Bells: from the Village to the City

Written by  Filippo Buttino

At the down of the twenty-first century, Ferrara aims at firmly re-establishing a tradition that had fallen quiet with time.

Bells have long played a leading role in Italian society, as well as other societies. Even though at first glance they may appear to represent a divisive element between religious and lay people, it is fairly clear that bell ringing is more conducive to dialogue than conflict. This is because bells symbolise the cyclical nature of time, an instrument that punctuates the seasons and the ups and downs of human affairs. There are three ingredients that go to make up the bell-ringing tradition: the bell tower, the bells, and the bell-ringers. Each of these elements is essential. Can the bell be defined as a musical instrument? The answer is yes when the bell-ringer is an element. All musicians have intimate relationships with their instruments, to the point here they act as a unit. This also holds true for the bell-ringer. Even though the common perception is that the bell-ringer merely pulls the ropes hanging from the belfry, in many traditions, including the Emilia and Bologna traditions, the bell-ringer actually comes into physical contact with the bell, brushing against it as he moves. It is the ultimate expression of a living tradition: the bell as an instrument, the belltower as the theatre, and the bell-ringer as the musician. The bell-ringer is definitely the master of ceremonies of a living tradition that continues in the bell-towers across Europe and the world. It is the bell-ringer that confers those characteristics that can be defined as music, tradition and art to the bells. Music, because the bell-ringers give the bells personality, giving an “interpretation” of the sound; tradition, because all situations apply a series of principles and techniques that result from centuries of experience in some cases; art, because the combination of sound and technique creates a special ensemble that is perhaps unique, and merits greater awareness and protection.

The new Ferrara Cathedral bell-tower was inaugurated on the feast day of the patron saint, St. George, in April 2007 solemnly sanctioning the return of the tradition to Ferrara. It was sponsored by a large contribution from the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara Foundation. The initiative reawakened a great interest in a tradition that had been lost for over fifty years and kick-started a series of initiatives that gave encouragement to bell-ringers in the city and the Province. The most significant events to ensue from the restoration of the Cathedral’s belfry were the restoration of the double sound of the Settepolesini and Vigarano Pieve bell-towers, and the initiation of an introductory course on bell-ringing held between October 2007 and February 2008. This course introduced the bell-ringing tradition to an enthusiastic group of young and not so young people, delighted to be involved in such a unique activity. The bells give people a real chance to experience an ancient tradition. The bell-tower encompasses a small world suspended in time, untouched by the frenetic rhythms of modern life, and serves as privileged place from which to observe society: the alternation between time for celebration and time for work, marking the cyclicity of human affairs. The bell tower returns to the role it has played through time, in the past a reference point for the village, today, a reference point for the city.