28 July 2012

A Bed of Asparagus

In medieval times, for reasons present-day Italians cannot explain, their ancestors seized upon the unusual architectural compulsion of building tall slender towers in which to live. Since tribal wars and local hostilities were epidemic, the towers were meant principally for protection. They were effective lookout posts and valuable during attacks, though they proved to be less practical as living quarters.

To protect food, the kitchens were often on the top floor, three hundred or so steps above the street, which made it difficult to find dependable domestic help.

When fights broke out, the warring families were known to simply launch arrows and fling spears at each other from one offending tower to the other. No sense fighting in the streets like common folk.

They also became quite the status symbol. No self-respecting noble could allow his neighbor and/or rival to have a taller tower, so in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a curious game of one-upmanship raged over the skyline of Bologna as the nobles tried to keep up with the Joneses. The city was nicknamed la turrita, the towered one. An English traveler described it as a “bed of asparagus.”

—John Grisham, The Broker

Painting: Lot and his Daughters by Bolognese Master, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, aka Guercino or “the Squinter” (1591 - 1666)

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