Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Possibilities "Up" Has to Offer

Detail of fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli
Italian cities of the middle ages bristled with privately-owned defensive towers, and Dante's Florence was no exception.  These formidable structures were used in urban warfare, a state in which  Italian cities found themselves all too often.

Today, the small town of San Gimignano is known to tourists as "the medieval Manhattan," because it retains several of its towers.  In Dante's time, every city's skyline looked like this.

San Gimignano
Towers secured blocks of urban space for the families and tower consortia who owned them, and they provided physical testament to the pride, aggression, and ambition of the powerful men who ran the cities.

It was because of this that in the year 1250 Florence's short-lived popular government, in an effort to control the arrogance of the magnates, decreed that all private towers be reduced to a height of no more than 29 meters.

As you can see from this depiction of Florence in the 15th century, towers, even shortened, were still very much in evidence.  Many of them are there still.  Survivors of the 1250 decree, of time and of medieval battles, of modernization and refurbishing, and even of the onslaughts of World War II, it's amazing how many remain.

Florence, September 1944
Their great walls were built of cobbles and lime, sandwiched between rows of bricks.  They were built to withstand all manner of assault, even those their builders could not have conceived of.

Tower in Tarquinia
I could say a lot more about towers, how they were owned, how they factored into a family's wealth, the military advantages they offered, how they were valued, the risks associated with both building and dismantling them, and how they gradually came to be used as dwellings.  And perhaps one day I will, but for now, I want to trace the steps that went into solving a research problem concerning a tower.

I've written a book set in Florence in 1216.  That was well before the enforced truncation of the towers.  I have a scene where my protagonist and another main character are on a balcony high up one of the towers, watching an altercation taking place below.

That tower still stands - it contains a jewelry store today - but it's an awful lot shorter than it used to be.

The Amidei tower, now a jewelry store
So, what I needed to know was this:  what, exactly, could my characters have seen from up there?  What did it all look like to them?

I'm not good with picturing distances.  Spatial relationships are not my forte.  But I had to get some idea of what my characters' experience would have been, and this is how I went about it.

First, I travelled to the setting of my story, to see what I could learn.  My tower is very short these days; others are also shorter than they used to be.  So, on to other Italian towns nearby, where the governments may not have been quite so diligent.

I've climbed up quite a lot of rather tall towers in various towns in Italy (on the inside, I mean, nothing daredevilish).  It's quite safe - these days, they don't let you go up unless there's a modern staircase - but it can be a real workout, and it's not something to get yourself into if you're claustrophobic.  Hundreds of steps, steep ones, winding around in a tight spiral.

Also not ideal if you happen to be afraid of heights, which I am (and which my protagonist also is).  I keep doggedly climbing the things anyway, though, because they're there, and because I need to understand them, and also because my husband takes amazing pictures from way up there. 

But the height does get to me.  I've been known to circle the perimeter of the top of a tower in a crouch, sort of a crab-walk, too afraid to stand up (fortunately there was no one else up there at the time).  And once I somehow took it into my head that the sinister-looking fellow climber standing near us had a thing about university professors and was going to push my unsuspecting husband over the edge, so I spent that visit keeping myself solidly between Il Signore Sinistro and my oblivious spouse, who was flitting around happily taking pictures.  Heights make me a little crazy.

(One very real hazard, by the way, occurs when you're up a bell tower, and you happen to be standing next to the bell, and it comes time to strike the hour.  You do not want to experience this.  Trust me.)

I think my acrophobia may be the main reason why, even after all those jaunts, I still felt a little unsure about what things would have looked like to my characters, from their perch on high.  I never could make myself spend much time actually looking down.

I needed to understand exactly what one could have seen, from the relevant height.  I had all those pictures my husband had taken, but he keeps changing lenses, and so things get closer and then farther away again, and it's all very confusing.  Also, some of the towers we had been in had been truncated, and others had been rebuilt, and in most cases I wasn't sure exactly how high up we had been.

So I decided I needed a point of comparison.

My first step was to ascertain just how high up my characters would have been.  It didn't take long to find out that according to chronicler Giovanni Villani, Florentine towers in their heyday soared to heights of 100 braccia and more.

Great.  So (shades of Bill Cosby, for those of you who remember that comedy routine), what's a braccia?  The word is the Italian word for "arm," so it's roughly an arm's length.  However, it varied from place to place.  Apparently a Florentine arm wasn't exactly the same length as a Pistoian arm, for example.

But I was able to learn that a Florentine braccia was 58.36 cm.  Just as I was reaching for a calculator, I stumbled across a very useful bit of information:  Florentine towers could reach 120 braccia, which equals about 70 meters, which equals about 230 feet.

That was exactly what I needed to know.  My characters were in one of the city's taller towers, but not all the way up to the top.  They were on a balcony, maybe three-quarters of the way up.

But as I said, I am no good at visualizing distances.  What exactly did it mean to be somewhat less than 120 braccia, or 70 meters, or 230 feet off the ground?

Next:  to the internet.  I went looking for buildings of a comparable height, and I found a few.

Pyramid of Djoser
The Pyramid of Djoser is shorter, only 203 feet (62 meters), but many of Florence's towers were in that range.  However, I don't know how tall (or how close) the camel is, so it doesn't really help much.

Palazzo Vecchio
Florence's Palazzo Vecchio has a tower that stands 310 feet (94 meters), but it was always a public building, not a privately owned tower, so it was never shortened.  It was built around a pre-existing tower around the turn of the 14th century.

Campanile and Duomo
Florence's cathedral provides a point of comparison, too.  Brunelleschi's dome reaches a height of 300 feet (90 meters), and Giotto's campanile (the bell tower on the left) stands 280 feet high (85 meters).

With all this, I was getting an idea of what my target height looked like from the outside, but I still needed to know what the world looked like from that height.  I cast back among my memories for something that would serve.

I do remember one high place, and I remember it well.  My grandparents lived in Chicago, on the 16th floor of a wonderful old building.  As a child I spent many hours looking out of their windows, watching the life of the city go by.  I wasn't afraid to look down then - I was very small, and the world seemed a safe place.  I watched the waves on the lake, the traffic on the Outer Drive, the people walking on the sidewalks far below.  I saw the city's lights reflected on wet streets when it rained.  I know - I actually can remember - what I observed.  I know what I could see (colors, shapes, movement) and what I couldn't (clothing details, facial expressions).  I know what I could hear, though since it was mostly vehicular noise, this wasn't particularly useful.  But the visual part was.

That is exactly what I needed to know.  Could it possibly be the case that my memories coincide with the view my characters would have had?

Riverside Plaza
So I checked some buildings in Chicago.  This one, the Riverside Plaza, is 302 feet (92 meters) tall, which comes pretty close to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, and the Campanile.  I see somewhere around 20 floors here, at least, but how does that compare with my grandparents' 16th floor apartment?  (Actually it was the 15th - the building was constructed in a period where they simply ignored the number 13, since nobody wanted to live on a floor with an unlucky number.)

I found a floor/height calculator online, but it was incredibly complicated, factoring in interstitial spaces, residential vs. commercial use, lobbies, varying ceiling heights, and more.  I didn't have all that information.  And then I thought, well, is there any chance that I can find my grandparents' building online?  Crossing my fingers, I gave it a try.  After all, it's called "The Renaissance," which has got to be a good sign, right?

"The Renaissance"
Yes.  It's there.  It's on a register of historic buildings, so in addition to all the real estate listings for individual apartments in the building, I finally found a site that gave me the specs:  the building is 183 feet tall.  There was only one floor above my grandparents, so we were very near the top - say, roughly 160-170 feet.

If the tower my characters were in was 120 braccia (70 meters, 230 feet) and their balcony was, say, three-quarters of the way up, then they'd be at - oh, about 170 feet.


I didn't need to do any formidable calculations.  I just needed to go back to my earliest memories.  Who knew that when I was watching the cars go by from my vantage point, I was about 90 braccia above ground?

Don't you just love it when that sort of thing happens?

Images in this post:  Gozzoli fresco, view of 15th c. Florence, and photo of postwar Florence are in the public domain.  Photos of San Gimignano and the Pyramid of Djoser are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Photos of Riverside Plaza and The Renaissance are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  Other photos are our own.


Julia H. West said...

Oh, how well I know that fear of heights! But I've had it since I was a small child. I remember going on a field trip to the State Capitol Building, and going up stairs to stand on the balcony that surrounds the entire interior of the dome. At that point, I flattened myself to the wall at the back of the balcony, and freaked out when anyone touched me. Finally a teacher got permission to take me into one of the rooms, calm me down, and then guide me down the stairs once more. I'm sure that was much lower than 90 braccia. So I applaud your young self, and the observations she made. I also applaud your somewhat older self, for being able to use those observations in your research! Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Emmalyn said...

A great tale of research as well as useful information about developing story elements! I grew up thinking I was afraid of heights, but it turns out there is a separate fear of falling: I can handle heights, if there is something that looks like a railing in front of me. Stairs don't - the railings are at the side - so I can just imagine myself clinging to the walls as I hike down all those staircases you had to climb and descend!

Tinney Heath said...

Julia - my sympathies for your childhood trauma! And yes, serendipity is indeed wonderful, and can sometimes make up for all the work we do that goes nowhere in particular. (And thanks for that "somewhat older" - love that!)
Emmalyn - yes, I suppose there is a difference; I do better with railings, too. But a hyperactive imagination keeps getting in my way. Those stairs are definitely not the best of the experience, especially when they are hosting upward and downward traffic at the same time, and are very narrow. And some of them have no railings: clinging to the wall (or even the next step) is all you've got. The one in the picture is downright luxurious compared to some.