Towers – Symbols of Hope and Freedom

Tower of Pisa

Tower of PisaReligion, literature and government, as well as its visual art forms, define the character and individuality of any civilization. While the former may change in both attitude and stance, or else fade away, many of its visual art forms still remain vivid and accessible as a fountain for knowledge and inquiry.

Towers are structures that come out of a tradition as old as our memories of time and their symbolism has evolved with our own cultural development. The many towers around the world standing today are a potent reminder of all our desires for hope and freedom. They are symbolic of a future filled with faith and promise for everyone.

Be as a tower firmly set; Shakes not its top for any blast that blows*

Prior to the twentieth century towers mainly served two purposes. First for that of space saving in the worlds overcrowded cities and towns accommodating the majority of the population in private or professional life; secondly, as symbols to the heights of material wealth and prosperity that the western world had yet achieved.

The twin towers built at New York, demolished so dreadfully in 2001, had the distinction of housing a ‘League of Nations’, which is why they ended up targets for international terrorism.

The "Tribute in Light" memorial Liberty State Park, N.J., Sept. 11, the five-year anniversary of 9/11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould)

The “Tribute in Light” memorial Liberty State Park, N.J., Sept. 11, the five-year anniversary of 9/11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould)

The perpetrators by attacking such a symbol to western democracy wanted to strike an individual blow at the centre of the western psyche and its emotional well being. However they underestimated western societies ability to ‘bounce back’, shored up by a faith that progress toward a world in which we can all share its bountiful blessings without hatred of colour, race or creed is the right one.

At the central core of these beliefs is a respect and reverence for tradition and its values and a belief that right and good triumphs over wrong and evil, a concept well documented through the ages of world history and one that features continually in contemporary culture. Transforming the grief of the past from being a negative force into a positive one for good is an all important way forward in the future.

One way we can do that and achieve it is through Liberty, which is about enlightenment through knowledge.

The perceived wisdom and wealth of the people who occupied the Mediterranean region in ancient times is both captivating and compelling. In almost every field of their endeavour the Greeks were pioneers.

Their considerable achievements in literature, thought and science are but a part of a wonderful Greek legacy that belongs to the world at large.

The ancient Greeks at Athens had the Acropolis (from the Greek akros – highest + polis = city) for the populace to retreat to in times of threat or siege. Its natural defences high up looking out over the city and countryside were aided by an enclosing wall.

Tower of the Winds, Athens – amazing it still survives today

At Athens is a tower, the Horologium of Andronicus of Cyrrus, known as the Tower of the Winds.

Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose first century treatise on architecture is the only one to survive from ancient times, mentions it in his discourse on town planning ‘regarding the direction of the streets with remarks on the winds’.

Up until this period many argued there were only four winds, but Andronicus in order to prove his theory there were eight built a marble octagonal tower at Athens.

On the sides of the octagon sculptural reliefs represented the winds. It was surmounted by a bronze Triton who, holding a rod outstretched in his right hand, acted as a pointer to the representation of the wind currently blowing.

Sadly he’s been lost but the tower is still there today, despite having lost some of its appendages.

The Romans, when not able to take advantage of lofty heights built tall structures within city walls. These were placed at regular intervals `solely for looking out on the countryside around them’ and  came to be called towers. (Latin – turris).

The Roman’s great strength lay in improving the ideas of others, gained during the expansion of their Empire.  Etruria, Tuscia, Toscana, or Tuscany are all names given to one region of a state we have known since the late nineteenth century as Italy.

When the Romans arrived they found cultivated fields set between forests and they expanded the numbers and kinds of crops grown.

Tuscany has a documented history spanning 3000 years and its people preserve a unity of spirit, language, culture and art and have done so in the face of the most trying adversity and at times when it seems their independence may have been lost.

It is a country of hills and valleys contained between the diagonal range of the Apennines, lesser hills and to the south the Tyrrhenian Sea, all forming a natural unit.

The very easy access to its valleys throughout the centuries made it extremely vulnerable to attack and so the Tuscans built spectacular hill towns on high ground far above the valley floor.

Their lofty heights acted as a defensive standpoint and today buses and cars by the dozens wheel through the gentle countryside to visit the ‘city of the towers’ San Gimignano now on the world’s heritage list.

It seemingly floats like a dream image on top of a hill and is the only hill town in Tuscany that has preserved an authentic medieval skyline. The shafts of its tall stone towers make it appear like a sculpture against the blue of the sky.

During the Renaissance it was caught like a ham in a sandwich, between the cities of Sienna and Florence, which were always feuding about something or other. They survived not only such bloody rivalry, but also the devastating effects of plague high up above the malarial plains of the valley floor.

Today San Gimignano has gained a romantic reputation, via such influential authors as Henry James, Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster, whose perceptions have been shored up by romantic views of it in popular movies such as ‘Only You’ starring Robert Downey Jr and Marissa Tomei.

Tower in Lucca, Italy

The Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy

More than one legend tells of a daughter shut up in a tower by her father to discourage and protect her from unwanted suitors (who usually go on a great quest to save her) so a tower also became a symbol of chastity and virtue.

Who can forget the tale of poor Rapunzel having to let down her hair to be rescued.


Town Hall Siena, Italy

If legend is to be countenanced the high tower at  Siena was founded as a result of Roman rivalries; Ascius and Senius, the sons of Remus, were obliged to flee from Rome to escape the wrath of their uncle Romulus.

They called the spot where they stopped to make sacrifices to the Gods Diana and Apollo ‘Castelsenio’, which is still the name for a district of Sienna around which the city developed.

The height of the tower atop the Town Hall in Siena is higher than that on the church, a sign of the great rivalry between the Pope and the Emperor during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Most of our knowledge of Roman architecture comes from observation of remains or from Vitruvius, whose manuscript was re-discovered in 1410 by eminent historian Poggio Braccioloni.

Such influential Renaissance architects as Leon Battista Alberti re interpreted it in his Ten Books of Architecture. He explained ‘the ancients used, on each side of their gates to erect two towers, larger than the rest and strongly fortified on all sides to secure and protect the Entrance into the town.’


Bell Tower, Florence Italy

From the seventh to the fourteenth century when they were being built three buildings, the Baptistery, Campanile (Bell Tower) and Cathedral were placed in juxtaposition, one to another to create maximum magnetic visual impact. This happened in Florence and at Pisa, where the famous bell tower leans.

Numerical symbolism was important in all religions and in both the Old and New Testaments many numbers were considered both holy and mystical Three represented the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Christian religion.

The nature of Christian worship is such that it does not necessarily require a setting; nevertheless through the centuries it has had an architectural setting, which expressed the Christian understanding of worship at that time.

On the day of their re-birth Christians were fully immersed naked in a large deep font located inside the Baptistery at the light of a new dawn. This symbolised the central Christian theme of resurrection.

While the bells rang with joy they were robed and then led into the cathedral to begin their new life in Christ. The introduction of bells to church buildings is ascribed to Paulinus of Nola c400 while in England they were introduced from Italy c680. From the ninth century they were placed inside towers and by the seventeenth century the peculiarly English art of change ringing had developed.

During the Middle Ages bells were baptized in the name of the Trinity. Prayers in the service reveal that at that time they were thought to drive away evil spirits and protect the building against storm damage. They were also rung on joyous occasions, at times of trouble, for births, deaths and marriages and to call people to prayer.

They became an integral and important aspect of town, country and city life and a source of comfort to many. Great Cathedrals built during the Middle Ages throughout Europe stood at the centre of each town. They reflected ‘not only the realization on earth of the Celestial City, as described in the Revelations of St. John the Divine’, but acted as a symbol of the religious faith and commercial prosperity of its townspeople’.

Cathedral Amiens

The Cathedral at Amiens, France

The bigger the building and the higher its tower the better, as it could be seen from miles around. Each Cathedral was a source of great civic pride and its nave became the background to many secular activities ranging from legal to commercial. At Amiens in France the entire population of the city of 10,000 people could all fit into its great cathedral, which covered 7,700 square meters and the mighty tower on the Cathedral at Strasbourg soared as high as a forty storey building.

When the Norman’s arrived in England in 1066 they brought the techniques of building stone towers, also heavily influenced by architecture crusading knights had encountered in the Holy Land.

William 1, the Conqueror built the White Tower of London of limestone imported from Caen in Normandy, traditionally on the site of a fort erected by Julius Caesar. ‘Ye Towers of Julius, London’s lasting shame with many a foul and midnight murder fed’.


White Tower, London

The Norman’s were among the first in Europe to pioneer this type of huge stone keep that it is part of the complex now known as The Tower of London. It occupies a central role in the history of England both as a royal residence and as a state prison and many famous people in English history were incarcerated there prior to their execution.

One can only begin to imagine their fear when passing through the water gate, knowing what was in store for them. The story of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard Duke of York, is one of its great legends.

Their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester assumed the crown as Richard III after reputedly, murdering them, but there is no conclusive proof. (Bones found during the excavation near the White Tower in 1674 were transferred to Westminster Abbey and in 1933 experts proclaimed them to be the bones of children of ages corresponding to those of the princes

Tower House 1

Caldwell Tower At Uplawmoor, near Neilston, west of Small, C tower hour. Photo by Duncan Fenton

During the Middle Ages free standing residential towers persisted long after the need for defense, which gave it birth had vanished, satisfying the strong predilection of the age for verticality and for symbols of authority’. Tower houses developed all over England, in Scotland and Ireland during these troubled times.

There are upward of 100 round towers in Ireland, of which innumerable and wild conjectures of their origin and purpose have been made. The most sober is that they were the earliest form of buildings of a monastic order, adapted to the exigencies of a Christian settlement who were protecting themselves from pagans and pirates, the entrance to them being some 15’ off the ground.


Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

In Scotland one of the most striking examples of the deeply rooted preference for the security of a tower house is at Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Built 1610- – 1624 it is coated with roughcast made from local granite chips. It is entirely ‘picturesque’ and exudes a pink ‘glow’ and has a top-heavy air of fantasy about it covered as it is with corbelled angle turrets.

It also has pepper pot domes so conspicuous an aspect of English Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture and the whole is great charm personified.

It was at Canterbury in England the Gothic style, already flourishing in France, was fully developed for the building of great Cathedrals, most of which had their western facades flanked by twin towers and were surmounted by a huge bell tower topped with a spire.

The tower that surmounts Canterbury Cathedral was built 1472-1494 and houses Bell Harry. This bell is named not because of King Henry, but because from medieval times it contained only one great bell known affectionately as Harry and it has been described as ‘the queenliest tower in Christendom’.

Twin Towers reputedly flanked the gateway of Henry VIII’s hunting lodge without equal – Nonesuch Palace (demolished 1682). Little is known about Nonesuch except that it was a favourite palace as it was of his daughter Elizabeth and renowned throughout Europe for its unrivalled splendour.


Nonesuch Palace, favourite palace of Henry VIII – there was no other such

In the inner courtyard a visitor was surrounded by huge stucco figures of gods and godesses so deeply moulded Anthony Watson described them as leaping off the walls toward him.

Watson the rector of Cheam gave a an eyewitness account of the building between 1582 -1592. He said the stonework was carved with the ‘living image’ of plants and animals, the ground floor walls of stone, the upper storey of timbered construction whose stucco panels were decorated with a variety of classical motifs in high relief’.

Built around two principal courtyards, it revealed none of its secrets from without, the simplicity of the stone clad outer court only emphasising the glories within, the steps leading to the inner court slowing the approach in order to heighten the impact of its Renaissance splendour.  The towers also had a spectacular prospect over the surrounding gardens and out into countryside, a most desirable feature for any Renaissance house or palace.


St Paul’s Cathedral, London

Prior to the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were ninety-seven parish churches in London; the oldest Saxon in origin, while most had Norman remains. The bell tower in church architecture’s role by this time was to call attention to its presence from afar, to summon worshippers and toll for each death in a parish. The bells were rung nine times for a man, six for a woman and three for a child, plus, once for every year of their life.

During the dreadful plague of 1665 the church bells tolled endlessly, day after day, morning and night until the practice had to be abandoned as there was not a sufficient number of sextons (who rang the bells) to bury the dead.

After the Great Fire mathematician and architect Christopher Wren was given the job of rebuilding fifty-one churches, incorporating some of the former smaller parishes into another. The skyline of the city became very important to him, as it was to those who remembered and cherished what had been lost.

He added towers, spires and steeples to the churches in white Portland stone, or lead, to enhance the effect of his great domed Cathedral to replace the old St. Paul’s.


Tower at St Mary Huish Episcopi, England

His first grand invention of a tower topped with a classical steeple was at St. Mary le Bow, which was of a great height, described as truly magnificent and bespoke originality.

The remaining City churches today still reflect by their variety, the varied quality of the City itself but sadly many of Wren’s earlier light and happy classical edifices were sacrificed to the Gothic revival craze of the nineteenth century. (Today under 40 remain due to this later demolition and bombing during WWII).

Country church towers throughout England also have stone towers with little wooden turrets, while others were rich enough to afford a spire or gilded weather vanes to top the towers. Most of these were paid for by medieval trade guilds.

There is no end to the architectural influence of local materials. Somerset is famous for its towers; one of the most handsome a perpendicular number at a village called Huish Episcopi, which is 100 feet high and dates from around 1500.

It has multi pinnacled corner buttresses, windows and bell openings, the whole built of blue lias stone which is indigenous to areas of Southern England including Somerset, Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

The tower is extensively embellished with pinnacles and quatrefoil panel bands and has a superb stained glass window by late nineteenth century English artist Edward Burne-Jones.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century when Britannia ruled the waves and the commercial prosperity of England was at its height the craze for a return to the Gothic took hold and private citizens got caught up in the race to build the tallest tower.


Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey was a great romantic confection that rose dramatically from the Wiltshire Downs in the shape of a Cathedral competing with Salisbury Cathedral in both size and splendour.

It was built for aloof, eccentric, wealthy romantic William Beckford who incorporated a jasper-floored tomb for himself, as he wanted it to be ‘a cathedral dedicated to the arts, a site of splendid ritual and solemn music, a shrine for the work of the best English painters and craftsmen of their day’.

However its architect James Wyatt failed to give its giant centre tower proper foundations and it embarrassingly fell down during a violent storm in 1800. It was promptly rebuilt only to fall down again forever in 1825.

On his death bed the contractor confessed the tower had no foundations and expressed surprise it had stood at all…in the end it became a fashionable ruin, part of the ideology of the romantic movement of that time.

It only ever saw one great entertainment in the December of 1800 a monastic fete when ‘everything, as a chronicler of the evening reported ‘was provided to steal upon the senses, dazzle the eye, and bewilder the fancy’.


Le Tour Eiffel, Paris

The Eiffel Tower in Paris, ranked as the world’s greatest engineering marvel when it was built in 1889, and rises 984 feet from its base, which is 330 feet square. It is a huge wrought iron skeleton tower on the Champ de Mar in Paris, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel for the Paris Exposition of 1889.

Fees to take people to its various stages as a lookout in its first year of operation paid for its cost and for many years it was the tallest structure in the world.

During World War 1 it served as an important military observation tower and became symbolic of the idea of liberty, fraternity and freedom one that French people have fought hard to preserve. Today it’s a great tourist attraction, a romantic place to propose marriage and has become symbolic of all our dreams for a better world.

Palace of Westminster

Big Ben, Palace of Westminster, London

When Henry VIII decided he would no longer reside in the Palace built by Edward the Confessor (1003 – 66) and enlarged by his successors, an Act of Parliament decreed that ancient Palace ‘shall be called the King’s Palace at Westminster’.

Today it is commonly referred to as The Houses of Parliament. Designed by Charles Barry, assisted by Augustus Welby Pugin, in the Gothic style of the Tudor period, the main buildings date from 1852. A great 320 feet high Clock Tower stands close to the site of the original erected by Edward 1 (1239-1307), which was shaken by an earthquake in 1580 and pulled down in 1715.

The popularly named great bell ‘Big Ben’ named for Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Lord of the Woods and Forests was nicknamed “Big Ben” on account of his immense physique. Its continual striking is meant to remind Judges to administer true justice. The tower houses the largest mechanical clock in the world.

This symbol of western democracy defied the thrust aimed at its very heart by Adolf Hitler during World War II and reassured English speaking people throughout the world all was well. It came into use in 1859 and, except for a few occasions, has run continuously since, chiming the hours to the tune of Handel’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

A Cathedral may often rank as an artistic masterpiece, but it is always, and primarily, an act of Faith. The supreme age of cathedral building represents for a great many design historians, the summit of architectural achievement and aspires to something well beyond the realm of just architecture.

Lincoln CathedralAt Lincoln in England you can stand upon the castle ramparts and view the triple towers of the great cathedral thrusting ever upward toward the sky like giant fingers. For 600 years they have dominated the city. The medieval mind, which first conceived such a tremendous vision, did not ever perceive that in our contemporary age Towers would be for many a source of comfort, reassuring all those that live within their shadow or visit them that we must continue to have faith in the future.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

*Dante Alighieri

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