Belfries of Belgium and France
Belfries Of Belgium And France
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Cultural Belgium,france Europe And North America

Belfries are outstanding representatives of civic and public architecture in Europe. Through the variety of their 'functional' forms and the changes they have undergone they have been a vital aspect of civic architecture in Europe since the 13th century. They are unique constructions reflecting the development of civil authority that marked the history of Flanders (in its historical sense) from the Middle Ages onwards.

Referring originally to mobile wooden towers used in siege warfare, the term was later applied to the wooden watchtowers mounted on the palisades surrounding the portus or pre-urban centres. It was to be applied in particular to those housing bells or standing next to the bell tower. Palisades, bells and the right to possess bells are all closely associated with the development of urban life. The 31 belfries in Flanders and Wallonia and the 23 in north-eastern France, invariably found in an urban setting, are imposing bell towers of medieval origin, generally attached to the town hall and occasionally to a church. In addition to their outstanding artistic value, the belfries are potent symbols of the transition from feudalism to the mercantile urban society that played a vital role in the development of late medieval Europe. The belfries are both civic buildings and symbols, and highly significant tokens of the achievement of civil liberties acquired through the dissolution the abbeys that had remained sovereign since the high Middle Ages.

The early belfries of the 13th and early 14th centuries are strongly reminiscent of the seignieurial keep, from which they take their massive square form, elevations showing sparing use of openings, and rising storeys built on or designed for vaulting. The main shaft is topped by a wall walk and parapet running between bartizans: the central spire features a slate campanile roof and variations on a number of forms. The finials of the corner and central turrets are decorated with animals or symbolic characters protecting the commune. The 13th-century belfry of Ieper (Ypres) is a fine example of this type, although it forms part of the market hall complex later to include the town hall, construction of which continued down to the 17th century.

Most of the examples concerned cover the periods of the 14th-15th and 16th-17th centuries, thereby offering an illustration of the transition in style from Norman Gothic to later Gothic, which then mingles with Renaissance and Baroque forms. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the belfries abandoned the model of the keep in favour of finer, taller towers, such as those of Dendermonde, Lier and Aalst. The subsequent addition to the top of the shaft of a narrower, different shape to serve as the base for the campanile would give the desired monumental effect, and the roof itself would take on more bulbous, sometimes extended lines, as in the case of Veurne (17th century).

When the market halls and belfries grew too small to function as a meeting-place for the aldermen, a new type of building was required, the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), clearly designed in accordance with the administrative organization and, from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards, assuming an obvious representative role achieved by incorporating the symbolic belfry, as in the examples of Brussels and Oudenaarde.

Their construction often took place in several stages, but they have always been maintained in good overall order. Some, damaged by war, have been rebuilt, generally in identical form. All are listed as historic monuments, either in isolation or as part of an edifice, a square, or an urban site.

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