Bologna, Town of Many Towers

One of Bologna's main attractions is its towers which, mostly dating back to the 12th-14th centuries, were built in great numbers by the wealthiest families, first of all as symbols of their powers, and also as means of defence and attack against their enemies.

The structural features of the towers, standing examples of a building style both civilian and military in its traits, enable us to understand their first use. From the 12th to the 13th centuries the town's peculiar political situation, dominated by families belonging both to the noble and the trading and manufacturing classes, was the reason behind the unique building development of that period.

Often the houses of Bologna's rich and powerful were built around private courtyards, where also other dwellings of the different branches of the same lineage were located (F. Bocchi). A tower was then built to protect the housing compound, which resembled a walled-in island. The so-called "consorterie" - grouping - were then established, different families associated together in order to maintain their prestige and power. At that time houses were modest-looking with straw and wattle roofs, and wooden beam structures, which caught fire easily, and therefore dangerous for families dwelling in them. The noble families, with very relevant financial resources, could overcome these drawbacks by having their house-towers built (C. De Angelis - P. Nannelli). These towers, fully fit to house people, were different from the other ones with a solely military function, as their walls were not as thick and they had a rectangular base, instead of a square one, although still fortified and fit for defence and attack in case of clashes with rival factions. Towers could pose a serious threat to public safety as, during battles, from the above "galleries circling the outside of these menacing buildings", stones could be hurled by special war machines, as well as arrows from bows, and spears, but also scalding oil, pitch and boiling water (G. Rivani).

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, with changing political circumstances, a period of decadence came about and the towers progressively disappeared from Bologna's urban skyline for several reasons: collapse, razing of dangerous dilapidated towers, earthquake, lightning, structural changes due to different use, inclusion in new buildings hiding them almost totally.

Some have survived although displaying clear signs of the ravages of time; others instead are almost in their pristine condition, like the Asinelli (98 m-tall and a gradient of 2.23 m) and Garisenda towers (48 m-tall and a gradient of 3.22 m) - the latter one, "cut-off" in the upper portion for safety reason - which have become the symbols of the town. Both are located in Porta Ravegnana square, strategic hub of urban topography, as it is there that seven streets do converge. Other three towers (Artenisi, Guidozagni, Riccadonna) used to be standing beside the two surviving ones; unfortunately they were razed in 1917-1918 when the central street of Mercato di Mezzo (now via Rizzoli), corresponding to the "Decumanus maximus", one of the most important town's arteries, was widened. In application of the 1889 Town Plan, whose goals consisted in opening new roads and widening some of the main arteries of the town, some demolition work was recklessly carried out, destroying the old building heritage, and eliminating even important traces of what remained of Medieval culture and history.

In 1914 Gualtiero Pontoni, the famous Bolognese architect, was asked to present a final solution for the problem of widening via Rizzoli. A lively debate soon developed between the promoters of yet another demolition of buildings in order to create a new centre next to the two towers, and supporters of the conservation of the existing towers in Ravegnana square. Despite the strong opposition of national intelligentsia, Pontoni's solution, in favour of destroying the three towers in order to raise new buildings in their stead, was adopted by the town authorities in 1927.


Photograph of an original water colour attributable to Gualtiero Pontoni, early 20th century. The image reproduced the layout of Ravegnana square before the demolition of several towers in 1917-1918 (ASCBo, Carteggio amministrativo, Miscellanea, 1911-1925, Photo: MV).
Crayon drawing by Gualtiero Pontoni, 1914. Sketch for the enlargement of via del Mercato di Mezzo (now via Rizzoli) envisaging the demolition of several towers standing in the area (ASCBo, Carteggio amministrativo, Miscellanea, 1911-1925, Photo: MV).