While racing in Toblach, Italy, now nearly a month ago, I was surprised by the prevalence of churches with free standing bell towers, rather than the roof-born steeple I’m accustomed to as a symbol of a Catholic place of worship. What to me looked like an afterthought, as if the steeples “had been taken off and put next door”, is clearly a design choice made hundreds of years ago upon original construction.
Despite lots of googling and wracking my art-history-buff-Dad’s memory, and books, I have yet to pinpoint a definitive answer as to why some churches are built this way. I found a lot of descriptions of very nice campaniles (the term for a bell tower of this free standing type), but nothing ascertained as to why in conjunction with a church, they remained autonomous, as seemed to be prevalent in Italy, but as I'd never noticed anywhere else. (You might recognize the most famous of such campaniles, the leaning tower of Pisa, built in 1360, the bell tower of the cathedral of the city of Pisa).
So, without any concrete findings as to why these bell towers are not connected to the church, I’m left with some common sense speculations. (If any of you out there have more information, please do enlighten me!).
1) The church in Toblach, Italy, specifically was completed in 1803, at the tail end of the Baroque period, a time most easily earmarked by ornate decoration in artwork, including churches such as this one. Although beautiful, this church is not extravagant by any means, especially on the outside, and the separate tower would have nothing to do with its conception during the Baroque (also as Pisa was built long before that). Maybe it is looking to make a link to Pisa, but then I wonder where the freestanding tower comes from at Pisa.
2) The tower as an architectural note, sparks my memory of learning about triumphal columns in my own art history classes. These columns erected by Roman emperors in the early A.D.’s, Italy falls into the area influenced (and marked by) these. Trajan’s Column, in Rome, was built in 113 AD to commemorate Trajan’s victory in the Dacian wars. It is particularly well known for the depiction of the war between the Romans and the Dacians engraved into the column itself. Emperors built these columns as an exhibition of their power, and a mini-arms race of triumphal columns ensued in the coming years after Trajan. The detached bell tower made a connection in my mind to these triumphal columns, maybe a marker of the strength of the town, or region, or religion? This tower in Toblach (and similar ones at other small churches) clearly were built with their paired churches, not as a mark of power on their own. But, given the history of construction of triumphal towers unique to Italy from a much earlier date, I wonder if this design could have been inspired by the existing “tower” architecture.
3) A more straightforward guess, maybe the church tower was built separately so that the tower could be used for more secular purposes as well, the bell ringing for the town, which could be easily done on a steeple on a church, but by being physically detached, it could be less symbolically related. Some places used belfries to store political documents, so maybe it represents a separation of church and state, but one that still is innately tied via the design.
4) Maybe they built the church first and then the tower, or vice versa, as it would take less money to complete one, and the construction might inspire more funding for the second.
5) It is definitely logistically and structurally easier to build a tall tower from the ground, rather than on top of a building that already has a vaulted roof. At this time, the technology was there to build a tower on a church, so it wasn’t a factor of not having technology. But it definitely is easier and less expensive to simplify the construction by making it two separate parts.
Although the dominant religion of this region matches the dominant religion of a lot of Europe (Catholic), its churches do not reflect as much similarity, and I think there's something specific to the region that is Italy. I saw the clear change when we drove from Germany (where churches had steeples upon the roof) to Italy, where the churches predominantly had bell towers that stand beside them. What changed in the few hours we spent in the car? I could be missing a lot of clues here too, as I only saw a very narrow slice; maybe there are towers like this outside of Italy totally unrelated, of which I'm unaware. From what I did see, I can only surmise that the campanile has to do with a history or practicality that is unique to that region (or Italy, or the Roman empire), one I have yet to understand. I do know that it looks very nice, and was different, and therefore caught my attention, enough that I was inspired to pull out my sketchbook and draw.
My take away from this one, is that it is alright to understand the church, and tower, for their face value on a visual level. I can be satisfied in appreciating them without needing a philosophical reason for being. I am confident there is a “real” reason out there for why the campanile is an unattached bell tower, but the more important lesson for me on this one is that it is okay, and even good, to sit and draw the church tower and enjoy it for being just that.
*4/11 edit: Mystery solved: separating the tower from the church allowed for bigger bells, as the reverberation goes through the whole structure, thus limiting the size of bells on towers connected to buildings. They're also common in London and Sweden. Thank you Susan Woods for the enlightenment! http://googlesightseeing.com/2012/10/churches-with-detached-towers/