In northern and central Italy, travelers are often struck by the spindly towers constructed in medieval times, many around the 13th century. In cities like San Gimignano, it might, from a distance, look very much like a modern vertical city space, as if you'd spotted a misplaced and ethereal Manhattan.
The History of Medieval Towers in Italy
After attempts by Franks, Goths, and Lombards to conquer and unify post-Roman Italy, the collapse of state power and relative peace from outside invasion in the 10th through the 14th century saw a doubling of the Italian population and a great expansion of both city size and merchant capitalism.
The communes were associations of men who collectively held public authority and ruled and administered their cities; a few elite families could control a city. But by the end of the 12th century, competitive rivalries between families started to turn deadly, and it became common to build defensive towers as fortresses and lookout spots as members of the aristocracy retreated into the safety of their clans.
The towers stood as a symbol of a clan's power and influence, the higher the tower the more influential a clan was, but they also served as safe havens and lookout spots for a nervous aristocracy. The popular communes divided cities into administrative districts, and some of these have remained to this day. You will see this, for example, in Siena, where members of various contrade, Italian districts, race for the Palio.
What to Expect
The long period of independence of the Italian cities and regions gives each a unique character. Traveling through Italy is like burrowing through a complex layered cake of historical artifacts bound together by a fierce adherence to local traditions.
The food of Italy, for example, is not Italian, it's regional, as are many of the architectural traditions and festivals. It's a delicious combination that delights the senses at every turn. Bring a fork and a camera.
Medieval Towers You Can Visit
You'll see towers in the Centro Storico of many Italian cities. The city most noted for its towers is San Gimignano, where 14 of its original 72 towers survive.
Perhaps the best-known tower you'll see is in Torre degli Asinelli in Bologna, which stretches 97.20 meters into the sky and leans by two meters. It shares space in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore with La Torre della Garisenda at 48.16 meters.