In the case of church bells in Rome it's unlikely there's anyone ringing the bells up in the bell tower because almost all Roman churches now have an automated bell ringing system.
One of the last remaining bell ringers in Rome
34 year old Giacomo Diano is one of the last remaining impassioned bell ringers (known as a campanaro) in Rome. He's had a passion for church bells, bell towers and bell ringing since he was a toddler. When he reached school-age Giacomo made sure that his mom took him to school along routes where he could hear his favorite church bells chime.
These days Giacomo is the leading expert in Rome on all of Rome’s various church bells, how to repair and “tune” them and of course how to ring them. He does all this for passion as a volunteer and he's called upon frequently to give a hand with church bells throughout the city of Rome.
Giacomo also has a passion for organ playing and plays at numerous churches throughout the city.
I chatted with Giacomo about his passion and some of the backstory behind church bell ringing in Rome.
There are some priests who ring the bells of their own church but it turns out that most church bells ring using an automated system which has been installed in the majority of Roman churches, mostly by Fabio Angelici and his company. The last bell foundry in Rome, Francesco Lucenti, closed in 1931 after 500 years of operation.
Bell ringing techniques and bell ringer associations
There's a national Italian association of bellringers based in Verona Italy, a city famous for the Verona style of bell ringing. The association posts lots of great videos of bell towers and bell ringers. They organize various events nationwide and bellringers get together to share their passion with others or simply to enjoy bell-ringing together. This summer an event is scheduled in Crema Nuova for May 28 and 29.
There are other bell ringer associations throughout Italy, mostly northern Italy, but sadly none in Rome. It's odd because Rome has hundreds of churches.
In addition to the Verona bell ringing style there are two other principal bell ringing styles, the English full circle ringing style and the Bologna style.
Here is a video of a group of bell ringers at the San Petronio e San Pietro church in Bologna.
If you make a day trip to Bologna to explore this charming city and its delicious cuisine here's a perfect day trip itinerary. I offer culinary walking tours of Bologna so contact me directly if you are interested.
A few of Rome’s bell towers
Saint Peter’s Basilica
YouTube video of Easter bells ringing at Saint Peters Basilica, courtesy of the Catholic Traveler.
As you face the façade of the Basilica and look to the left you see the clock. Right under the clock is the Basilica’s bell tower. It has one huge bell and five other bells. For almost a century now the bells are rung using an automated system. They ring on special occasions like major Christian holidays, the June feast day of Saint Peter and Paul the patron saints of Rome, and when a new pope is elected.
Saint Peters Basilica has six bells and the largest is known as the Capanone. It was cast in 1785 and weighs 9 tons. The oldest of the six bells is called the Rota and dates back to 1288 and weighs 2 tons.
The bell tower has a long and fascinating history and one of the protagonists was Bernini. Bernini was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to serve as chief architect to modify the original design of the bell tower. Bernini's designs were too heavy for the original foundation and it began to crack. Bernini was blamed for the disaster and this episode had a devastating effect on his reputation.
When you visit Saint Peters Basilica and the Vatican don't miss the Vatican museums! Read about a fantastic initiative for art access for the blind at the Vatican.
Saint Pauls Within the Walls
Saint Pauls Within the Walls was the first Protestant church to be built in Rome. It was designed by the English architect George Edmund Street in a Gothic Revival style. It was completed in 1880 and built in polychrome brick and stone.
The Carillon was constructed in 1876 by Severin Van Aerschodt, at the foundry in Louvain, Belgium. It consists of 23 bells tuned on G 3 and programmable via an electronic system. This system is unique in Italy. Each day at 6 PM it plays Episcopal hymns so if you're in the area stop and listen.
Santa Maria Maggiore
The bell tower of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a Romanesque bell tower. It’s 75 meters high and the highest in Rome, and was built between 1375-1376. In the early nineteenth century a clock was added to the bell tower. The bell tower has 5 ancient bells. The largest bell is kept in the belfry, and dates back to 1289. The other bells date back to the 16th -19th centuries.
One of the bells in the Basilica is called "the bell of the Lost" and rings at 9pm. A 16th century legend says that the bell rings to guide a lost shepherdess home, and if the shepherdess never returns home again, every evening at 9 pm, the bell will ring to guide her home. Hence the evening ritual is called the "Lost".
Another similar story tells of a pilgrim making her way to Rome. When she lost her way she asked the Virgin Mary for help. She heard the tolling of the bell, and it led her to the Basilica. She supposedly left a donation so the bell would be rung forever at 9 pm.
Santa Maria del Popolo
This church is best known for some of its fabulous works of art like Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and the Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci.
The 1470’s Renaissance style façade is also notable; it was reworked in the 17th century by Bernini.
When you look at the façade straight on you don't see the bell tower but as you head into Piazza del Popolo you see it. It's a 15th-century bell tower placed at the end of the right transept. The brick tower was built in northern Italian style and the top part of the tower resembles the bell tower of the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona.
Domes of the Piazza Venezia twin churches, Santa Maria di Loreto and SS. Nome di Maria
Santa Maria di Loreto al Foro Traiano is a 16th century church. The church construction began in 1507 under Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. It was completed seventy years later by Giacomo del Duca, a pupil of Michelangelo, who added the beautiful dome and the pre-Baroque bell tower.
Later, in 1741, the SS Nome di Maria church was completed by Antoine Dérizet and he built it to mirror the adjacent older church. It has a peculiar dome, oversized compared to the body of the building and topped with an unusual and complex lantern, known as the cricket’s cage. The stucco work on the dome was done by several artists in 1750.
A small bell tower in Contigliano, a hill town north of Rome
Sometimes bell towers are very small like this one and you wonder how the bell is rung as it seems to be almost inaccessible.
If you enjoy exploring hill towns near Rome Contigliano is a great choice and has wonderful food!
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