On the Piazza Grande there is a building, finished in 1552, that belongs to La Fraternità dei Laici, which is a charitable organization a lot like the Rotary or the Lions. The important thing about this building, to us anyway, is its clock tower.
It’s a beautiful tower with a unique clock. Not only does it tell time, but also the phase of the moon and the sun. The carefully coordinated mechanism also rings the bells. We’d been intrigued by this clock ever since we arrived and, thanks again to our school, we had a private tour of the building and the tower.
|On top of the clock tower with our teacher, Monica (in green), and our fellow students|
The bells in the tower ring in various combinations on the quarter hour, from 6am to 6pm. The arrow on the clock tells the hour (they didn’t worry about minutes back then). The round ball in the center represents the earth with the sun and the moon orbiting around it (based on the astronomical conceptions of the time). The moon, represented by the large round ball nearest the earth, is half black and half gold and rotates to reflect the phases of the moon as well as circling the earth once a month. The sun also moves around the earth to indicate dusk at 3:00, midnight at 6:00, dawn at 9:00, and midday at 12:00.
One would think that a clock that does all this would be extremely complex. However, as you can see in the short video below, it’s just a few gears, levers and weights. The complexity is in the calibration that went into making sure it all works together.
Fortunately we were in the clock tower at the top of the hour to witness the machinery in action. For those of you who remember Rube Goldberg, it looks like one of his contraptions.
Also, it has to be wound - by hand - every other day. Yes, someone has been responsible for doing this for over 450 years. For the time being this duty has been designated to the woman who was our tour guide, who comes in even on holidays just to wind the clock. She says the task – which requires climbing several flights of stairs and rotating a heavy crank- gives her a great work-out and saves her from paying for a gym membership!
As with the collection in the Museo Galileo in Florence, it’s the combination of art and function that makes this clock so amazing. The designers translated what they knew about astronomy into a useful piece of art. And we think we’re so smart!!