I used to have a beautiful photograph of the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano (I think by Andrea Rontini) bathed in the golden hour light of the setting sun. Sadly in “the great divide” my ex won that particular toss of the coin and the image of a town known as the “Medieval Manhattan” because of its multitude of towers that sprang up in a kind of one-upmanship. (When the town imposed a height limit to curb this, one family then built two!)
Bologna has its own claim to being New York’s twin however. The skyline of the old city is dominated by a tower both taller and more slender than those of San Gimignano. Get closer to it and you’ll see that it has a partner, a squatter and somewhat stunted neighbour.
The city once sported 180 such towers, but now only about twenty remain and none so notorious as these two. Their proximity to one another is one factor in their favour, their location at the junction of five of the main routes of the walled city is another, yet they are emblematic of the city for another reason. They both lean.
Torre Asinelli is the taller, and much straighter of the two, but having ascended the 498 worn wooden steps to the top it would definitely benefit from some right angles. It’s diminutive neighbour, Torre Garisenda, leans at an altogether more precarious angle, which when combined with the diagonals of Asinelli creates a disturbing visual effect.
Built in the early 12th Century both towers began to list shortly afterwards, with Garisenda quickly assuming it’s present stoop, inspiring Dante’s description
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…
- Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140
Originally 60m in height, it was shorn of 20% of its stature in the 14th Century as a result of safety concerns. How much greater must the contrast of the two sets of angles seemed before that?
I have seen artists impressions of the city bristling with 180 similarly tall structures, yet surely this can’t have been the case. The rivals that remain around the city lack the same impact, but there is another clue that suggests these two were always the dominant pair.
It was customary in religious paintings for the city’s patron saint to be portrayed holding Bologna safely in his hands. In all of these the two towers stand proud, almost as an early form of trademarking.
Perhaps they feared completion for the tourist market from Pisa!