Erected from the 12th century onwards by elite families to fortify territory and signify status, these ubiquitous Italian structures were the precursors of today's urban skyscrapers
Italy is almost unique in the mediaeval Mediterranean in the way its urban life was, to quote from Stephen P Bensch's 2002 book Barcelona & its Rulers,1096-1291, 'dominated by tall towers, long knives and short tempers'.
So ubiquitous was Italian tower building that it became synonymous in the mediaeval Italian mind with the city itself, characterised both in the art of the mid 12th century onwards, but also in literature, such Dante’s Inferno: 'I seemed to make out many high towers; then I asked him: “Master, tell me, what’s this city?”'.
To some extent this is not an alien mindset today. Many of the world’s most noted global cities - London, Shanghai, New York - are marked with clusters of towers. Much like the 12th century, there is still implicit competition - to use the most famous architect, to have the quirkiest shape, to be the tallest.
Medieval Italian towers, though, began as the fortification of the homes of the elite. By the 12th century the nobles of a politically turbulent Rome were living in fortified and defensible compounds. These towers would dominate Roman urbanism and remain the symbol of the social elite well into the 15th century.
In their search for sociopolitical control over a neighbourhood these dominant families would lease land surrounding their compounds to tenants loyal to their interests; creating buffer zones within the city. The towers, as the geographical marker of the dominant family, became the point around which the social life of the district increasingly gravitated, further extending the family’s perceived urban territory and their control over the actions of the city. Almost literally the district begins to operate under the shadow of its towers.
Then, as now, the architectural symbols of the elite were designed to impose an implicit control over the city and its spaces. There is not too great a conceptual leap between the control exercised by these towers, and by the ubiquitously watching eyes of CCTV cameras over privately owned but publicly accessible squares and parks in British cities today.
Militaristic violence, or the theatre of violence, was a strategic act in mediaeval urban politics. This is aptly demonstrated by an account in the Deeds of Innocent III describing a conflict that began over a tower. Taking advantage of confusion arising from the re-election of the Senate, John Cappoci began to build a tower next to his house in Rome. In order to prevent Cappoci’s tower, the Pope’s brother funded the construction of rival wooden towers. The chronicle recounts how they fortified the baths and the churches, set fire to houses and how soldiers, retainers and servants all became engaged in the conflict. The violence spiralled, pulling in other elite families, eventually fizzling to a stop only when finances began to fail for both sides and an uneasy peace had to be reached.
The account, aside from offering a glimpse into the violent and confusing web of alliances and networks of 13th century Rome, demonstrates just how weaponised and symbolically loaded the urban fabric of the city had become. The very act of beginning to build a tower catalysed a conflict that involved the building and demolition of towers and homes, the weaponisation of churches and the utilisation of ancient monuments for strategic military advantage. Tower building is both the catalyst for, and a crucial weapon in, urban conflict.
Towers were a sign of a militarised elite, but they were also a sign that one was sufficiently well resourced to be able to play a role in the theatre of public city life. The act of beginning to build became a recognised symbol of the achievement of a newly raised social status (hence Capocci’s rival’s rage). Indeed so linked in the popular mind did towers become with social standing and status that they were increasingly built by the upwardly mobile of the day purely as a symbol. Those unable to build their own tower are even documented in some cities as having clubbed together with friends to build a tower as a group or to make a normal house look a bit more like a tower with a turret.
While urban conflict today is less explicitly militarised, it only takes a brief glance at the furore around the redevelopment proposals at Liverpool Street Station in London to see that an unashamed power play with a tall building still creates an emotive and visceral reaction. Such a proposal elicits a response not only to the building, but to the power such a project implies. The influence of such buildings continues to reach longer than their shadows.
In medieval Italy this acted both ways however. When powerful citizens had broken the law, destruction of their property was seen as a legitimate, and personally shaming, punishment. There was ceremony organised around this destruction, making it a deliberately performative public spectacle. So ubiquitous did this aspect of city life become that some cities struggled to meet the costs of pulling down the towers of traitors. Measures were taken to ensure the cost of pulling down the buildings and disposing of the materials was met by the building’s owner, not the city. Such acts were even recognised internationally with contemporaneous English author Matthew Parris reporting that 140 towers were pulled down in Rome in 1257 alone. To be de-towered was to be disarmed and, in a society where theatrical and symbolic displays of militarism were linked to social mobility, this was a particularly potent punishment.
We do not de-tower today, but tall buildings have not lost their power. Cities need the rich and powerful to want to live and work in them. The money from these individuals and corporations pays for development, for jobs, for better run public spaces than stretched councils can afford and for architects' salaries. Within this however we should not lose sight of who we are allowing to fund the comforts of urban life and how they are shaping us and our cities. Rome’s towers are all but gone now, but the urban territories that were formed by its warring families still set the street pattern we walk down today.
Eleanor Jolliffe is author with Paul Crosby of Architect: The evolving story of a profession, 256pp, RIBA Publishing, £32.