by Judith Anne Testa
Although greatly reduced in number and size over the centuries, Rome's remaining towers share a fascinating history.
When you stand atop the Janiculum Hill and look at the panorama of Rome spread out below, you'll see the domes and belfries of the city's hundreds of churches, but no matter how hard you look, even using binoculars, you won't spot any tall towers of the type that punctuate the skyline of San Gimignano. And yet, at one time Rome had over three* hundred* towers, more than four times the number San Gimignano ever boasted. Although most of them have disappeared, several dozen still remain embedded in Rome's urban fabric, along with others recalled only in street names. Finding them can be an interesting challenge. Towers by nature jut up aggressively above their neighbors and make their presence known, so why do Rome's surviving towers seem to hide themselves? The answer is that all of Rome's surviving towers have been partially knocked down or lopped off, either by earthquakes or due to human interventions, so they no longer "tower" above the buildings that surround them.
Most of Rome's towers are products of the chaotic medieval centuries, when the Eternal City often seemed on the brink of anarchy. What little effective government the city had was in the hands of the papacy, but even that sacred office was fought over by gangs of armed men representing the city's perpetually warring noble families, each of whom had a candidate determined to be the next occupant of the Chair of Peter. The list of medieval popes, even up into the 1400s, reveals the names of "anti-popes" elected by rival family factions within Rome.
There wasn't much of anything noble about the behavior of those aristocratic Roman families who fought one another savagely, often street to street, in an effort to gain control of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the stronghold where each family had established itself. Their towers were mostly defensive in nature and served practical purposes, but they also stood as symbols of aristocratic privilege. The taller the tower, the loftier the position (or ambition) of the family that built it. By the mid-1400s the papacy had grown strong enough to quell some of the power of these turbulent families, and Pope Julius II (1503-13), a warrior himself, used his own troops to whip the warring clans into reluctant submission to papal rule. The end of Roman tower building coincided with the end of the inter-familial warfare that had scarred the city for so many centuries. In viewing the remaining towers, it's amazing to think about the Rome of a 1,000 years ago, when the city was an enormous armed camp, bristling with towers and full of fighting families.
There's no practical way to make a systematic tour of Rome's towers, as the surviving ones are widely scattered, but it might be interesting for visitors to Rome to know where the major ones are located. That way, if you happen to be in the vicinity of one or more of them, you'll know where to look. So here they are, in alphabetical rather than topographical order.
The TORRE ANGUILLARA is the only tower remaining in the Trastevere neighborhood, and it's an easy one to spot, since it's just south of the area's most familiar landmark: the white marble statue of the dialect poet Gioacchino Belli, depicted in a frock coat and tall top hat, at the beginning of Viale di Trastevere. Facing the statue of Belli, look to your right and you'll see a dingy-looking brick building that incorporates a stubby tower. That's the Torre Anguillara, built in the 1200s by the family of that name as a defensive outpost overlooking the Tiber River. (This was some 800 years before the construction of the Lungotevere, the nearby modern roadway that runs along the Tiber.) The tower was rebuilt in the mid-1400s, and underwent a heavy-handed restoration around 1900, at the time Viale di Trastevere was laid out. In 1914 the building and its tower became the Casa di Dante, theoretically a center for the study of that poet's works, but it's never open and contrary to what the name implies, Dante never lived there.
If you've spent time in downtown Rome you've probably tramped through Largo di TORRE ARGENTINA, a large open area where the end of the Number 8 tram line and a large number of bus stops are located. When you look across the street, you see a sunken area full of ancient Roman ruins, and on the surface at the south end, a small tower. It would be logical to conclude that this must be the Torre Argentina mentioned in the area's name, but it's not. In the Middle Ages the tower you see above the ruins belonged to the Papareschi family, and so it's called the TORRE PAPITA. So where is* the real Torre Argentina? That tower was part of a house built for a 15th-century German bishop, Burckhard of Strassbourg. The Latin name for his diocese was Argentoratum, from which the word Argentina derives -- the name has nothing to do with the South American country. And just to make things even more confusing, the bishop's tower is invisible. It was long ago cut down and, along with the residence itself, totally absorbed within the confines of later buildings on the nearby Via del Sudario.
The TORRE BORGIA can be seen during a visit to the Church of S. Pietro in Vincoli, site of Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses. While standing on the steps of the church, with the sanctuary at your back, look to the right. The tower is incorporated into a group of formerly monastic buildings attached to the Church of S. Francesco di Paola, built in the 1600s on the site of the gardens of the adjoining palazzo. That palazzo, to which the tower is attached, belonged to Vanozza Cattanei, a favorite mistress of the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI (1492-1503), and mother of four of his numerous illegitimate children. Even though the pope did not live there, he often visited Vanessa at her home, and as a result, both the towered palazzo and the steep staircase street that leads up to it became associated with Alexander -- hence the older name of the street, Salita de' Borgia (now called Via di S. Francesco di Paola), and the continued identification of the tower as the Torre Borgia.
The TORRE COLONNA once belonged to one of the most powerful noble families of medieval Rome. Constructed in the 1100s, it's the only one remaining of several towers that formed the defensive system of the Colonna, who controlled a vast swathe of territory in this neighborhood. Their family residence, the enormous, rambling Palazzo Colonna, is not far away; the entrance is on Via della Pilotta. The tower is located at the corner of Via Quattro Novembre and Via delle Tre Canelle, close to the Markets of Trajan, and is decorated near its base with ancient Roman relief sculptures as well as the Colonna family symbols: a column and a mermaid.
Among the most impressive of Rome's towers, and one of the easiest to find, is the TORRE DE' CONTI. Its massive remains stand in Largo Corrado Ricci, at the corner of the modern Via dei Fori Imperiali, where Via Cavour begins. The tower was begun in 1198 by Riccardo de' Conti, the brother of Pope Innocent III, and completed by the pope himself in 1203, as part of a family fortification like that of the Colonna. But Innocent had another motive besides family security for continuing work on the tower: it provided a place from which the Conti militia could police the papal processions on their way from the Vatican to the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. In those dangerous times even a pope found his own family the most reliable source of protection. Tall as the tower still appears, what we see today is little more than the base. The top of the tower fell during an earthquake in 1348, and still more of it collapsed in the 1600s.
Another clearly visible although rather pathetic-looking little tower stands at the east end of the Circus Maximus. Built in the early 1200s and called the TORRE FRANGIPANI, this is all that remains of another of Rome's great family fortresses, this one belonging to the powerful Frangipani clan, who also controlled the Colosseum -- they turned that immense monument into their family castle.
Not far from the Torre de' Conti, described above, stands the tallest of all Rome's towers, the TORRE DELLE MILIZIE, or Military Tower, which looms up behind the Markets of Trajan. This too was built by a member of the Conti family, Pope Gregory IX, in the 1220s, as part of the Conti's system of fortifications. Its unusual height made it a very desirable piece of military property, and it changed hands a number of times. It belonged to the Annibaldi and then to the Caetani family (two more of Rome's clans of battling barons) before coming back into the possession of the Conti in the 1500s. In the 1600s, it lost its warlike function and became part of a convent. Taken over by the Italian state in the early 20th century, it's now annexed to the adjoining Markets of Trajan.
So far, Rome's towers sound like a pretty grim bunch-- brick and stone bullies lording it over various neighborhoods in the name of the families that built them, with no associations beyond bloody street battles. But there's one tower that has a charming local legend attached to it: the TORRE DELLA SCIMMIA, or Monkey Tower, which also happens to be located in one of the most picturesque corners of Rome. If you look down Via dei Portoghese from where it intersects Via della Scrofa, you'll see the tower rising from a tangle of colorful, intriguing-looking old buildings from various periods. This tower was originally part of another Frangipani fortress, now long vanished. Perhaps the tower was preserved because of the legend attached to it.
According to the old story, a couple living in one of the buildings adjacent to the tower had a pet monkey, and one day the monkey scampered to the top of the tower carrying the family's baby. The father was summoned home, where he found his wife in hysterics and a crowd of neighbors milling about in the street, praying to the Virgin for the safety of the child. Uttering his own prayer to Mary, he whistled for the monkey, which then climbed back down and deposited the uninjured baby inside the house. As a thanks offering to the Virgin, the father had a little shrine built at the top of the tower, and vowed to keep a lamp burning there perpetually. Now powered by electricity, there's still a lamp atop the tower. Although I've never ventured there after dark, I've heard that you can still see it, casting its tiny glow into the shadows of the Roman night.