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Ever since the Middle Ages, a great number of tall stone towers have defined the skyline of Bologna. Two of these impressive structures immediately catch the eye: the 97-metre-high Tower of Asinelli and its little brother, Garisenda, at only 47 metres. These ‘Due Torri’ are leaning dangerously towards one another and are a famous landmark in Bologna.
These towers were once the status symbol of rich families: the higher the tower, the more money was spent building it. In the Middle Ages, the city boasted more than 100 towers, a spectacular sight to be sure. Today, only 21 of these towers still stand, having survived the elements, wars, earthquakes and fires of the past few centuries. A climb to the top of the Tower of Asinelli is highly recommended, but the 498 steps are not for the faint-hearted. Once at the top, the effort is rewarded with the most spectacular views across the red roofs of Bologna.
The towers of Bologna were built in the 12th and 13th centuries and are named after the families who financed them. Building these towers were costly projects and construction could take up to 10 years. The fact that the ‘Due Torri’ differ by 50 metres in height could mean that the Garisenda family was less affluent than the Asinelli family. At any rate, the Garisendas did not invest enough in a solid foundation and the tower, originally 60 metres in height, has sunk considerably over the centuries and leans about 3 metres towards the south. Part of the unstable tower was removed back in 1360 for fear it would collapse. The Tower of Asinelli was built between 1109 and 1119, probably commissioned by the noble knight Gherardo Asinelli, who lived next to the tower. Craftsmen now sell their handicrafts at the bottom of the tower, which was originally a stronghold to house the soldiers of the watch.
According to the locals, the Tower of Asinelli was not actually built by Gherardo Asinelli. A much more romantic legend tells of a young man who one day sees a beautiful girl as he is transporting bags of gravel by donkey (‘asinelli’ is Italian for ‘little donkeys’). Smitten, he asks her father, a rich nobleman, for her hand. The father bursts out laughing and says: “Only if you build the highest tower in all Bologna!” Shortly after that, the young man finds a wealth of golden coins which he uses to finance the construction of the tallest tower in the city. The Tower of Asinelli is then used as the dowry for his marriage to the girl, and it continues to be a long-standing symbol of all-conquering love.
“A rich nobleman will only give his daughter’s hand to the young man if he builds the tallest tower in Bologna”