How many churches are there in Florence? I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me thousands. And of those churches, what percentage have bell towers? And for those with bells, who rings them? Is the ringing done by humans or is it mechanical? How often do the bells ring? And why? Do they ring to help people tell time, or for some other reason?
To be clear, I do not know the answers to these questions. But my curiosity is re-
awakened daily. Four times every hour, to be exact.
In the neighborhood of San Frediano, where we live, there are at least five churches that dot the narrow streets and piazzas. Some are grand, little Duomos in their own right, with bell towers and cupolas, while some seem to be in hiding, tucked into the golden stone of the walls without any marking at all. Our favorite is a rough-hewed stone church in the piazza near us; a simple, somber edifice with heavy wooden doors that make it look like a hand-made fortress.
At least two of these neighborhood churches have bell-towers. So far, here is what I have learned about how they work:
The idea of a bell sounding “every 15 minutes” is more of a stretch-goal than a strict requirement. Depending on the time of day, and the day itself, the bell may sound once an hour, or on the half hours.
At night, I don’t think the bells sound at all (but, to be fair, I’m usually asleep so I can’t be sure)
The bells have always started by 7am when I am awake again
Sometimes two bell towers ring, sometimes only one.
Sometimes, none ring.
From these facts I can draw at least two conclusions to my original curiosities: (1) The bells are most certainly rung by humans, not a pre-set machine; (2) The churches either: follow a strict pattern based on time and message, or their only law is total randomness.
The only other facts I have are about the mechanics of the bell ringing. The other day we were lucky enough to be in the plaza of The Duomo near sundown, right on the hour. Of course, being The Duomo, the bell tower has not one but dozens of bells, and standing beneath them the chimes were so loud that they created a sense of silence, for a moment deafening us to all other sound. Looking up, we could see the bells swinging on the beams that rocked them, flashing like fishes in the silvering dark.
Since then, whenever I hear a bell, I think of those thick wooden beams, those flashes of metal. There goes one now, a single toll — not the usual chiming riotous clamor. How did they decide to haul on the rope just once today? And where is the person who normally hauls on the other rope from the harmonizing church-tower? I wait eagerly for the next 15 minute mark, and then for the hour mark after that, to see if a pattern emerges. Whenever my awareness picks up the sound of a bell ringing, I am suddenly on full alert, noting how many, from where, what time, what melody they ring out. I work on it like an enigmatist, trying to decipher into the message the bells are trying to send to us, their pealing appeal to humanity. And suddenly I realize that maybe they’ve already succeeded in their message, even before I had the chance to decode it. “Take a moment,” they call out, “Pay attention to now again. Why should this minute, falling at the end of one hour and the beginning of another, be more worthy of attention than the next? Pay attention often, pay attention fully, feel how with every ring you’re pulled up, out of your mind— as if the sound built a bridge for you to crawl out away from your cluttered inner thoughts and into the sky, looking down at the beautiful city below. Reminding you where you are.”
It’s a nice message, and I heed it. It's no good at all for helping tell the time — but maybe that is overrated too.
It is tomorrow morning, from when I wrote this piece. (Of course, in reality, it’s still today, as always.) The bells woke me up at 7:00am, pealing with abandon. Ah ha, I thought as if I’d caught them doing something they shouldn’t, now we’ll see how many times you ring. Seven, I bet you. I began to count with the tolls, five… six… seven… eight….. nine? ….
I stopped counting when I reached 12 and the bells rang on. After the next 15 minutes, another riotous celebration of brass and clapper.
I am left to conclude that today must be a very special day to have such celebrations.