The Laurel and Hardy of Leaning Towers
Beautiful Piazza Porta Ravegnana was the site of the main gate in Bologna's original, Roman-era walls, and since the Middle Ages it has been the home of the city’s most familiar landmark, a pair of lurching towers that, despite their venerable age and great height, never fail to raise a smile.
Rival families often contended to see which could build the tallest tower, and according to local legend the Due Torri were built in just such a competition, occurring c. 1109-1119 at the height of the city's tower-building frenzy. The winner, the svelte 97m (318ft) Torre degli Asinelli, is still the tallest building in Bologna.
The comune, struggling to establish some kind of law and order among the battling nobles, knocked down these towers whenever they were strong enough to get away with it. With the Asinelli the city fathers took a different approach: they simply purchased it, and turned it into a combination fortress and prison, a role it would play for centuries. The tower stood at the heart of what was then Bologna's market area, the place where riots and insurrections were most likely to break out—it was a handy reminder to the people to behave themselves. The crenellated base was added in 1480 as a guardhouse.
The Asinelli was originally at least 3m higher; it was probably the champ among such towers, although it’s only the fifth-highest building of old Italy (the tallest was Brunelleschi's dome atop Florence Cathedral, followed by Milan Cathedral, the campanile at Cremona, Siena's Palazzo Pubblico and Venice's Campanile of San Marco).
It tilts about 7ft out of true, though the 500 steps that lead to the top are more likely to make your head spin than the tilt. The view over Bologna is worth the trouble, however, and the 500 steps will be waiting whenever you feel you’re up to the challenge.
Its sidekick, the Torre della Garisenda, sways tipsily to the south, 10ft out of true; the Garisenda contingent failed to prepare a solid foundation and, when they saw their tower pitching precariously, gave up. In 1360 it became such a threat to public safety 12 metres were lopped off its top, leaving only a squat 48m (157ft) stump; inscribed on its base you can read what Dante wrote about it in the Inferno (see below). Like Pisa’s leaning tower, this one needs a lot of care and attention to keep it from tipping over and squashing a good bit of central Bologna; restoration is currently under way.
Between the towers, the statue of San Petronio watched over the old marketplace for centuries—until it was hauled away in the 1870's as an obstacle to traffic. The city only recently polished up the saint and put him back on his pedestal. In front of the towers, the Palazzo dei Drappieri (1486) is a fine example of the somewhat Florentine, Gothic-windowed style of palaces popular in the days of the Bentivoglio. And behind the towers, the fine dome and campanile belong to one of Bologna's more interesting Renaissance churches, SS. Bartolomeo e Gaetano.
Faulty Tower Tricks
Dante’s mention of the Garisenda Tower comes in Canto XXXI of the Inferno, when he and Virgil encounter the giant Antaeus frozen in ice at the bottom of Hell:
Qual pare a riguardar la Garisenda
Tal parve Anteo a me, che stava a bada
Sotto ‘l chinato, quando un nuvol vada Di vederlo chinare, e fu tal ora
Sovr’essa si, che ella incontro penda
Ch’i’ avrei voluto ir per altra strada.
(‘…like looking at the Garisenda, under the leaning side, when a cloud comes; so seemed Antaeus to me, about to fall – to see him leaning so, I wished I had taken another path.’)
Dante is referring to an illusion that every child in Bologna knows. If you stand underneath the leaning side of the tower when clouds are passing over it against the direction of the tilt, it seems to be falling over on top of you. Try it and see.
Piazza Porta Ravegnana
Hours Torre Asinelli only, open daily Apr-Sept 9-7pm; Oct, 9-6pm; Nov-Mar, 9-5pm)