Bologna, Italy, is famous for gastronomy.
But also for it’s towers.
The street where our Italian school is to be found runs down the right-hand side of San Pietro cathedral, and is home to two of them.
From classroom 1 at the rear of the building, where I’m writing this now, I can turn my head and look up at the twelfth-century Azzoguidi tower.
It’s sixty metres or so high, though rather squat and featureless, save for a small barred window near the top.
On a warmer day there’d be a damsel in distress craning her neck out as far as possible, looking in vain for a way down.
From the front of the school, you can look across to the flank of the cathedral.
Down at street level are the windows of the ‘sagrestie’, which seems to be a sort of dressing room cum dining room for the church’s staff, and is apparently home to several noted works of art.
Looking skywards from the window of classroom 5, there’s the ‘Campanile’ (bell tower), which looms above the cathedral.
At seventy-something metres, it’s supposed to be the city’s second tallest tower, after the perilous Asinelli tower.
Take a look at the picture below.
(Don’t see the picture? Click here to read this article on the school website…)
On the left you can see the Azzoguidi tower (the squat one), with the Campanile and the cathedral immediately behind it. The school is somewhere in between…
If you’re very lucky, as I was, you’ll chance across the Campanile when it’s open to the public.
There was a volunteer bell ringer, who told us the history and explained how the bells are rung.
Check out this video. It could have been taken by the same fellow.
You probably won’t understand much of what he says, but the views are worth it.
The male voice is saying something like:
“And there’s another church, but I don’t recall right now what it’s called. Oh and over there? Another church. Now what was that one called, again? It escapes me right now. And see that big church over there? That’s… um…”
Be patient until the two-and-a-half-minute mark and you can see exactly how the bells are rung.
For those who don’t have time for the video, the answer is ‘manually’, by a bunch of guys balanced confidently on ancient wooden beams running between a series of huge brass bells swinging in three-hundred-and-sixty-degree arcs.
It’s a bit like one of those video games when you have to avoid the axes swinging down in front of you, but seventy metres up in the sky, in a five-hundred-year-old tower, made of bricks.
The guide cheerfully pointed out a plaque on the wall of the bell-chamber.
It commemorates a young man who was looking the wrong way when the bells started swinging, and so was squashed flat.
Turns out Youtube is full of bell-ringing videos.
This one starts with nice views over the city. The ‘one-two-three-mind your head’ moment comes at minute 1:59. And after that? Bells ringing.
I’ve seen quite a few of these videos while writing this article, and so have become attuned to the nuances!
For example, this one begins with the bell-ringers gossiping while listening to a loudspeaker relaying the service from the cathedral seventy metres below.
You can hear the priests chanting in Latin in the background, while in the foreground the bellringers are recounting what they had for lunch and complaining about their wives’ halitosis.
Quentin Tarantino it isn’t.
But then, after about a minute, the bells start up.
Great! The bells are the stars in bell-ringing videos!
But not this time – it seems the cathedral service was a funeral.
So it’s DONG pause, DONG pause, DONG pause, and so on.
For six minutes!
According to our guide, when a priest dies, they ring a bell thirty-three times!
A bishop gets sixty-six.
And the Pope?
Ninety-nine, of course.
So now you know – Bologna is the place for gastronomy, but also for towers, and bells!
‘Nonna’ (Granny) is the name of the biggest bell in the tower.
She weighs about three tons, apparently.
Go take a look yourself one Saturday afternoon!
Currently the Campanile is open only on Saturdays, between two and four in the afternoon.
Donations of at least five euros are expected, though given the views and the engaging guide, it’s more than worth it.
For more information about studying Italian in Bologna