When we tell our students that if ancient Romans were able to time-travel, they wouldn’t be able to find their way around their own city, it’s pretty easy for them to understand. What’s a little harder to fathom is the radical difference between modern Rome, and the Rome of the Middle Ages. That’s because, as you can see in this faded pen-and-ink map from the 1400’s, medieval Rome was chock-full of tall, square towers–over 100 of them! What happened to them all?
Sometime after the year 1000 or so, building these tall towers became a “thing” among Rome’s powerful and constantly warring noble families. They were always attached to a home or other strategic building, and the higher they were, the better. The towers served not only as lookout points, but also as fortresses from which the family’s private army could shower a rain of arrows on the relatives and soldiers belonging to a rival family, if they made the mistake of trying to pass by. Additionally, locking a prisoner up in a high tower was a great way of ensuring that he wouldn’t easily be able to escape–and the prisoner’s allies would have a hard time arranging a mission to break him out of jail. In 1075, for example, the Cenci family seized Pope St. Gregory VII at Christmas Midnight Mass and locked him up in their tower, which no longer exists.
That tower is gone, because succeeding popes, particularly the power-hungry Boniface VIII, of the Caetani family, eventually ordered many of these towers to be torn down, or at least shortened considerably. That’s not because Boniface VIII wanted to give peace a chance; it’s simply because he wanted the Caetani family to come out on top. As you can probably tell, medieval Rome was pretty rough!
Today, thousands of tourists walk right past the remains of quite a few of these towers, without having a clue as to their significance. In most cases, the shortened towers are now nothing more than apartment row-houses, with astronomical heating-bills in the winter, and no a/c in the summer. Often, tourists don’t even notice them at all. Would you have even recognized this as a shortened medieval tower, if you walked by?
Rome’s skyline in the 21st century is vastly different from that of the 11th or 13th century–and there’s no doubt that the old, medieval skyline was much more interesting, both historically and architecturally. If you tour Rome with us, we point out historical tidbits like this all along the way–and when you later wander around on your own, you often find that you know exactly what you’re looking at.