Campanili of Venice

The campanili, the bell towers of Venice, are essential, unavoidable and dearly loved parts of the City’s history, culture, fabric and character.  They are both remarkable works of art and architecture and awesome “place markers” to assist orientation in the calle and from the lagoon, and to establish “the time of the place”. 

They mark time for the community, call uncounted thousands to worship in their adjacent churches, toll the appointed hours for prayer or work or rest, announced victories and deaths.  They were minded by generations of bell-ringers in the pre-electric mechanical operator age for generations of Venetians from the beginnings of the Republic, through its age of empire and its fall, and their work continues today. 

Each campanile’s individual designs remind you of the church to which each is related, the public Campo that each marks, the places and the people who you have found in them, the incredible art and intriguing history that you have explored.  After a while, the unique designs make every one readily identifiable across the City and from the Lagoon as easily as a relative spotted in a crowd. 

Each and every campanile also possesses its own version of the set of talents and abilities intrinsic to the species.  Several may choose to share those with you and, if you allow that such a possibility could emanate from an inanimate object, the experience will doubtlessly influence your life!

  • Robustness: 

Palm tree root balls, and the root systems of many large tree species without taproots, are surprisingly small and shallow.  The trees stand up (usually) to hurricane force winds with surprisingly low levels of loss.  They had a good Engineer (the Chief Engineer!).  When they do fail, it is often due to soft soil, undermining, or trunk shearing due to the chaotic non-rhythmic thrashing of their heavy heads rather than simple root support failure. 

Supported on hundreds of tree-trunk piles driven into the Lagoon bed of silt and mire, then preserved in the briny environment, the root system for a campanile lacks the structural linkage of trunk to roots one finds in a tree.  Mass and gravity rule! 

Of course, such dreams of steadfastness have consequences in the “real world”.  Establishment of a “reserve fund” for maintenance, repair and replacement (Campanile insurance?) is advised.

  • Flexibility:  

During my first year at The University of California, Berkeley, I learned about its landmark Campanile, Sather Tower, visible from the Golden Gate Bridge across the broad San Francisco Bay.  That tower is the 3rd tallest combination bell/clock tower in the world.  It was constructed in 1914, a close classmate of the current 1912 San Marco Campanile.  Like San Marco, Sather received maintenance repairs in 2009 (although San Marco‘s continues, involving extensive invasive foundation work).  At least as striking as its height and design was the extraordinary physical movement of the tower,  rotating many degrees on its axis as the heat of the sun expanded the stone skin first on one exposure, then another.  Similarly the great bending as the vertical solar heat gain expansion “grew” the stones. 

Wind load can be as determinative of structural integrity and adaptability to movement as most earthquakes, although with different dynamics at and above the ground than the transmission of seismic action.  A temblor tries to jerk the foundation out from under the tower at a factor of g-force in split seconds while the top of the tower has yet to respond, and the eventual complex pendulum response as the event continues and the tower works to “dampen” the force).  Wind and quake can make the bells ring!.  The thing was alive, it danced in the sun and its heart beat…

Yes, I know, Berkeley in the ’60’s… I’m OK now — Stay focused!

The campanili of Venice lack Cal’s structural steel frame.  Instead, except for the most modern few, they are built solely brick upon brick and stone upon stone!  The “structural tube” design concept of the campanile was rediscovered by SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) structural engineer Fazlur Khan (known as “The Einstein of Structural Engineering”) and use in the design of modern ultra-tall skyscrapers like the (former) Sears Tower in Chicago – except that tower is a bundle of flexing tubes firmly secured to the foundation, not the single spire resting on stone and wood like a campanile.

  • Fragility:

There should be no wonder that so many campanile are in such disrepair – ancient, maintained or not maintained by underfunded institutions or abandoned, leaning, bricks crumbling and eaten away by sea water wicking up from the lagoon, plaster crumbling, and random stones falling.  Yet, they still stand, a few for 500 to 1000 years.  A number have been conserved, renovated and stabilized again in the past quarter century, but the “health” of many is still a subject of great concern, and funds would seem to be in very short supply for a while.

San Marco Campanile  (c)2006 Randy D. Bosch

San Marco Campanile (c)2006 Randy D. Bosch

Over the passage of time, a number of notable collapses have occurred, including that of the 323 foot tall San Marco campanile in 1902 (No, that was not a Cal plot to claim the Guinness prize).  Built in the 9th Century, and despite undergoing a number of repairs over the centuries, it fell without injuring a soul (except for the caretaker’s cat, as legend has it).  The Campanile just “sat down” in a monumental pile of bricks and veneer, crushing the attached, beautiful Loggetta beneath it like a monstrously heavy mother hen sitting down too hard on a fragile egg.  The City immediately began reconstruction under a beautiful  mission statement, 

“Where it was and as it was”.

The slender tower at Santa Maria della Carita (“The Carita”), sited very close to the Grand Canal, went down in 1744, and was not rebuilt before the religious order that owned it was suppressed in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic era and not supplanted by another.  The remaining facilities now house the renowned Accademia, currently undergoing a major multi-year reconstruction, including the insertion of a new foundation system under the massive brick church (completed in 2009) and work from foundation to roof to forestall a similar fate. 

San Giorgio Maggiore  (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

San Giorgio Maggiore (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

At San Giorgio Maggiore, the campanile fell in 1773 but was soon rebuilt.  Some towers fell and were replaced several times, such as at San Pietro di Castello!  Some other towers related to churches whose orders were suppressed during the Napoleonic regime (or earlier ones!) had their crumbling heights “snipped off” leaving odd but evocative stumps for our observation, such as the one at Santa Margherita.  The San Lio campanile in Castello is also now just a stump.

  • Adaptability:
Greci's Leaning Campanile (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Greci's Leaning Campanile (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Those that survive include both gently and alarmingly leaning towers, such as at San Giorgio dei Greci in Sestiere Castello (campanile completed in 1592, the heart of the old Greek community in Venice), San Martino on Burano Island (the “lace-making” island), San Pietro di Castello, and others.  The Greci tower apparently began to lean impressively immediately after its construction, while a smaller adjacent structure tilts in the other direction.  Still standing after all these years.

Some adaptive reuse of the tall wonders has occurred.  At least eight Venetian campanili now house cellular communications antennae in their belfries!  Hopefully, the income from those that lease this right is utilized for maintenance in addition to the work by the telecom companies needed to access the belfries and install the equipment.

Most, but not all, churches in Venice –whether parish, for a convental order or monastery or built with a “celebration” church– has or had a bell tower.  Perhaps the most noticeable exception is the very large Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Castello.  Some are integrally designed with the body of the church, including fine examples such as Santa Maria Miracoli and the magnificent Salute, closely attached like il Redentore on the Giudecca.

Many are clearly or relatively free-standing – a true campanile – perhaps for structural reasons and often because they were built at a later date than the adjacent Sanctuary.  Some remained from earlier renditions of the church, and rebuilding resulted in a different relationship.  Simple remodeling often rendered different heights and radically different architectural styles.  Many remodelings and replacements were a necessity, to replace a collapsed, burned or “struck by lightning” campanile (of which there were far too many!).

  • Mystery:

Learned studies have been conducted to seek out deliberate siting relationships linking various campanile, such as “The Geometry of Venice: Topographical Observation and Statistical Appraisal”, by Luigi Calzavara and Maurizio Brizzo, in 2004, based upon mathematical theories, including use of the Pythagorean triangle.  I have a theory, too.

Of the remaining campanili, San Marco is the tallest, followed by the Frari in San Polo (leans a bit) and San Francesco della Vigna in Castello.  Do you wonder if a “mine is taller than yours” mentality ever drove the builders, as occurred with the residential “defensive towers” of San Gimignano in Tuscany?

  • Anti-Fragility:

A visit to the top of one of the accessible towers opens up an incredible panorama of the City, the Lagoon, its other islands, and often the not too distant Dolomite Alps.  An elevator can whisk you to the top of San Marco or San Giorgio Maggiore, a great opportunity for a fine combination of vertigo and claustrophobia via elevator and the additional agoraphobia from the viewing platform.  An extra traumatic adventure can be checked off your “bucket list” if the bells ring while you are in the midst of your adventure! 

Be of good cheer!  At least you do not need to labor up the horse ramp (!) in San Marco (hey… Emperor Frederick III did it on horseback – what is your problem?) or the rail-less minuscule stone or brick steep stairs of many of the towers! 

  • Memory

All who have visited Venice remember those appointed times when so many of the bells ring simultaneously and gloriously, many with distinct voices that can be recognized amidst the cacophony by name by Venetians.  My favorite?  Meet me and the one I love in its shadow on a sunny day and buy us all a few spritz, and I may tell you! 

Merely hearing church bells ring where you live will bring back clear memories of time in Venice, constructed from the labors of millenia, but now a recollection of…

Dolce Far Niente!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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