Rome's battle of the bells

In Rome, the capital of Christendom, which has some 600 churches with over 1,500 bells in their bell towers, the ancient art of bell-ringing has almost died out.

Fabio Angelici has installed automated bell systems in dozens of churches - Autor: BBC News Rome
Fabio Angelici has installed automated bell systems in dozens of churches - Autor: BBC News Rome

For centuries the church bells of Rome, apart from marking the hours, have tolled to mark the death of a pope, to celebrate the great festivals of Christmas and Easter, and to remind the faithful to come to Mass on Sunday.

But bell-ringers are a dying breed. Their place has been taken by automated equipment which has - in all but a handful of churches - replaced the traditional bell-ropes.

Every church used to have a sacristan whose job it was to ring the bells.

Nowadays the bells are almost all mechanised, driven by a chain system attached to gears and an electric motor.

Fabio Angelici has been installing automated press-button bell systems in Roman churches for the past 30 years.

"Romans," he says, "have lost the fine habit of enjoying church bells on a Sunday morning and waking up to the sound of bells.

"On the contrary, bell-ringing has become a nuisance for many people. The law now limits the ringing of church bells in exactly the same way as if they were part of an alarm system."

Bells to cannon balls

In northern Italy there are thousands of amateur bell-ringers who ring changes, hold bell concerts and visit churches in Italy and elsewhere in Europe to practise their art.

An Italian bell foundry

The last bell foundry in Rome closed in 1993 after 500 years

Last June, a national bell-ringing festival in Castelnuovo del Garda, near Verona, attracted more than 3,000 enthusiasts.

But in Rome - apparently - practically none remain.

The oldest bronze bell I have been able to discover in Rome is in the medieval belfry of the Church of Saint Nicholas, built right on top of an ancient Roman temple.

The ancient bell has a distinctive tubular shape and you can still read the date when it first rang out: it was cast here by Guidotto, from Pisa, exactly 722 years ago.

In times of siege, bells were sometimes melted down and turned into cannon balls.

Some Romans only wish more bells had disappeared in the course of time says Mr Angelici, whose father worked in Rome's last bell foundry, which closed in 1993, after 500 years of activity.

"If anyone in the parish complains about noise, which they claim causes distress or damage, the police now have the power to stop the bells. Not so long ago church bells were the signal for people to go to work, and to return home to eat at midday. That's all finished now."

Only a tiny minority of Roman priests - like Don Battista Pansa, parish priest of the Church of the Transfiguration - continue to ring their bells manually.

Electronic chimes

He says he objects to press-button ringing, mainly on the grounds of the high cost of installation of an automated system - which can run as high as 34,000 euros (£26,000) - but also because he believes that bell-ringing is an important tradition worth preserving.

"On Sundays, when the children come to Mass," he says, "they just love pulling the bell ropes. And if I'm alone in church and there's no-one else around, then I pull on the bell-rope, just like any other parishioner."

The day when there are no more churchgoers around to ring the bells, or he is too old to pull the bell ropes, says Don Battista, he will give in to modern technology.

After all, even the Vatican has now abandoned manual rope pulling in favour of press-button ringing.

But at least most Roman priests have resisted the temptation to abandon bells altogether, in favour of electronically-produced chimes.

BBC News, Rome (25-08-2008)
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