The skyline of Bologna with its distinctive towers - power symbols belonging to the richest families- was unmistakeable. It must have been like the Manhattan of the medieval ages! There were twin towers here too, only these have held up to centuries of war and become the symbol of the city.
They were strategically located at the point of entry to the city on the ancient Via Emilia. They used to be interconnected, with a walkway and suspended passageways running everywhere.
This is difficult to imagine today when the towers now appear completely separate from one another at the end of one of the city’s widest streets. In addition to displaying family prestige, the towers also served an important military function: defence. By the end of the 12th century, there were a hundred of them throughout the city.
This is truly an astonishing number when you consider that to build a 60 metre tower took anywhere from 3 to 10 years! Only about twenty of these impressive buildings have survived the fires, wars, and lighting strikes and remain standing today.
The most famous are the two towers, the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda at the intersection of the roads connecting to the five gates of the ancient city wall. The most curious feature is they are both leaning, but in opposite directions (though not to the same degree as the Leaning Tower of Pisa).
Torre degli Asinelli was built in the 11th century. Named after the family that commissioned it, it is over 97 metres, making it the tallest in Italy.
It is a 498 step climb up the interior stair to reach the top! Whoever has the courage to take this on will find themselves with the “Red City” at their feet. From here you can see Bologna Cathedral (Cattedrale of San Pietro), the Basilica of San Petronio, the ancient medieval streets criss-crossing the city, and off in the distance a picturesque view of the Bologna hills.
On really clear days you can see all the way to the foothills of the Alps in the Veneto. But this experience is off limits to University students who believe they won’t graduate if they do, at least the superstitious ones!
Scientists use the tower to conduct experiments about object motion and the earth’s rotation. More recently it has even been fitted with a Rai television repeater! During the Second World War, it was used as a watch tower; during bomb strikes, four volunteers were positioned at the top to observe where bombs hit so ambulances could be dispatched quickly.