Escher's Twin Towers and Other Stories
Oh Bella Italia… There’s nothing better than strolling through a small Tuscan town, soaking up the sun and taking in the breathtaking views while enjoying some gelato. Such dreamy vacations already drew artists to the ravishing hills of Tuscany centuries ago – including the Dutch printmaker M.C. Escher, who we just introduced you to in Episode 17 about black and white stories.
Escher’s second trip to Northern Italy in 1922, took him not only to the Uffizi in Florence, but also to the beautiful little hill town of San Gimignano, in the province of Siena.
Unsurprisingly, the artist was stunned by the 13th century architecture of the mediaeval skyline, and was particularly impressed by the ‘Torri dei Salvucci’ on the Piazza del Duomo in San Gimignano.
These two monumental towers, mirroring each other perfectly with their height of 51 metres, quickly became known as ‘Torri Gemelle’ or twin towers, and symbolised the wealth and power of the city.
Upon returning to The Hague in 1923, Escher created two black and white woodcuts of the Tuscan town, with the Italian twin tower landmark towering over the hilltop views.
Art Fix: The two towers were built in the mid 13th-century, supposedly as a political move by the historic Salvucci family, who wanted to defy a 1255 ban for towers to be built higher than the Podestà Tower in Bologna. Their trick: the towers were built to be superimposed upon another, stacked like dominoes, and thus circumventing the restrictive ban.
But wait – don’t these towers look familiar? The ‘Torri Gemelle’ of San Gimignano bear a striking resemblance with the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which adorned New York City’s skyline some 800 years later, in 1964. Look closely – the similarities are uncanny!
Local guides in the village indeed claim that the architect of the iconic World Trade Center, Minoru Yamasaki, was inspired by the architecture of San Gimignano in his reach for the sky. Don’t believe it? The American architect didn’t plan to make two towers of the World Trade Center until after his visit to the whimsical Italian town.
Talk about artistic exchange! Countless artists were deeply inspired by the double trouble of both San Gimignano and NYC’s iconic twin towers. Before their tragic demise in the September 11 attacks in 2001, the American Twin Towers served as backdrop for a myriad of artworks, including some of the artists featured in our latest Art Fix episode. Take a look:
The American Minimalist Rosemarie Castoro set up a number of freestanding panels in the 1970s, that symbolized a site for the female body and took up the visual space of the spectator against the New York City skyline: a feminist statement.
Remember Agnes Denes from our episode The Outdoors is Calling? This Hungarian-American conceptual artist planted a two-acre wheat field on a landfill in Downtown Manhattan in May of 1982. The nature-inspired artwork reflected on the paradoxes of world trade and economics vis-à-vis global issues such as world hunger and climate change.
The Battery Park Landfill not only inspired Denes, but became the site of several conceptual and sculptural artworks in the early 1980s, before it was filled with apartment complexes that still stand today. Nancy Rubins recalls feeling tiny and in awe of the vast, empty lot while creating a sculpture made from found objects, à la Marcel Duchamp.
German photojournalist Thomas Hoepker, most famously known for his photographs of boxer Muhammad Ali, captured the spirit of New York with his photographs of the World Trade Center in the 1970s and 80s. Soon enough, the empty plot of Battery Park Landfill with its stunning views was flooded with locals and tourists alike, who came to enjoy the sun and escape the heat of the city during summers. Several artists set up public installations during this time for the crowds to enjoy. Looking back, these photographs retain an eerie atmosphere, knowing that only some 20 years later, catastrophe would strike the state capital.
It was these works of art, and many more, that secured the Twin Towers a permanent place in popular culture, but who knew that the identical towers traced their origins all the way back to medieval Italy?