There’s something so magical about that first view of Venice after arrival, when you see the towers and domes in the distance as you make your way across the lagoon. It really looks like some kind of unearthly fairy tale city, and those bell towers are so very beautiful.
Jacopo de Barbari’s famous 1503 map shows 103 bell towers in Venice proper (the six sestieri). Today there are 66 in the historic center plus a few more on the lagoon islands, and the history of these towers is a fascinating but rather hair-raising tale of one disaster after another. The most famous collapse was the campanile di San Marco, but that’s only the most recent one - they’ve been falling for centuries due to earthquakes, subsidence, and old age. A bunch of them fell on the same day during a 1347 earthquake and legend has it that earlier in the day, their bells mysteriously rang on their own, announcing their impending doom perhaps?
A few were blown down by high winds, several collapsed when people tried to straighten them, and others were demolished when they became unsafe. A number of towers were struck by lightning and burned. A recent lightning strike was at San Giorgio Maggiore in 1994 – the wooden angel on top of the campanile caught on fire and its charred remains are now inside the church. Andasamo took a great photo of it. The angel that’s now on top of the tower is new.
Quite a few priests, monks, and innocent bystanders were killed by these falling towers over the centuries. Of course, it wouldn’t be Venice without another miraculous story, and this one concerns the tower in the photo above which is from the church of SS. Apostoli. This tower was built in 1450 and then in 1659 during a violent storm, the belfry blew off. During the reconstruction in 1672, an old priest named Domenico Longo climbed up the tower to check on the work and slipped and fell, but his robes were caught on the arms of the clock on the side of the tower, where he dangled until he was rescued.
Many bell towers were destroyed along with their churches when Napoleon conquered the Republic and “embarked on a policy the savagery of which, even now, sends shivers down the spine. It took the form of a frontal attack on the religious institutions of Venice.” (John Julius Norwich in Paradise of Cities).
So many churches and monasteries were closed at that time and while some of the churches later reopened, a lot of them were demolished during the French and Austrian occupations. Le Chiese di Venezia (by Umberto Franzoi and Dina Di Stefano) lists 39 churches that were demolished in the historic center, and more were destroyed on the islands. Some of them were torn down to make way for public works like the train station and the public gardens in Castello, but others were destroyed because they were old and there simply wasn’t interest in or money for restoring them. It’s hard to get too indignant about all the art that was looted from Venice because the Venetians had been stealing art for centuries, but way too many beautiful and historically important churches were torn down, in my opinion.
There are eight "partial" bell towers still standing in Venice today – the most well-known is the half tower in campo Santa Margherita. The one in the photo below is in campo San Boldo in Santa Croce. The church was demolished in the 19th century, but half of the campanile remains and is now apartments! How cool would that be, to live in an old bell tower?!
Here’s my fantasy for my next life - I’ll live in an old church bell tower in Venice, and my job will be to walk around Venice all day and take care of the shrines - deliver fresh flowers, clean the dust off, paint over any graffiti, light the candles at sunset and blow them out at dawn. I’ll also feed and take care of the cats. Nice daydream, huh?
A note about the de Barbari map:
This “bird’s eye view” map is in the Correr Museum, and I highly recommend going to see it. Not only is the map there, but also the woodblocks he carved in order to print the map. More a work of art than a mere map, it’s just so beautiful and the level of detail is incredible…you can see bridges, trees and even windows and chimneys. And it blows my mind that he had to carve Venice backwards in order to print the map! I imagine him walking from church to church, climbing many many campanile steps, looking out and drawing, and then going back to his studio to carve.
It’s so much fun to look at this map and realize how little Venice has changed since 1500. Although the changes that have occurred are glaring – for example, the Salute was not built then and that tip of Dorsoduro looks very strange without that church.