Torre della Sapienza (Tower of Wisdom) – Averara, Italy - Atlas Obscura

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Torre della Sapienza (Tower of Wisdom)

Averara, Italy

This enigmatic piece of art is a mnemonic device from the early Renaissance. 


In the 14th and 15th centuries, spice merchants, devout pilgrims, and Knights Templar were a common sights in Averara, a mountain hamlet that lies along one of the most important routes connecting Italy to the rest of Europe. One day in 1446, Don Davide Bottagisi, the local priest, unveiled an unusual fresco on the porch of the church. At the time (as now), artwork in places of worship mainly depicted Jesus, Mary, or patron saints. But instead of these themes, the onlookers were confronted with an array of staircases, columns, and brick walls covered with Latin words. This was the Torre della Sapienza, also known as the Tower of Wisdom.

Simply put, this fresco was a didactic and mnemonic device designed to document and transmit ethical notions to current and future generations. For example, on the columns in the lower section of the fresco are still, barely readable, the words Temperantia, Iustitia, Fortitudo, and Prudentia.  Their location suggests that these are among the key virtues that underpin the whole ethical edifice of a righteous Christian way of life—at least, according to this artist.

The idea of using script and illustrations as a mnemonic device was introduced in Italy by a Dominican friar by the name of Francesco Bonaccorso. Emissaries who had traveled through parts of Asia brought this technique to Greece, where Bonaccorso spent decades as a missionary; examples of this form of catechism in Italy started appearing immediately after Bonaccorso’s return to Italy, and the Tower of Wisdom in Averara is part of this trend.

Nowadays, the Tower of Wisdom is badly damaged, and parts of it have disappeared altogether. Although its purpose is clear, we can no longer appreciate each section of this piece of early Renaissance art. Looking for a silver lining, one could argue that the fresco has re-acquired that feel of mystery and secrecy that shrouded the era in which it was created. 

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