What bells tolled for
The sound of the bells in St Mark’s square is something all Venetians are familiar with. They can be heard all over the city and not just. Once I met a fisherman from Burano and he told me in the middle of the night while fishing in the lagoon, he could tell it was midnight by the sound of St Mark’s bells (enjoy reading my blogpost: http://www.seevenice.it/fishermen-in-burano-and-the-venetian-lagoon/).
Bells in the past were tolling not just to announce specific times of the day or religious services. For instance, they could toll to warn about some pirates’ attacks, or inform the residents there was a fire going on and everybody was summoned to help. Or about curfew. As a matter of fact, the main bell of St Mark’s campanile (meaning bell tower) gave the guardians the signal to open the gates of the Jewish ghetto every morning till 1797.
The names of the bells of St Mark’s bell tower
At the moment you can see five bells tolling in St Mark’s bell tower in Venice. In the past, there were more, some say six, some say seven. The current ones are called like the “traditional” five bells that were placed in the bell tower in the 15th century. So to remember the old ones, these bells are called Marangona (the largest one), the Nona (or Mezzana), the Pregadi, the Trottiera and the Maleficio. Their names originally referred to the moment when they were meant to be used. So the Marangona bell refers to the Arsenale’s carpenters and used to toll at the beginning of the working day. The Pregadi was the Venetian word referring to the Senate and the bell tolled to give the signal to senators to rush and meet in the Doge’s palace. Trottiera refers to the trotting horses used by the government’s members to reach the palace for their meetings. Finally Nona refers to the ninth hour of the day (more or less midday) when it was tolled and the Maleficio (spell, enchantment) was to announce capital executions.
How old are St Mark’s bell tower’s bells?
None of these bells is really old. When on July 14th at 9,47am in 1902, the bell tower collapsed, four of the five bells present in the building got destroyed, too. The largest one, called Marangona, was intact, but even in this case, we talk about a bell that had been cast during the Hapsburg domination of Venice.
A curiosity: when St Mark’s church became a cathedral in 1807, the Patriarch thought the bell tower needed new bells, much larger than the existing ones. So in order to cast the new ones, they used the bronze of the existing ones plus over 6,000 bells coming from other churches or monasteries that had been destroyed, closed down or secularised by Emperor Napoleon. But the new bells ended up being far too heavy and they were never used… So when the Hapsburg Empire took over, they created new bells, among which the Marangona we see today is the only one that survived the crash of the bell tower in 1902.
How the four bells of St Mark’s tower were created
It was not easy to cast the four missing bells considering they had to tune in with the existing one. A special committee was appointed composed by two chapels’ directors from Padua and Venice, the director of the Music Conservatory in Milan and Ermanno Secondo Barigozzi that ran a celebrated foundry in Milan (the link is http://www.fonderianapoleonica.it/).
Barigozzi came to Venice to understand the note the Marangona bell was tuned in with — it was a “la” (the note A)— and understood the other bells had to be: si, do diesis, re and mi (which correspond to B, C sharp, D and E).
Barigozzi used the bronze of the destroyed bells and the island of Sant’Elena in Venice was chosen as the place where to do the casting.
There is something about the moment when bronze is cast that makes it a special event. It is really moving and scary, at the same time. Foundry workers as Hephaestus, the smithing god, stand in front of fire melting the metal. They clean the surface from all kinds of impurities, removing them with a large ladle dipping it in the incandescent liquid. It really looks as if they stood in front of a vulcano’s mouth with boiling lava soon to be poured into a form designed by humans.
You have to choose the right moment, wait till the metal has reached the correct temperature and then… go!
Even for St Mark’s bells the casts of the four bells were kept under the ground. The earth all around had to keep at bay the amazing metal pressure of 8 tons of bronze. The fusion took place on April 24th 1909 and the sound control was made in June. No need to say it was successful. But till then, who could say it would work?
One last curiosity: the bells do not show the name of Barigozzi. There is a blank left where the name should have appeared. Why? I will be glad to share with you this part of the story when we meet and climb the bell tower to observe Venice from above!