by Roderick Conway Morris

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Italian Hours

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENTO, Italy 22 July 2005
Private collection
Pedestal night clock attributed to Pier Tommaso Campani, 1670



The mechanical clock was the great technological invention of the European high middle ages, first recorded in the last quarter of the 13th century. No single inventor has been identified.

The function of these early clocks was entirely religious: to mark the hours so that prayers in monastic orders could be said at the correct times. The importance of this function is witnessed by the survival of the old nursery rhyme - 'Frère Jacques' in French, 'Brüder Jacob' in German, 'Fra' Martino' in Italian - urging the brother entrusted with the task of rousing his fellow monks for pre-dawn prayers to wake up and ring the bell.

From the 13th century on, Frère Jacques and his colleagues could increasingly rely on more or less accurate alarm clocks, consisting of interlocking cogs driven by slowly descending weights periodically sounding the bells that marked the course of the monastic night and day.

The worshipers of Mammon were not far behind in seeing the utility of a device to regulate work, business and the markets, winter and summer, without resort to sundials or stellar observations. Hours and minutes could finally be measured mechanically and given a monetary value.

Italy played a key role in the development of early clocks and in advancing their technological and aesthetic possibilities. This story is now expansively told in the first show of its kind, 'The Measurement of Time: The Antique Splendor of Italian Clockmaking from the 15th to the 18th Century,' with 370 pieces from private and public collections on display, including many rare and unique examples, at the Castello di Buonconsiglio. (The exhibition continues until Nov. 6.)

Italian city-states were among the pioneers in building elaborate civic clocks housed in bell towers ('campanili') in town centers. The competitive instincts of 'campanilism' - (literally, 'towerism'), as the Italians dub exaggerated local pride ('our tower is grander, taller,' and so on, 'than yours') - has left the peninsula with some spectacular early public timepieces, many of which combine astronomical and zodiacal functions on the same face. These 24-hour clocks divided the day and night into 'Italian hours,' the length of the hours varying according to the season, a handy way for merchants and townspeople to know how many hours of daylight remained.

The 14th-century humanist Petrarch found the ringing tones of Milan's new public clock especially useful for ejecting unwanted visitors distracting him from his studies. Genoese merchants had set up a town clock in the far-off Crimean port of Caffa by 1375. In 1418 the marble quarries on Lago Maggiore north of Milan were equipped with the first recorded site clock, which regulated the working day there.

Both civic and household clocks were expensive and could take years to make. The latter soon became regular props in aristocratic portraits, as Roberto Pancheri, one of the team of specialist curators, vividly illustrates in both exhibition and catalogue. Their symbolism went beyond the mere display of wealth, ranging in significance from simple memento mori to emblems of the absolute monarch, regulator of the life of the state.

The creation of clocks driven by springs and the progressive reduction in the proportions of their works made possible portable clocks and, later, watches. Once again, no single inventor is known for spring action clocks, but this innovation may well have originated in Italy, where the first known references go back to the late 15th and early 16th century, and the peninsula led the way in their popularization.

At first watches were commonly hung from the belt, by both men and women, rather than kept in a bag or pocket, so as to maximize the visibility of these luxury items. They duly made prominent appearances in upper-class portraits. And, as Silvio Bedini notes in the catalogue, these early personal watches could be relied upon more to indicate the status of their owners than the precise time of day (they were typically accurate only to within half an hour or so during the course of a single day).

But the ingenuity of these first watchmakers in making smaller and smaller pieces was impressive. Miniaturization during this period even produced watches that could be worn as rings. Emperor Charles V possessed one such that upon the hour, rather than sounding, gently prodded his finger, prefiguring the vibrate option on mobile telephones.

The development of clocks went hand in hand with the building of automata; amusing timepieces were constructed, furnished with mechanical dogs that rolled their eyes and opened their mouths as though barking, lions that roared, birds that flapped their wings, gentlemen that bowed and little boys that banged bells, all activated at set times.

Galileo established the principles that made pendulum clocks feasible., but he did not live long enough to apply the idea. The Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens made the first working pendulum clock in 1656, claiming that he had arrived at the technology wholly independently - although it is difficult to believe that he did not owe something to Galileo.

By the mid 17th century, the Italians had fallen behind their northern competitors in many respects, although they continued to produce finely engineered and beautiful pieces, displaying notable variations in style from region to region. However, the peninsula still managed to offer some remarkable innovations in the form of night and projecting clocks.

The inventors of these were Pier Tommaso Campani and his two brothers, who came from a remote hill village in Umbria. Campani had been apprenticed to a migrant German clockmaker (who appears to have been fleeing the turmoil of the Thirty Years War). A brilliant student, Campani, with the help of his brothers, soon set up shop in Rome.

When the highly strung, insomniac Cardinal Fabio Chigi became Pope Alexander VII in 1655, he appealed to Campani, who had already provided him with customized clocks, to devise a bedroom clock that would not keep him awake at night with its infernal ticking. Campani and his brothers came up with a silent timepiece, driven by mercury, in which a rotating disk showed the hour through a semicircular window, illuminated by a lamp within the clock. To allow the heat and smoke to escape, a tiny chimney was installed in the back of the case.

Alexander granted Campani a patent, and soon the crowned heads of Europe were vying for possession of this costly, must-have gizmo - night clocks being dispatched to, among others, the king and queen of Spain, the king of Poland and the grand duke of Tuscany. (Other features, such as on-off wake-up alarm systems, were available later.)

In 1668, further research gave rise to the projecting clock, which cast an illuminated image of the hours through a magnifying lens onto the bed chamber wall or ceiling. In keeping with their settings, both these night and projecting clocks were housed in elaborate altar, or tabernacle, cases in imitation of the private altars framing devotional paintings in ecclesiastical and aristocratic bedrooms. Their faces were enlivened by religious and mythical scenes, the cases made of ebony and other fine woods, gilded and inlaid with marble mosaics. The surviving examples remain not only marvels of technical ingenuity but also striking pieces of Baroque furniture.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023