Why are there holes in Italian buildings and towers?

When I worked as a tour guide in Italy, I got this question pretty frequently from travelers who paid attention to architecture.

Why are there holes in Italian buildings and towers?

The photo below is of the clock tower in Verona. If you look closely, you’ll see that the tower is full of little black squares. They’re sort of holes, but they don’t go all the way through. They’re in most towers, and in the unfinished parts of many churches.

Do you know why they are there? Post in the comments, and I’ll update this post in a couple days with the answer if it hasn’t been posted.

Verona tower crop

Here’s another photo where you can see the holes, in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna.

Il cama petronio original crop

 

Update, October 17th:

Thanks so much for all the thoughtful and imaginative comments! Let’s take the towers first….
Dominique is correct in saying that the holes were slots for some sort of insert. In fact the holes were used for the scaffolding during construction. When the tower was completed, the scaffolding was removed, leaving behind the holes. Medieval towers were built as lookout posts, and their height reflected the power of the family or clan who built them (who would also want to reattach scaffolding and build the tower higher whenever they could afford it).  Most were not designed to be decorated with prettier stone, unlike church facades.
Here’s another photo, of two of the many towers in Bologna.

Bologna towers

 

As for the church façades, I had to go do a little research!

I had always assumed that the holes in churches and the holes in towers were both due to scaffolding, but after reading the comments below, it seemed logical that holes may have been for attaching the façade to a church. Rene is correct that most brick church façades were intended to be covered with prettier stones at some point. And it is true that marble and iron (and more) were pillaged from buildings. But after some internet research, I found nothing about the method of attaching church façades, and nothing about the reason behind the holes or indentations in unfinished church façades.
So I can’t say for certain what the holes in unfinished church façades were for. Since they are the same size, shape, and have more or less the same spacing as those in the towers, it makes sense they would have been for scaffolding too. (And on the unfinished façade of San Mercuola in Venice, the holes start at about 8 feet high, a logical place for scaffolding to start.) But I am now very curious, so please post if you find a good link on this!

Photo of Verona clock tower by Sanjay Jhawar, photo of San Petronio by Il Cama (crop by me); photo of Bologna towers by Sanjay


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Posted by on Oct 16, 2009 in Architecture | 8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Cate
    October 16, 2009

    Either drainage or wind or maybe it has something to do with letting light in and giving a spiritual lighting impression inside.And if I’m wrong with all three then how about pigeon holes??

    Reply
  2. Glennia
    October 16, 2009

    My guess would be ventilation. Or, maybe a portal for carrier pigeons to get in and out? No idea.

    Reply
  3. jk
    October 16, 2009

    I think they were for the connecting pieces for when the facade to be put in place…?

    Reply
  4. CGTravels
    October 16, 2009

    In art history they told us that in the Middle Ages people went through all the buildings in Rome and pulled out the iron clamps that held the stone together (like in the Colosseum) and melted it down to make weapons, horseshoes, anything they needed that was metal, since there was such a shortage at the time.

    Reply
  5. René Seindal
    October 17, 2009

    Most brick façades weren’t intended as such – they were to be covered in prettier stones. The holes are for attaching marble or travertine slabs to the façade. Too often the buildings weren’t finished, like the San Mercuola church in Venice, or the reusable marble or travertine slabs have been removed to be used elsewhere.
    Same reason why so many Roman ruins are in brick today – the decorative front have been removed later.

    Reply
  6. Dominique
    October 17, 2009

    My guess would have been as slots for some sort of insert…so the idea that they might be used as a means to attach a facade seems reasonable to me. Fascinating guesses 🙂

    Reply
  7. Bonnie(Valentinoswife)
    October 18, 2009

    One interesting fact not mentioned here – (I have a photo but not sure I can post it here) is that when the tall towers were built, they often were not terribly steady/sturdy even though of brick – so in some places you will see what looks like a part of a metal iron propellor screwed to the sides of the building. Usually it is aout 2 – 4 foot long and you will see two or three across at angles – literally to give strength to the courses of brick on tall towers! My husband is from Italy and some family are in building trades there so I asked!
    Bonnie(valentinoswife)

    Reply
  8. Madeline
    October 19, 2009

    Thanks for your comment Bonnie! Does your husband’s family know what the holes in unfinished church facades are from by any chance? About 3 posts ago, I did one with lots of photos of churches with half-finished facades, if you need examples.

    Reply

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