Medieval Skyscrapers

During the 13th century, hundreds of years before the industrial revolution, and the successive construction of today’s skyscrapers, stone towers could be found throughout Europe. 

When one walks through the city center of several Italy’s cities, it’s possible to notice this type of structure.  An example of this tower typology is shown in this first photo below. An example of this tower typology is shown in this first photo below.

Found on the south side of the River Arno (the Oltrarno district of Florence) is the Torre dei Belfredelli, sec. XII

A precedent for the urban towers are the simple stand-alone stone towers found throughout Irish and English castles. An example below is the Gaelic Castle, Castlederg, County Clare, Ireland.

Gaelic Castle, Castlederg, County Clare, Ireland.
Similar to the Gaelic Castle, the plans above are from the Hedingham Castle, in the village of Castle Hedingham, Essex, England.

The floor plans of these castles were very thick at the base (typically 6+ feet) for structural reasons, with the common building materials being stone.

In the Middle Ages, Italy contained several small city-states, ruled by elite aristocratic families. The cities of Florence, Bologna and San Gimignano all gained their independence in the early medieval period, approximately 1100-1200 CE, and the construction of towers soon began throughout both cities, as the merchant elites sought to display their wealth and power within the confines of the already built-up city centers. These towers are also believed to have had defensive purposes, serving as vantage points or hide-outs during times of strife. The construction of these towers was generally rather haphazard, rather than following any kind of plan, towers rose according to the whims of the respective families.

As the wealth and power of Tuscan cities grew in the Middle Ages, it began to attract powerful families from outside the walls, and when they settled within the cities, they brought with them the defensive architecture that kept their enemies at bay in the countryside: walls, battlements, and towers. Effectively, they created private urban castles. Unfortunately, these families also brought with them the culture of the blood feud.  These feuds at times erupted into fighting, and once ignited, this factionalism spilled out into full-scale warfare between the power blocs of the various families, which drew cities across Italy into pitched battles. Out of three of the towns mentioned above, only San Gimignano and Bologna have retained at least some of their original medieval towers. San Gimignano has conserved 14 of the original 72 towers, while Bologna retains a handful of the purported 100+ towers that once controlled the town’s skyline. In the 13th Century, when Florence became a republic, all the towers were cropped to signify that the age of clans and civil wars was over. The Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (1280-1348) wrote in his history of Florence, Nuova Cronica, that in 1251 the city government decided “…all towers of Florence – and there were in big number with a height of 70 meters – to be cropped down to 29 meters or even less; the stones from the cropped towers were used to build houses in Oltrarno…”

Towers in Florence:

This illustration indicates where a majority of the medieval towers were located in the center of Florence.
An aerial photo of Florence today, with a number of the medieval towers in the city center highlighted in red.  As a point of reference, the bridge in the center is the Ponte Vecchio.

It’s easy to spot this building type if you know what to look for. The towers are typically made of rough stone, have a very narrow façade, and in addition, do not have a lot of windows. Especially at the lower levels where the walls can be up to 2 meters (over 6 feet) thick.

At the ground-level entrances it’s common to find massive arched entrances, with small, punched windows, as seen in the photo below.

Barbadori Tower built in 12th century by the Barbadori’s, a prominent merchant family.

Towers In Bologna:

A model of medieval Bologna showing the location of the towers.
Aerial view of towers in Bologna illustrated in red. The two towers in the center are Asinelli Tower on the left and the smaller Garisenda Tower on the right.
Asinelli Tower on the left and the smaller Garisenda Tower on the right.

Towers in San Gimignano:

Aerial view of San Gimignano.
Aerial view of towers in San Gimignano illustrated in red.

To understand just how high these towers were sometimes constructed, I’ve created a drawing to scale shown below.

On the left, the Empire State Building; center, the Duomo in Florence; right, a medieval tower approximately 100 meters high.

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