One of the books on my shelf that I enjoy re-reading is Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail, by Matthys Levy, Mario Salvadori, and Kevin Woest. It appeals to my engineer’s sensibility but it is quite accessible for non-engineers. For those interested, it spans a wide range of times and types of failures up to its date of publication in 1994.
There’s a section in the book on the collapse in 1989 of the Civic tower, one of the Medieval towers in Pavia. The cause was ultimately old age accelerated, probably, by a slow chemical reaction between the medieval and more modern mortars used in the stonework. However, from a fantasy author’s perspective, the thing that caught my eye was the reminder that Pavia, for a time, was known as the “City of a Hundred Towers.”
Pavia has a very long history going back to pre-Roman times and includes a stint as the capital of the Lombard kingdom (from 568 to 774 CE) and the university of Pavia which might be mentioned as long ago as 825 CE. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, northern Italy was a dangerous place with city-states constantly at war and French and German kings making frequent forays into the area. It is also a fairly compact space with city-states not that far apart. As a consequence, the cities began to build look-out towers to keep an eye out for armies from hostile neighbors.
The first towers were communal towers, as was the collapsed Civic tower and the famous leaning tower of Pisa (which is one of the very few round ones- most were square). But soon important families began to build their own, first as small, personal lookout towers, and eventually as status symbols. Of course, once they attained the latter purpose, it was all about size (you know men and their preoccupations). Pavia, in particular, was a place with many families and many factions. Though only four remain standing today (plus the stumps of many others), it was said to have had over a hundred towers at the peak.
The Italian towers ranged from 130 to 360 feet high with a width of only 15 to 29 feet. This results in aspect ratios (height to width) much greater than you’ll find in modern skyscrapers. With towers so narrow, they served no purpose other than to be tall: there was no room for much in the way of internal structures. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect most didn’t even have stairs because the Pavia Civic tower was partially weakened when a belfry was added and a stairwell was excavated into the tower walls (which implies it only had a ladder before then or maybe just a narrow wooden stair?). The leaning tower of Pizza does have a stairway (and is one of the tallest of them at 321 feet) but it is also one of the exceptional ones starting with its beautiful exterior (for those interested in why it leans, there’s a section in the book on this as well). The towers were not terribly sophisticated: construction was a skin of one or two courses of bricks with a mortar and rubble fill. From the picture at top, you can see the towers are rather plain with almost no features until the top.
In the fantasy setting, one could certainly use a proliferation of towers as a backdrop in a city, something one of the heroes notices in passing before moving on to some place else. But imagine a novel with a city of a hundred (or, hey, with our magic author wand, a thousand) towers, and not just, simple status-symbol towers, towers meant to be lived in. These would then be “vertical” palaces, with many hundreds of rooms. In a fantasy setting, there might be magical elevators and provision for water and waste. There might be noble daughters, cloistered in the towers who never leave until they marry and others who might spent most of their life in a single tower. It’s a setting that has fascinated me, although so far it has only inspired a few D&D campaign settings (and there, the spires were spread out over the country-side as refuges against invaders).
These medieval towers were built to inspire awe but lest we get smug about it, skyscrapers are still built for that reason. Taking a page from medieval Pavia, maybe they can add a touch of awe to your fantasy projects as well.
- Pavia Pictures from About.com