The Italian peninsula has an irregular stone outline dotted by circular, rectangular, quadrangular, pentagonal towers that for centuries were the country’s sentinels against attacks from the sea – watching for Saracens, barbaric pirates, Ottoman fleets, and other enemies.
First used simply as sighting stations – the “torrieri” lit fires to quickly signal approaching xebecs, fustas or galleys to the command centers in the hinterland – the structures along the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coastlines were later expanded with more massive and articulated buildings, and equipped with firearms as they became available, so they could fight, deter or at least slow down landings.
We have selected ten of these amazing towers: whether intact or in ruins, they are old, now peaceful stone guards – completely demilitarized in the mid-1800s – who quietly tell us about the history of one the most beautiful seas in the world.
Proceeding from north to south, we start in Porto Venere, Liguria with Torre Scola, a fortress flayed by cannon fire during an 1800 battle between Napoleon’s fleet and the British.
The pentagonal building (also known as the Tower of Saint John the Baptist) dates back to the late 16th century and is located above the northeast corner of the island of Palmaria, in the Gulf of Poets. It used to house ten soldiers and ten cannons, and was built by the Republic of Genoa to defend the coast from enemy incursions.
Torre Astura “is in the middle of the sea, tied to the land by a long, narrow bridge built over arches. It’s like a small brick castle with battlements. Climbing up to the loggias, you discover the entire sea and a double view. Under the sea you can see the foundations of old buildings with regular, geometric shapes. To the left, a ring of rocks with seagulls flying over them. An immense serenity: the sea is wide open.”
With these words, none other than Gabriele D’Annunzio described Torre Astura in Nettuno, Lazio, built at the end of the 12th century by the Frangipane family. Some say that Conradin of Swabia, king of Sicily, was imprisoned in this pentagonal fortress in 1268, before being decapitated by Charles d’Anjou of Naples later that year.
About 50 kilometers further down along the Lazio coast, you reach Cape Circeo, where Torre Paola marks the southern border of the beautiful, long Sabaudia Beach.
Built by Pope Pius IV in 1563, this proved a feisty tower – facing the Ottoman Turks more than once as they tried to reach Rome between 17th and 18th century, and fighting off the British in the 19th century. Luckily, it was never severely damaged in battle – and now awaits a plan for renewal.
The fourth maritime fortress we have selected is Torre Squillace in Apulia, on the Ionian Sea at the border between Nardò and Porto Cesareo. It is one of some eighty sighting towers in Salento, many of which were built after the infamous Turkish invasion of Otranto in 1480 – when the Ottomans killed 800 people in the beautiful village because they refused to disown Christianity.
The square-plan building was designed by Pensino Tarantino, and built between 1567 and 1570.
Approximately 30 kilometers south, we reach Torre del Pizzo, still in Salento and on the Ionian Sea, in the beautiful Bay of Gallipoli.
The wild nature surrounding this 16th-century white tower – built by Charles V – makes this stretch of the coastline one of Apulia’s most beautiful areas.
Torre Pali, in southern Salento, is 40 kilometers away. It belongs to the same family of Apulian towers built between the 16th and 18th century to face the Ottoman threat.
The ruins of this old circular tower, once on the mainland, are now surrounded by the sea and about twenty meters off the coast.
The last anti-Ottoman fortification in Salento we are showcasing is Torre Vado, less than 10 kilometers away from Torre Pali.
Not far from Santa Maria di Leuca, it used to be manned by a mounted courier who was always ready to take off and warn the people living in the hinterland about approaching danger.
Now let’s leave Apulia and move to Calabria to visit Torre Melissa, in the municipality of the same name: an Aragonese fortress facing the Ionian Sea, in the province of Crotone.
The building is home to a small museum and local cuisine restaurant, and offers a view of Capo Colonna and Cirò Marina, near the Gulf of Taranto, about 60 kilometers away.
From Calabria to Sicily: in Altavilla Milicia, in Palermo’s metropolitan area, the Torre delle Mandre is also known as “Norman Tower” although it has nothing to do with the Normans and actually dates back to the second half of the 16th century, when the Crown of Aragon was in power.
Built in defense against North-African pirates, Torre delle Mandre overlooks a small yet spectacular, emerald green gulf.
Here we are at the last maritime lookout in our selection: Torre del Prezzemolo, in Sardinia, near Sant’Elia, Cagliari.
Built in the 16th century and also known as “Tower of Cala Bernat” or “Lazaret Tower” (due to the nearby leper hospital), it is considered a “minor” tower because it was never armed, and used exclusively to control the territory (offering a clear view about twenty kilometers out).