The towers of Asinelli and Garisenda are all that remains of the one hundred and eighty spires that crowned the city of Bologna during the Middle Ages. Wealthy Bolognese families built these towers to defend themselves amid the constant strife that characterized central Italian city life some 600 years after the sack of Rome. Bologna was claimed by the Pope and had no king or lord to govern it. In the absence of a state power and any kind of stable social order, the citizens of Bologna feuded with each other for control over the city. The towers probably began as strong stone insulas with battlements at the top where family guards would fling stones and arrows at enemies below. The towers likely grew with each successive generation to reflect the family’s comparative power and stature within the community. The towers of Bologna grew out of extraordinary ground: it was a place of great concentrated wealth but was also almost completely lawless.
Medieval Bologna must have looked incredible to visitors from abroad. The building of castles was outlawed everywhere else in the Holy Roman Empire, and what construction there was would have been in wood. Italy must have seemed distinctly urban, with stores and workshops and people living in multi-story buildings. Where most medieval Europeans lived beneath thatch roofs made from grasses and mud which they had themselves collected, Italian rain fell on clay shingles manufactured many towns away. The mason and artisan classes survived the fall of the empire and endured through the Dark Ages. Italians continued building cities, even when there were no resources available to reliably do so. Even today, most Italians live in high-rise apartment blocks. Rural farm workers have apartments in town and commute to their fields in the morning. Most of what we think of as urban life is an invention of medieval and renaissance Italy.