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Berkeley's Campanile has a connection to Renaissance Venice

Steven Finacom
Saturday September 21, 2002


Did a beautiful Berkeley landmark rise in part because an Italian landmark fell? It’s speculation, but an interesting possibility.  

The Berkeley landmark is our famous bell tower, the Sather Campanile, designed by John Galen Howard and completed in 1914 as a centerpiece for the UC Berkeley campus. 

There were, of course, other famous free standing bell towers well before Berkeley’s Campanile. A century ago (July 14 1902), half a world away residents of Venice were shocked to hear and see one such tower—their cherished and ancient campanile in the Palazzo San Marco – give way and collapse to earth in a hail of shattered masonry and statuary.  

An eyewitness to the Venice collapse wrote in the Times of London, “On Monday, early, the Campanile was resplendent in the sunshine...Suddenly I saw it slowly sink directly downward behind a line of roofs, and a dense gray dust rose in clouds...On arrival the sight was pitiful. Of that splendid shaft all that remained was a mound of white dust, spreading to the walls of St. Marks (Cathedral).” 

Venice’s venerable brick campanile had been begun in the 12th century, and was considerably modified and expanded during the Renaissance, in the 16th century. After the collapse, Venetians decided to reconstruct their treasured tower. The replica, completed in 1912, still stands today.  

When the Venetian campanile collapsed, architects around the world surely took note of the dramatic structural failure of such a prominent building. One who heard the news, presumably, was John Galen Howard, the University of California's supervising architect. 

We don't know how news of the Venetian tower's collapse might have affected Howard. We do know, in the words of author Harvey Helfand, that Howard was, in part, “inspired by the campanile of San Marco in Venice” in his design for Berkeley’s Sather Campanile. 

Like other architects trained at the famous Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, Howard was inclined to model his designs on great buildings of the past while also improving on the original. And perhaps he considered the Venetian collapse in his work to design a campanile for Berkeley that would be both beautiful and strong. 

Howard’s final design for Berkeley’s campanile was about the same height and visually similar in many respects to the ill-fated Venetian campanile but sheathed in granite over steel, instead of red brick. The first known Howard sketches of different concepts and designs for the Berkeley tower date to February, 1903, coincidentally, or not, only about six months after the Venetian tower fell. 

It is also known that with the assistance of his consulting engineer on the project, Berkeley’s Dean of Engineering, Professor Charles Derleth, Jr., Howard made Berkeley's tower exceptionally resilient to collapse. 

Berkeley’s Campanile is not only a beautiful building but makes beautiful music with its world-renowned Carillon of 61 bells. A high quality recording of music of the Campanile is available, on a CD produced by the Berkeley Historical Society available in local stores. You can attend the CD’s “Release Party” 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Berkeley History Center, 1931 Center St. The event is free.