, these measures will assist in allowing the genius of Italian architecture, leaning included, to be around for appreciation and enjoyment for generations to come.