St Mark’s Clock Tower. On the north side of the Piazza San Marco, is the Clock Tower (Torre dell’ Orologio); an early Renaissance building which adjoins the eastern end of the Procuratie Vecchie. The clock tower, forms the central feature of the five-bay building; incorporating a two-storey rounded monumental archway.
It was constructed as a display of Venice’s wealth and glory and as an aid to sailors departing or arriving. The early renaissance central clock tower was commissioned by Doge Agostino Barbarigo in 1495, designed by Mauro Coducci and constructed between 1496 and 1499. The clock mechanism was created by Zuan Carlo Rainieri. The two side wings with the terraces, were added in the following 5 years. The clock mechanism has subsequently been much altered and the buildings strengthened. The last restoration of the Clock Tower was completed in 2006.
Accessed by the archway under the Clock Tower, is a chain of five narrow streets collectively known as the Mercerie; linking the Piazza (the political and religious centre) with the Rialto (the commercial and financial centre). Today, it’s a bizarre mix of designer shops and kitsch; progress can by slow when it’s busy!
The buildings on each side of the clock tower have been let off separately as shops and apartments since the early 18th century.
The central tower has visually five sections starting from the ground upwards:
1.The two-story monumental rounded archway into the Mercerie.
2. Round clock-face section. The clock mechanism dating from 1499, drives the main clock face; consisting of several concentric dials. The outermost dial displays the numbers 1 to 24 in Roman numerals, whilst the hand, embellished with a depiction of the sun; indicates the hour. The second dial depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac, picked out, like the inner dials, in gilt on an enamel blue background. The inner dials indicate the phases of the moon and sun. The mechanism also moves the section above the clock face.
3. A semi-circular gallery with a depiction of a seated Madonna and Child, in guilded copper; lies between two blue displays. These indicate the hour in Roman numerals and the minutes (in multiples of five), in Arabic numerals. Twice a year on Epithany and on Ascension Day, figures of the three kings (Magi) and a trumpeting angel; pass in front of the Madonna and Child.
4. Section depicting a winged Lion of St Mark with an open book, against the night sky (gold stars on an azur background). There was originally a statue of the Doge Agostino Barbarigo (Doge 1486-1501), kneeling before the lion. However, in 1797 after the city had surrendered to Napoleon; it was removed by the French, who were purging the city of all symbols of the old regime.
5. On a terrace at the top of the tower are two great bronze figures, that are known as “the Moors”; because of the dark patina acquired by the bronze. They are hinged at the waist, striking the bell on the hour. One is old and the other young, to show the passing of time and said to represent shepherds (they are wearing sheepskins) or giants (huge figures recognisable at a distance). The bell is also original and is signed by Simeone Campanato, who cast it at the Arsenal in 1497. Terraces were added to the tower by Giorgio Massari in 1755.
The Symbolism of the Moors at the top of the Tower.
Rather than depicting Moorish slaves or Christian victory over Islam; the two Moors represent the chaos and primordial darkness that preceded the Creation. The hammers striking the bell, reminded people that it was through the ringing sound of the Word (Fiat Lux); that the world was created.
On the other side of the tower, there is another great clock face above the arch, visible to people walking down the Mercerie. This is a simpler affair, again surrounded by a marble circle marked with the 24 hours, but in two series of 12 hours each. The sun pointer, marking the hours; is the only moving part on this side.
Tours (in Italian, English and French) must be booked in advance (Museo Corner) and are quite expensive, lasting about one hour. Be aware that stairways inside the building, that give access to the the clock mechanisms and roof terrace; are steep and narrow.
Why is the Clock-Face on the Tower divided into 24 hours?
After centuries of the sundials, the first mechanical clocks appeared at the end of the 13th C. This was revolutionary as the hour marked the beginning of a fixed length of time. At the end of the 13th C, the sundial gave way to time being measured by local church clocks! Each day began at sunset and was divided into 24 hours, so the first clock face were calibrated from 1 to XXIV. However, bells chiming every hour were annoying for people; so by the 15th C bells marked time only six times. Clock faces were then simplified to be divided into six. Known as“Roman style” clock faces; only a few still exist in Italy. There is one in the Sala dell’ Avogaria in the Doge’s Palace.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the “Italian” system was replaced by a “French” one; with clock faces being divided into twelve hours starting at midnight.
Where else in Venice are 24-hour faced clocks to be found?
The Fondaco di Tedeschi.
The Church of Santi Apostoli, near Rialto.
The Church of San Giacomo, at Rialto. (photo to the left)
The Doge’s Palace.