Jan
23

Clocking in

By
The church of San Geremia, with its splendid tower and even more splendid invisible clock, seen looking up the Cannaregio Canal. (Canaletto, Wikiart.)

The church of San Geremia, with its splendid tower and even more splendid invisible clock, seen looking up the Cannaregio Canal. (Canaletto, Wikiart.)

Before wristwatches, there were bells, usually in towers.  But for the bells to be useful, somebody had to know what time it was, so a clock needed to be lurking somewhere — preferably attached to the bells.  Of course, clocks didn’t have to have bells.  But bells were irrelevant without a clock.

So if ingenuity appeals to you, I suggest you go to the church of S. Geremia, near the train station, to observe one of the oldest clocks in Europe; it is the still-functioning mechanism that kept their two bells ringing — with a 70-year interlude — ever since the 1500’s.  (No, there doesn’t seem to be a definite date to the clock’s arrival; I have turned the booklet’s information inside and out, and now it’s my brain that feels like a piece of origami.  So “1500’s” will have to do for now.)

(For those whose minds can never be at rest, let me add that the first public clock in Italy was installed in the tower of the church of Sant’ Eustorgio in Milan between 1297 and 1306.) (I will not be reporting anything about Sant’ Eustorgio.)

Here is the creature, alive again. The pendulum is visible as a blur toward the right (can't stop working). Sorry the picture doesn't convey the TICK TOCK which some writers poetically compare to the beat of the human heart, which of course is just another machine.

Here is the creature, alive again. The pendulum is visible as a dark disk in front of the wound-up cord on the right. Sorry the picture doesn’t convey the TICK TOCK which some writers poetically compare to the beat of the human heart, which of course is just another machine.

The tower of S. Geremia has a clock, but no clock-face.  In fact,  only a few churches in Venice whose bells still alert us to the time also display a visible clock.  Clock-faces became common in the 1500’s, the result of I don’t know what impulse, because when you think about it, the striking bells told you everything you needed to know without a visual aid.  The belltower of the church of the Carmini, whose bells told me the time for the ten years I lived nearby, has no clock face.  I never thought about that till this moment.  Just hearing the hour and quarter-hour struck was enough to keep me oriented over the course of the day (and night). But because somebody had to know exactly what time it was, there was a sundial, still visible, on the tower of S. Geremia, which enabled this person to calibrate the works, by hand, exactly at noon.  I’ll explain the importance of that in a minute (sorry).

This mechanism is probably one of the simplest, but it still impresses the hoo out of me.  Not being literate in the language of wheels — cog, fly, escape, Catherine — I’m not convinced that it was made by an engineer and not by an alchemist or general all-purpose thaumaturge.  The important point is that it was maintained in working order till 1950.  At that point it went into retirement, until a restoration project brought it back to life in 2015.

From a few steps away, the clock mechanism doesn't look so very complicated. Up close, you begin to appreciate the precision involved in making every single component.

From a few steps away, the clock mechanism doesn’t look so very complicated. Up close, you begin to appreciate the precision involved in making every single component.

Here is the brief biography, helpfully placed by the clock. The 31-page booklet by Francesco Zane is left out on a table, but the text is only in Italian.

Here is the brief biography, helpfully placed behind the clock. A 32-page booklet by Francesco Zane, which explains literally everything, is left out on a table, but the text is only in Italian.  Pay attention to VIETATO TOCCARE — it is forbidden to touch.  Why would anyone want to touch it?  To see if it’s really working?  It must be the same urge that impels people to climb into bear enclosures.

And while we're speaking of signs, a shout-out to the restoration project: "

And while we’re speaking of signs, a shout-out to the restoration project: “For the generous munificence of the F.I.G.C. (Italian Soccer Federation) and the Venice chapter of the Italian Association of Referees the centuries-old clock of the tower of S. Geremia now lives again after a long silence marking the ringing of good seasons.”  Perhaps it sounds better in Italian than English, but it’s all true.

Venice was a city of towers and there were many more than there are today.  In 1601, a certain Franz Schott, writing a guidebook entitled “Itinerario d’Italia,” stated that Venice contained 27 public clocks, and “towers for church bells 114.”  Today, there are 84.  We can thank Napoleon for this devastation.

Schott, being German, made those useful distinctions because they weren’t all clock-towers — some were watchtowers, or signal towers, or showing-off towers built by especially rich people.

Venice in its towery days looked pretty much like this. Compliments to Michelle Lovric and her book, “Talina in the Tower.” (Orion Children’s Books, 2012)

The need for clocks (have you never reflected on why there was a need for clocks?) seems to have begun in the Benedictine monasteries, to ensure the correct timing of the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day — and night. But there was also a need for order in arranging the day’s activities out in the profane world, so people got used to organizing themselves according to the bells rung for religious purposes.

Here is how a typical medieval day in Venice rolled along, at least until the 1500’s, from the comprehensive booklet written by Francesco Zane (translated by me):

“Until the 1600’s the devout custom continued of following the divine offices during the night, and the doge never missed attending in his chapel, just as the Greek emperors (I presume he means Byzantine emperors) and the French and Longobard kings.  (The “divine offices during the night” would have occurred at midnight and 3:00 AM.  No wonder he dozed off in meetings.)

“As the sun rose behind the campanile of San Marco, at the sound of a bell each person got busy working, and seeing that the most numerous artisans were the carpenters, in Venice called marangoni, they named that bell the Marangona.  The magistrates seated and the workshops already buzzing, not a few patricians … gathered at Rialto beneath the porticoes, which are to the right as you descend the bridge, for the sole purpose of seeing each other and talking together, while at the same hour and in the remaining porticoes (was) a crowd of merchants — Florentine, Genoese, Lombards, Spanish, Saracens, and of whatever nation of the world was involved in major business.  They stayed there till noon, when it was time for lunch.

“…lunchtime was brief, only half an hour after noon had struck, when another bell …  struck for a half hour calling everyone back to work, so that the entire time allowed for the pause was only one hour. When night fell, work and public business necessarily ended, but it wasn’t unusual whenever and where it was requested or needed that the magistrates would continue to work on state business.

If you’ve ever noticed the bell ringing every day at 2:00 PM from the campanile of San Marco, that was the signal ending the lunch break for the Arsenal workers.

“Finally, at the third hour of the night (Compline, or 9:00 PM), another bell was rung … after which you could no longer walk around the city … nor could you keep fires burning in shops and houses on pain of a fine of 100 soldi, by which provision the habitations, which were, for the main part, of wood, were preserved from fire.  But in the 1400’s it was permitted for barbers and small food shops to remain open after “terza della notte” (6:00 PM).

All these are times that correspond to the canonical hours, which persisted till the 1700’s.  Slightly confusing, because the day was considered to begin at sunset.  “Prime” was 6:00 AM, “Terza” was 9:00 AM, “Sesta” was 12:00 PM, and “Nona” was 3:00 PM.  Documents often refer to meetings and other events as occuring before or at or after a certain named bell.  Everybody knew what “Nona” meant, just as I’ve gotten used to knowing what “Candelora” and “l’Immacolata” mean in terms of dates.

Another view of the belltower of S. Geremia by Canaletto, this time looking across the Cannaregio Canal. The church is the small building in the center distance;

It fell to the bells to keep a city of 100,000 people functioning efficiently; the Venetian government needed to ensure that everybody knew what time it was, and S. Geremia was one of four churches which officially sounded the time for any governmental meeting, especially the Great Council. (The other official churches were the Frari, San Francesco della Vigna, and, of course, San Marco, all the highest towers in Venice and all necessarily synchronized, which is where the sundials came in.)  Seeing that the Council numbered some 2,000 members who lived all over the city, these four strategically placed belltowers totally removed any chance for someone to arrive late saying he hadn’t heard the summons. Being sure of a standard citywide time enabled the office timekeeper to define what “showing up late” meant, which made it easy to impose the appropriate fine.

Out in the parishes, when the bells rang for Prime (dawn) every morning, the appointed persons would open the thousands of public wells, which had been covered at night.  (Reports of the occasional suicide make it clear why this was desirable.)  This practice was maintained, perhaps toward the end without the bells, until the acqueduct from the mainland was built in 1884.

Also at Prime, every day from 1516 to 1797, the bells from S. Geremia signaled the guards to open the gates to the Ghetto.  At the bell of 6:00 PM the gates were closed and bolted, and the night patrol began its circuit — in boats, naturally — of the walls of the Ghetto.

Who paid for this clock?  S. Geremia didn’t have a monastery to justify or fund it; its use was entirely secular, and the parishioners paid for it.  San Geremia was one of the largest parishes in Venice, and by the late 1200’s had developed both economically and socially well beyond its poor, marshy beginnings. There were many businesses which depended on knowing what time it was — for example, the foundries.

The city’s oldest foundries were in the parish of S. Geremia, in the area which later was assigned to the Ghetto.  The period between the 13th and 14th centuries saw rapid innovations throughout Europe, and one writer says that it was no coincidence that the first artillery and clocks began to appear at the same time.  Among other things, the Venetian foundries cast bombards, or early cannon, as well as creating the alloys used for other assorted weapons. Foundry workers were required to live in the parish.  I give this as a fact, though I can’t provide the reason, except for the fact that virtually everyone resided near their place of work.

To return to the clock: There are signs that it was cast by the “Dondi” foundry.  Several generations of Dondis distinguished themselves in the realm of timepieces.  Clock people (of whom I am not one; I’m just passing through) venerate the name of Giovanni Dondi Dall’ Orologio (“of the clock”), who in 1364 completed work on his Astrarium, a complex astronomical clock which one source calls “one of the most important machines of all time.”

To sum up: Artisans and engineers at the pinnacle of their skill collaborated to make this sturdy, unstoppable instrument.  I have no doubt that they looked upon it and saw that it was good, though they might not have imagined it would keep going for 500 years.  That’s a heck of a lot of TOCKs.

The belltower of the church of the SS. Apostoli (Holy Apostles) still looks like this today, long after this portrait by Canaletto, with bells and clock-face and everything. Tassini, who is never to be doubted in any way, records the Harold-Lloyd adventure of the church’s aged priest, Domenico Longo, who in 1672 was up in the belltower, slipped, and fell out, being saved from instant death by his clothes becoming snagged on the “spheres” of the clock. He hung there till help arrived (method of help not specified, nor the number of onlookers who must have crowded around the scene almost instantly.)

Saved by the spheres! Or points, or whatever. (Photo: Didier Descouens, detail).

Saved by the spheres! Or points, or whatever. Notice the numeral “1” written as “J,” which I have only seen on the island of Burano. Sharp-eyed reader Robert Fusillo has informed me that it is the Roman numeral for “1” and I have subsequently discovered that “j” is a “swash variant” of a “lower-case Roman numeral” for 1.  I’d never heard of a lower-case numeral, but life just keeps pushing information into my brain.  (Photo: Didier Descouens, detail).

The church of San Francesco di Paola in via Garibaldi also sports a clock -- or did, until some time during WW 2 it stopped working.  Rather than repair it, the parishioners removed it and left its shadow behind.  Too bad -- a clock that worked would be extremely useful there.

The church of San Francesco di Paola in via Garibaldi also sports a clock — or did, until some time during WW 2 it stopped working. Rather than repair it, the parishioners removed it and left its shadow behind. Too bad — a clock that worked would be extremely useful there.

And as we see, here too the renowned "1" in the shape of a "J" appears.

And as we see, here too the renowned “1” in the shape of a “J” appears.  If the image seems slightly out of focus, it’s thanks to the fog this morning.

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Categories : Venetian-ness

Comments

  1. Mary Ann DeVlieg says:

    Wonderful. May your indefatigable curiosity always outstrip that of ours, your loyal readers, so that we are duly nourished with intellectual delights.

  2. Caterina B says:

    Wow! Very interesting. I love stuff like this. Thanks.
    Now I am going to reveal my ignorance. Why was the ghetto locked up at night?
    Surely something to do with religion, I imagine. Was there some supposedly logical reason? I could research that myself anyway,and ought to.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I don’t want to give a glib answer to a very complex phenomenon, but the relations between Christians and Jews in Europe has been from uneasy to disastrous, as we know. I will say two things: The Ghetto was locked and, I believe, guarded too, during Christmas and Easter, when hot-headed Venetians would attempt a little pogrom because the Jews killed Jesus. On the other hand, the fact that the Jewish community here prospered for so long was an indication that Jews felt safe here — not only physically, but commercially. The stability of the Venetian state and economy was exceptional, and as many as 5,000 Jews enjoyed the benefits of both. “Venetian Ghetto” on Wikipedia is helpful, and so is the site of the Jewish Museum in the Ghetto: http://www.museoebraico.it/english/home.asp is also good..

  3. John Flint says:

    Che capolavoro! (tour de force in English?). And the wonderful images! Yes, we all celebrate your indefatigable curiosity, as Mary Ann writes. I still have not had time to read all your stories and follow them up with my own reading. They are like a treasure house with what seems like an infinite number of hidden chambers waiting to be explored, or a book so fascinating that I never hope to finish it. (But I can always read it again in that case.)

  4. Linda says:

    Excellent story, thank you. I’ll need to read it again (perhaps more than once) to catch the details. On the subject of clocks, any chance you can enlighten me as to why the church on Via Garibaldi has a painted clock face? I always wonder.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I knew there was something I’d forgotten!

      In fact, I had every intention of including a photo and explanation. Maybe I’ll revise.

      Short version: There used to be a clock. It was removed. It was decided not to replace it. Everybody was used to seeing a clock there so they just painted one on. “9:30” has no particular significance.

      This was told to me by an old priest of the church. Before I publish anything, I should probably cross-check it with some of the life-long denizens I know.

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