Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Il Campanone: The Great Bell

Today's photos:


1. The façade of St. Peter's Basilica. Notice the bell beneath the clock on the right side of the church.

2. Here's a close-up of the clock/bell scene.

3. And here's a close-up of the bell itself.

4. The Campanone in action.

5. St. Paulinus is said to have begun the use of the bell in churches in the fifth century. Can you find a bell in the photo?

6. Even though this picture is small, it would be hard to miss the bell!

7. This is the largest bell in existence. Do you know where it is?



It is not the largest in the world, not even in Italy; it is not the oldest, not even in Rome; but it is by far the most important and most famous, and not only in Rome. We're talking about the Great Bell (il Campanone) of St. Peter's Basilica, the largest of the six bells on the right side of the façade of the church.


What makes this bell so important is that it is rung only on special occasions. You will hear it on Easter Sunday and Christmas day, as well as on June 29, the feast day of Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. It will peal steadily, slowly and sadly to announce the death of a pope. It rang to salute Pope Benedict XVI as he left the Vatican for Castelgandolfo after his surprise resignation.


But perhaps the most exciting and joyful occasion when the Campanone resounds in all its majesty is at the election of a new pope. When the smoke rises from the famous chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, it takes a minute or two before one can see from the piazza whether it is white or black; it appears to be grey before settling in to an unmistakable  white or black. But in that twilight minute or two of uncertainty, if the Campanone begins to peal you know that a new pope has been elected. The strokes of the Great Bell are then joined by the joyful sounds of the other five so that it is practically a symphony of bells.


The Campanone can boast a 230 year history as it was fused by Luigi Valadier shortly before his death in 1785.


A curiosity


Don't think that I have made a mistake with the name Luigi Valadier. He was the father of the more well-known Giuseppe Valadier. It was the son, Giuseppe, who designed the two clocks on the façade of the basilica, one of which is just above the bells, but it was dad who forged the Great Bell.


Until 1931 the bells of the basilica were rung by hand (lots of hands, I presume!), but ever since that year they have been operated electronically. The new technology must have left several bell ringers unemployed! The Campanone is not the oldest of the six; that honor belongs to one of the smaller ones which dates to 1238. The "baby" of the group was fused in 1932. The six bells together weigh 15 tons, the Campanone alone accounting for nine of those tons.


You wouldn't know it by looking at it from the piazza below, but the bell is richly decorated with the figures of the twelve apostles, various sea creatures and little children. To give you an idea of its size, consider that it has a circumference of over seven meters and is almost four meters tall.


A curiosity


When the Italian forces of unification gained control of the city in 1849 (temporarily, as it turned out), Pius IX was forced to flee Rome. The Papal State was officially disbanded and a Roman Republic was established in its place. Despite the anti-papacy mood prevailing in Rome at the time, the people did not want to abandon the tradition of the papal blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the City and to the World). It was imparted by a simple priest, accompanied, of course, by the solemn peals of the Campanone!


Beginning with the time of Constantine in the early fourth century, the faithful were summoned to religious services, not by a bell, but by the blasts of a trumpet. It seems that bells were first introduced by St. Paulinus (355-431), the bishop of Nola, a small town near Pompeii in the Italian region of Campania. It is from this tradition that the Italian language gets the word campana (bell). Campanone is simply an augmentative of campana. As you might expect, St. Paulinus is the patron saint of bell ringers, at least the few of them left who are still at work in this electronic age!


(For an interesting and amusing story about Paulinus, as well as another picture of him, see my book: Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, p. 42 and pp. 78-80).


A curiosity


The largest bell by far in existence is in Moscow, in the Kremlin. It was made in 1736 and its 11.5 tons outweigh the Campanone by over two tons. However, the Russian bell has never been rung because it developed an enormous crack as it was being mounted, as is evident in the picture above.


I think there will be occasions during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year when we'll hear our Campanone in action, beginning with the opening ceremony on December 8.


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