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An Exploration of Verticality: The Towers of San Gimignano, Italy

Six centuries before the creation of the modern vertical landscapes that characterize cities like Manhattan, a city scheme of a similar form, although of a different scale and social background, grew in towns of northern Italy: The urban landscape of the medieval towers.

The construction of towers started in the late twelfth Century. They not only served as residences for elite families, but also symbolized the rivalry for power between them; the taller the tower, the more powerful the family. The rivalries also caused the division of the cities into sections, with one or more towers in the middle as the administrative and symbolic center of each section. They could be better described as fortresses, where each clan could find a shelter from the constant fights, and organize their defense.

One of the only well-preserved examples of this form is San Gimignano, fifty-six kilometers south of Florence. It is a town of Etruscan-Roman origin, that owes its importance mainly to its vicinity to the Via Francigena, an important road that connected Rome to other European cities. Therefore, it was developed as a station for the pilgrims, and the commercial activity brought prosperity to many families, also allowing the construction of interesting architectural elements. The small town is a perfect model for the civilization of the Middle Ages, as it presents all structures typical of the urban life of the era.

The central square of San Gimignano, Italy

The central square of San Gimignano

The wealth, not organized and distributed by a central power, brought as a consequence the rivalries described above, and the elevation of the towers. Originally in San Gimignano, there were seventy-two towers, some as high as fifty meters. Though the buildings were so tall and thin, they often collapsed due to the lack of engineering expertise.

This intense period for the city ended suddenly with the plague of 1348 that wiped out the population and weakened the economy, leading to its submission under Florentine rule. However, the fourteen towers that still survive today can paint a picture of the feudal atmosphere to the visitor. In fact, one could easily claim that the town still owes its prosperity to the special tower architecture, as the level of tourism is high all seasons. It attracts mainly quiet visitors and artists that wish to profit from the landscape and the medieval scenery.

An artist in San Gimignano, Italy, taking advantage of the scenery.

An artist in San Gimignano

The vertical architecture is getting more and more necessary nowadays due to population growth and expansion of the city. However, the constant rivalry for the tallest building is still alive, in a more global and symbolic realm. The opportunity to look at the world from a highest level than the others will never stop to challenge human nature.

What are your thoughts on the matter of vertical urban landscapes, both in the Medieval period and in our times?

Credits: Photos by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources