- The Premier Italian American Newspaper Since 1931 -

Stories of the Medieval Past Revealed in the Leaning Towers of Italy

The towers that surrounded Italy’s fortified cities and towns are a remnant of the medieval days of city states and although many remain, most have been lost to antiquity. Italy’s towers are still part of the country’s charm, yet comparatively few remain. The 13th century Tuscan hilltop town of San Gimignano is perhaps the best representation of how a town appeared in the centuries of long ago. Its 17 towers may seem short in a modern sense of scale, but in the 13th century, the 175 foot height of its towers would have appeared to almost touch the sky. Additionally, its 75 towers rising well over one hundred feet in height would have given pause to any would be attackers.

The most famous tower in Italy is located less than 50 miles away from San Gimignano. The beautiful white campanile in Pisa is less known for its design than it is for its lean. Strengthened to help resist gravity’s unrelenting urge to topple the structure, the bell tower remains intact and is a huge draw for visitors. Although the most well-known, Pisa’s famous tower is by no means the only leaning tower in the city and its two other listing wonders are often overlooked.

The second most famous tower in Pisa is the Campanile di San Nicola. It was constructed near the end of the 12th century, at about the same time that groundbreaking began for the infinitely more famous leaning tower. It is believed that the architect Diotisalvi designed both towers. The eight-sided bell tower also leans, but its tilt is far less pronounced and its base is below the current street level. If visiting Pisa, make sure to visit San Nicola and stand back a bit. You will be able to notice the tower’s particular off-centered stance.

Nearby is the tower of San Michele degli Scalzi, which also displays a drunkard’s stance. Built on the silty soil of the Arno River floodplain, the tower has maintained its degree of lean over the centuries without any structural intervention, although the 11th century Romanesque-style structure has been restored several times.

The ground in Venice is not terribly stable, especially when it comes to building bell towers. The city has no less than five campaniles that lean. The bell tower of San Pietro di Castello is one of the most beautiful in the city, but it is also the one that has the most pronounced tilt. It was the first Renaissance bell tower in Venice, built in 1463-64 and was the third one built for this ancient church. The first tower, built in 774, collapsed after a fire in 1120. The second was destroyed in a storm in 1442. And even the current tower has undergone repairs several times after being hit by lightning and damaged in storms. This tower is completely clad in slabs of Istrian stone and it is the weight of those slabs that causes it to lean.

The tower of Santo Stefano is Venice’s second highest bell tower. Its unsettling stance places its peak at about seven feet off center.  Originally constructed in the mid-16th century, the tower was stuck by lightning in 1585. The energy of the strike not only caused the collapse of the tower, it melted the campanile’s bells. The revised structure stood un-imperiled for three centuries, until an earthquake in 1902 resulted in the out-of-alignment posture of this tower.

Not far from the Bridge of Sighs, one can view the tilting Campanile di San Giorgio dei Greci. Built in the late 1500s, it was the first Greek Orthodox church permitted in Venice. Even though a lean was perceptible during its building, the founders steadfastly refused to abandon its construction. It has remained intact, but off-centered ever since.

On Venice’s island of Burano sits San Martino church and its leaning bell tower. The campanile, like the church, are the work of Andrea Tirali. The tower was built at the beginning of the 18th century and began to tilt shortly after completion.

So what of the most famous tower of Venice – the campanile of St. Mark’s Square? The unstable soil and corrosive salt water wreaked havoc on its wooden foundation, which caused the landmark to collapse 116 years ago. Fully rebuilt, the tower began to show signs of instability and was successfully fortified in 2008.

Not far from Venice is the coastal town of Caorle and another Santo Stefano with a leaning campanile. In this case, it is a conical tower and the oldest of its type. Completed in 1070, the tower also served as a lighthouse. The tower began to tilt 100 years ago for reasons unknown.

The city of Bologna once was defended by almost 200 towers. It still has 20 that remain, but the most well-known are its two leaning towers in the city’s center. The taller of the two, Asinelli, looms at a lofty 318 feet, while Garisenda is only half the height, but leans at a steeper angle. Since the towers are in close proximity, from the right angle, they look as if each is leaning over to embrace its towering sibling. Fear not, the towers are fortified with scaffolding on the interior and now safe for visitors to climb to the top for a spectacular view.