The Rise and Fall of the Ivory Tower

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory Tower
Prof. Roy DeVille

With all of the dismal news of late, it appears that our “ivory towers” may indeed be falling. Louisiana’s institutions of higher learning face a monetary crisis and there seems to be a mad shuffle going on that may result in “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  Of course that term, “ivory tower”, has not always indicated a place of learning. In fact, today’s university may be anything but! Ivory was considered a beautiful but highly impractical building material. Towers were seen as a fortresses or lookouts by which one could be protected from dangerous and warring forces. The term “ivory tower” in the modern sense is somewhat derogatory. Since the 19th century, it has been used to describe a world where intellectuals pursue lofty ideals disengaged from practical everyday life.

An ivory tower was originally a symbol for purity. First found in the Song of Solomon, the term became a medieval epithet for the Virgin Mary, the turris eburnea. The Virgin was also labeled the hortus conclusus, enclosed garden, in medieval poetry and is shown in this fashion in paintings and illuminated manuscripts from the 14th century. The French literary critic, Sainte-Beuve, used the term “ivory tower” to distinguish political attitudes of those such as the elitist, Alfred de Vigny, from those of the more socially minded such as Victor Hugo.

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory TowerThe white neo-gothic Hawksmoor Towers at All Souls College, Oxford, are called the Ivory Towers. All Souls is of course the only college of Oxford University to be dedicated solely to academic research, so perhaps the label is fitting. In 2004, a newly constructed dormitory at George Washington University was named The Ivory Tower, much to the chagrin of the faculty.

The history of the tower is a colorful one.  Towers have been used since prehistoric times as fortresses, defense lookouts, prisons and venues of execution. The oldest known is the circular tower in the Neolithic walls of the city of Jericho, dating from 8,000 BCE.  The Sumerians built massive ziggurats such as the famous one at Ur. The Celts were apparently masters at building towers. Two surviving round towers, in churchyards at Abernethy and Brechin, Scotland, gave sure warning of Viking raids.

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory TowerOne of my favorite teaching examples is the Michaeliskirche of Hildesheim, Germany. This abbey church is the finest example of Ottonian (early Romanesque) architecture.  The church, built between 1001 – 1031 CE, has two transepts and four towers. The Germans, of course, loved towers and every town, large or small, had a tower from which the Stadtpfeifer (town musician) announced the hours and, after the Reformation, played chorales.

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory TowerThe tower came into its own in medieval Britain. St. Michael’s Tower at Glastonbury is all that is left of the lavish Benedictine monastery destroyed by Henry VIII. The infamous Tower of London, begun by William of Normandy in the 1070’s, holds much of England’s history within its walls. Built as a fortress, the Tower first became a residence during the reign of the one and only King John. In the 15th century, residence changed to prison, and by the reign of Henry VIII and his two lovely daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, the Tower was the execution venue of choice.

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory TowerEngland continued to lead the way in tower design through church architecture. There are basically two types of church towers and these can be attributed to Christopher Wren and James Gibbs, England’s leading 17th-18th-century architects. Church design in Anglican England involved a symmetrical arrangement of a “box” (nave) with a rectangular tower. But Wren and Gibbs had different ideas about this rectangular tower. Wren pushed the tower to the front of the “box” so that it rose from the ground, either at the center or to one side. Gibbs built his towers inside the church so as to design a full classical portico across the church façade. A Gibbs tower either comes through the roof or appears to be sitting on the roof at the gable line. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, designed by Gibbs and built 1721-1726, is the finest example of his work and became the prototype of the Anglican parish church. In fact, it was the most widely copied church design in 19th-20th-century America.  When our children were small, road trips included the playing of the “Wren-Gibbs game.” When a church was passed, the first one to call out “Wren!” or “Gibbs!” would win a point. The holder of the most points when we reached our destination would be rewarded. So much for teaching art history, but if you ask them today about church architecture they will be able to tell you, “Wren, Gibbs, or tin building with spire!”

The Rise and Fall of the Ivory TowerBut just as towers rise, so they fall. I can imagine that one of the most spectacular falls took place in Venice in 1902. The Campanile of San Marco was built in the 10th century as a military watchtower. Sitting at the end of the Piazza di San Marco, where land meets lagoon, the Campanile provided a vast lookout for defense. Five bells were housed in the Campanile, used for conveying five different messages from the largest that rang to signal the beginning and end of the workday to the smallest, “il maleficio,” pronouncing the moment of an execution. On the morning of April 25, 1902, the tower collapsed and slowly sank into the ground. Miraculously, no one was killed, except the tower keeper’s cat. San Marco’s Campanile was rebuilt to exact specifications and completed on April 25, 1912, exactly 1,000 years after the laying of the original foundation.  Sadly, it too has begun to lean. Reconstructive work began in January, 2009. Venice must be trying to avoid the fate of Pisa! The five bells still ring, purely for effect.

Despite our technological advancement, towers still fall. Ivory towers, too. Perhaps Venice is to be commended for rebuilding their Campanile exactly as it had been. Perhaps we need to rediscover that ephemeral love of learning and passion for intellectual pursuit that seems to have crumbled along with the disintegration of the modern “ivory tower.”