The Bells, the Bells …

As the website of Save Venice, Inc. tells us: ‘Venetian noble Pietro Gradenigo (1695–1776) commissioned Giovanni Grevembroch, a Venetian artist of German descent, to record Venetian clothing, artworks, occupations, collections, buidlings and daily life through a series of watercolor drawings bound into volumes. In 1879 the Gradenigo family donated the Grevembroch volumes to the Correr Museum, where they continue to be studied. They continue to be a valuable source for scholars today, as well as of great interest to the general public for the glimpse into Venetian life that they provide.’

I suspect that, since Giovanni Grevembroch (1731–1807) was also known as Jan van Grevenbroek, his antecedents were Dutch or Flemish rather than German. The title of his work on costumes was Gli habiti de Veneziani di quasi ogni età con diligenza raccolti a dipinti nel secolo XVIII (‘The costumes of the Venetians of almost every age, diligently gathered and painted in the eighteenth century’), indicating that he was not merely depicting his contemporaries, but looking at the paintings and prints of earlier centuries as sources for much older fashions and indeed personalities.

Thus he gives us Monteverdi:

Claudio Monteverdi, his face clearly derived from the famous portrait by Bernardo Strozzi, of which one version is in the Accademia.

and Marco Polo

Marco Polo, dressed in a Tartar costume.

as well an ‘English ambassador’ clearly of the sixteenth century,

our old friend Caterina Cornaro,

a remarkable medieval dandy, the sort of person for whom sumptuary laws were created,

and that Venetian archetype, the plague-doctor, with state-of-the-art hazmat clothing.

Some of the most interesting (in my opinion) show the ordinary Venetians of Grevemboch’s own time going about their business – the fishmonger, the tobacconist, the tattooist, two mountebanks sawing a resigned-looking old spinster in half.

The sketches have hand-written notes explaining the person or occupation depicted – in this case a seller of ‘sweet food’.

A fishmonger – why is one foot in the tub?

A tobacco-seller, with a maiolica jar on his counter.

The tattooist with a customer. The items on his bench are presumably the designs from which you could choose.

It’s a living, I suppose …

And of these, the most striking is surely this one of a bell-founder’s shop, in which all the staff are women.

What does this imply about the heavy-lifting, dangerous craft of bell-founding, traditionally a male preserve if there ever was one? You could argue that these ladies are front-of-house staff, not involved in the casting of hot metal, but the woman in front looks as though she is cleaning or polishing a large bell with a heavy rasp or file, the one on the left is apparently chiselling something, and the central figure seems to be lowering the rope on a block and tackle with a view to doing some serious heaving.

The shop sells pestles and mortars, and other vessels, but the emphasis appears to be on bells of various sizes, from the little ones hung beneath the shelf to the whopper in the foreground. Venice was not exactly short of bells: it has been estimated that in the seventeenth century, the city and the islands of the laguna may have housed between 450 and 500 church bells, in either belfries or bell-towers. (Many of these have since been lost, along with their churches, most notably, of course, after the Napoleonic conquest and plundering.) There is also quite a bit of evidence for Venice as a centre of bell-founding in the medieval period.

It is claimed (possibly apocryphally) that the bells of Hagia Sophia itself were cast in Venice at the command of Doge Orso I Partecipazio (864–81) and sent to Constantinople as thanks for his promotion to high Byzantine office; twelve were sent, and distributed among the churches of the New Rome. More certain is the church bell from Mdina, the oldest bell in Malta, which dates from 1370, ‘cast by the Venetian brothers and bell-founders Nicholas and Victor’, and now in the Mdina Cathedral museum. And the Pontifical Bell Foundry Marinelli, in Agnone in Molise, is still run by a family allegedly brought there from the Veneto in the twelfth century and whose works include the recasting of one of the seven bells in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

A great deal about the bell-foundries of Venice can be found in Dr Victoria Avery’s magisterial Vulcan’s Forge in Venus’ City: The Story of Bronze in Venice, 1350-1650, which has a chapter about their history, techniques and craftsmen. She points out that church bells in Venice quite often needed replacing – apart from faults arising from the original casting, there was a regular problem of fires in campaniles (not uncommonly after lightning strikes) as well as collapses, as their foundations shifted in the uncertain sediment/subsoil of the city (the most famous incident being the fall of the campanile of San Marco in 1902).

The famous photograph of the collapsed tower – the only casualty was, sadly, the caretaker’s cat.

In 1282, bell-founders were sufficiently numerous to become a subclass of the Arte dei Fabbri (Guild of Smiths). While in many parts of Europe these craftsmen were itinerant, going to where the work was and constructing a foundry on the spot, in Venice there were many bell-founders’ workshops, mostly along or near the Calle dei Fabbri, in the parishes of San Paternian, San Luca and San Salvador. As well as supplying local needs, they exported bells to the terraferma, across the Adriatic to Istria and Dalmatia, and (as above) to Malta.

The Grevembroch picture shows other artifacts of metal in the shop, and this is borne out by probate inventories, which list mortars, firedogs, and household ware of iron, copper and pewter. Such lists also include large bells, which suggests that some were cast on spec, but the vast majority must have been made to order. Avery cites written orders, which go into a lot of detail about the cost of materials, how much is to be reused from older damaged bells, the total weight (and the non-recoverable cost of metal inevitably lost in the casting process, calculated as a percentage), completion date, and guarantee. Some times the contracts also included costs for transport and re-hanging. Verbal contracts were also used, but these are mostly known because of the legal disputes to which they sometimes gave rise…

Avery gives a description of the moulding and casting processes, noting that the final laborious cleaning, polishing and tuning of the bell was done by ‘workshop assistants’. Tuning involved chipping off small pieces of the metal on the inside the bell with a special hammer, using a violin or pitch-pipe (or another bell) as a guide to the required tone. Is this what the woman on the left of the picture is doing, while the one on the right is cleaning and polishing?

On Calle dei Fabbri, you can eat at the Ostaria a la Campana, where the engraved symbol of the bell still survives to the side of the door (see top), and is used as a logo on the restaurant’s website – a faint survival of a once important and thriving industry.


This entry was posted in Art, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Venice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Bells, the Bells …

  1. Leana Pooley says:

    All very fascinating and wonderfully researched.


  2. Thank you very much for this kind comment, Leana – I thoroughly recommend Vicky Avery’s book, which is full of the most fascinating facts!


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