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text Rossella Battista photo Ottavia Poli

October 16, 2023

The towers in Florence

An itinerary to discover the history of these medieval "skyscrapers" commissioned by Florentine families

One solid, impregnable wall. This is probably the impression that Florence made in the early 1200s, with its 150 towers rising even over 70 meters above the circle of walls. Each one close to the other, because the space was very little. And going up and down the stairs was very tiring. However, living in the city was a privilege, for the privileged few. The city was the place where business was conducted and making money rewarded for the hard work. The tower houses were provided with shared toilets, a well, an oven, workshops on the ground floor and kitchens on the last one to prevent irreparable damages in case of fire. And although the disputes between envious rivals were ongoing, because cohabitation between merchants and aristocrats was difficult and these fights often ended with the destruction of the rival’s tower, this was one of the city’s most fruitful periods: Florence was becoming rich and powerful.

In the meantime, however, people barricaded themselves inside fortified islands. In the tower society, relatives, friends, allies and associates lived side by side. That is how the first great palazzos came to be, but for the time being each island had its shared tower. With no entrance from the street, the tower was accessible only through scaffolding, stairs and running balconies. It was the shelter in case of riots. The mighty Torre dei Consorti (5 Lungarno Acciaioli ) gave, in fact, shelter to 18 families. Today it is incorporated in the Hotel Continentale and houses elegant rooms.

The view on Ponte Vecchio from the Torre dei Consorti part today of the Hotel Continentale

A destiny it shares with Florence’s oldest tower, Pagliazza (Piazza Santa Elisabetta), the city’s only rounded and Byzantine one which, in the Middle Ages, was used as a women’s prison. Today, the tower, in place of uncomfortable straw beds, offers the comfort of the Brunelleschi Hotel’s beautiful rooms.

Torre della Pagliazza

No changes have been made to the nearby Torre della Castagna (PiazzaSan Martino) which, at the time of Dante, was used by the priors, the government’s ministers, to take major decisions. The term ballottaggio (ballot), which is now used all over the world, was born here: the priors voted by putting boiled chestnuts, called ballotte in Florence, in a bag.

Torre della Castagna

Also the Torre della Volognona (Via del Proconsolo) rises in all its magnificence. In the mid-1200s, the Florentine Republic used it to build the first public building, the Bargello, which was the home of the Captain of the People and of his army. The bell rang to muster the troops, but also to celebrate Florence’s liberation at the dawn of August 11, 1944.

In the mid-1200s, the Florentine Republic used the Torre della Volognona to build the first public building, the Bargello

The war left the area around Ponte Vecchio devastated, with a few fortuitous exceptions, such as the Torre degli Amidei (9 Via Por Santa Maria). With its Etruscan leonine heads, the façade is the symbol of the fights between Guelphs and Ghibellines. It is said, in fact, that the scion of the Guelph Buondelmonte family, who owned towers on Borgo Santi Apostoli, was about to marry a member of the Ghibelline family Amedei when he fell in love with a girl from the Donati family.

Torre degli Amidei

An insult that he paid for with his life and the city with a ten-year-long war won eventually by the Guelphs. The Florentines, nonetheless, were able to split into factions again. At the time of Dante, the conflict was between the White Guelphs, who supported the Emperor, and the Black Guelphs who sided with the Pope. The White Guelphs were led by Vieri dei Cerchi, a family of powerful merchants owning towers between Via dei Cerchi and Piazza dei Cimatori and, mostly, in Canto alla Quarconia, whereas at the head of the Blacks was Corso Donati, a family of ancient lineage with towers from Via del Corso to Piazza San Pier Maggiore where his last home still rises in all its beauty. Charged with murder, he was killed while attempting to escape. They had both been heroes in the Battle of Campaldino where the young Dante made his debut. And although they had given priors and gonfaloniers to the Republic, the Baldovinettis (4 Borgo Santi Apostoli),the owners of some among the few towers left untouched by the war and recognizable by the elegant Gothic-style main entrance with double arched lintel, are remembered mostly for one of their members, Alessio, the artist and teacher of Ghirlandaio. The Ghibelline Alberti family (Via dei Benci-Borgo Santa Croce) would be dogged by ill luck. Magnates and supporters of the Ciompis, they were exiled in 1378 and, in fact, the famous Leon Battista was born in Genoa. The wealthy Compiobbesis (1 Via dell’Arte della Lana ), landowners who also controlled the nearby Orsanmichele, were unlucky too.

Torre dei Compiobbesi

Their dynasty ended in 1400s, but in the 1300s their tower, nearly a palazzo by the time, became the headquarters of Florence’s Wool Guild. Instead, the Gianfigliazzi family (Piazza Santa Trinita), who fell into disgrace in the late 1300s, were able to recover and regain favour in the 1400s. Their tower too, lower and larger with a loggia on the ground floor, was converted into a house.

Torre dei Gianfigliazzi

And although they had built a chapel in the adjoining Church of Santa Trinita and San Matteo Hospital (now the Accademia Gallery), Dante placed them in his Hell, among the usurers. It is said that the Mannellis (84r Via dei Bardi), Ghibellines at first and then trusted Guelphs, had the better of Cosimo I when Vasari, in 1565, designed the famous Corridor and was forced to build around the tower instead of tearing it down. Actually the narrowing of the corridor prevented ambushes: an armed man could not go through it.

In 1565, the Mannelli family refused to have its tower altered or demolished so that the Vasari Corridor could be built in a straight line

Instead, their neighbors, the Ubriachis (Via Guicciardini) got the worst of it: their tower was incorporated in the Corridor.

Torre degli Ubriachi

They left, however, their mark on the Church of Santa Maria Novella. It is on the nearby Borgo San Jacopo that the most typical towers are located, for they are the ones less damaged by the war and with foundations rooted in the Arno. One of the most characteristic towers is Cecco Angolieri’s at number 30.

Torre degli Angiolieri

At number 17 is the tower of the Guelph Marsili family, while the most picturesque one is the Belfredelli tower at number 9, with its façade covered in ivy and romantically overlooking the Arno river.

Torre dei Belfredelli

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