I am always interested in finding something new, something different. I never thought I would find yet another thing about the tiny place called Italy which is already known for so many different things yet the place is only about the size of Florida. We all know great wines, cheese, leather carvings, pizza, coffee, artists and great architecture but now I also find out that the art of bell making has been done there for centuries.
Who needs a bell anymore? Well, we don’t need one anywhere but it would be nice to have one. It is in a small town south of Rome called Agnone where you will find tradition at its fullest. They have been making bells there for 1,000 years. The foundry there cast its first bell in 1339 and is now the third oldest family run business in the world.
Now there are 25th generation bell makers there. What is special about the factory there is that they use the same technique and the same materials that they used during medieval times. Unlike my blog that spoke largely of machines replacing people for jobs, this story is the complete opposite. These people was born into a job waiting for them to do and carry on with a tradition.
Working conditions haven’t changed much either surrounding the worker in dust, heat and lots of noise. The fire pit is there to melt ingots that are 70% brass and 70% tin to make liquid bronze. They are proud to say that they take particular care into the quality of the bell and the decorative words and art on the bell. Bells are a work of art so the beauty of the bell is important because it is a story that will continue for a hundred years.
They produce about 50 bells a year using a technique known as lost wax. First a brick core is slathered with clay. Wax designs to imprint the decorations are stuck in place and another layer of clay goes on. After it hardens, the wax is melted leaving an imprint on the inside of the bell. The form is set into a pit and covered with sand. The vital moment to perfection is called fusion.
It is heated to 2,200 degrees. The intense heat and brightness and erupting liquid can look and feel like Dante’s version of hell. 90 percent of the bells here are made for the Catholic Church which is why they have the title of Pontifical Foundry. Priests come and pray and offer blessings for the fusion. The real secret to perfect bell making is in the use of geometry according to the master bell maker Antonio Delleguardi.
The diameter of the base must be equal to the height. The diameter of the top must always be half the height. The thickness of the bell where the inside strikes, is always 1/14th of the diameter. So, when your high school kid asks, Why does he need to learn geometry? Tell him because he can be a bell maker one day.
Bells are thought to have originated in China about 1,000 years BC. Greek and Latin scholars mention them in the Old Testament. They became part of the Christian liturgy at about the 6th Century. However old they are, they are pretty and seem always to symbolize some form of communication throughout history even if they were just used to let people hear the bell for dinnertime. Dinner is always important to me. The tones were worked out in the 15th Century. Perfectly cast bells do more than just make a sound. To many they represent fine musical instruments. In this town they make perfect designs for ten Centuries and counting.