For whom the bell tolls

Alexandra Lawrence
November 18, 2010


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. John Donne (1624)



Florence, May, 1498.


Lorenzo de' Medici is six years gone and the city is in the tight grips of the fiery preacher Domenico Savonarola, whose passionate followers are so emotional that they are known to sob loudly during his sermons thus earning their nickname, piagnoni-weepers. Nearly 50 years earlier, in 1440, the convent of San Marco-home base for Savonarola and his weepers-had been given a bell commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici and designed by Leonardo's master, Andrea del Verrocchio. Once Savonarola took charge of the convent, the bell was christened ‘la Piagnona,' as its thunderous wailing came to symbolize the friar and his followers. However, after four years of blistering terror and one particularly nasty bonfire of the vanities, the inherently more moderate Florentines have had it with the Dominican priest and his piagnoni.


An angry local mob organizes to put an end to Savonarola's supremacy. The closer the armed horde gets to the convent of San Marco, the more incessantly the friars inside begin to hammer on the Piagnona in a desperate call for help that never comes. Savonarola is captured and eventually burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria on May 23, 1498. La Piagnona is taken down from the bell tower of San Marco, placed on a cart and paraded throughout the city where Florentines whip the bell in demonstration of their passionate hatred of the friar. In an unconventional move, the city decides that the symbol of Savonarolan terror itself-la Piagnona-would be put on trial. Once ‘convicted', the bell is sent into exile at the church of San Miniato al Monte for 50 years before being allowed back into the city walls.


No one has heard the sound of La Piagnona since May 1498. Until now.




Florence, October, 2010.


A small group gathers in the cloister of Sant'Antonino in the convent of San Marco. A bell, the Piagnona, sits in the middle of the Chapter House. A hush falls as the rope is pulled. Wailing ensues.


La Piagnona has come back to life thanks to a project called The Bells of Florence, sponsored by the Friends of Florence, a non-profit international foundation created to allow citizens of the world to participate in the preservation and enhancement of Florence and its surroundings. The bells project, which has at its heart the restoration of the Piagnona, is a historic record of 28 of the city's major church bells, including photographs, research and recordings of the chimes.


Anthony Sidney, a New York-born local composer and music teacher, had been thinking of this project for years before he proposed it to Alison Gilligan, co-chair of the Florence Chapter of Friends of Florence, whose organization recognized the importance of creating a permanent record of the bells for posterity's sake.


In January of this year, Sidney's 28-bell adventure began, starting with a visit to the archdiocese for permission to record the chimes of various church bells. Once consent was granted, he and his son, Benjamin, began contacting each individual church to set up appointments for recording: ‘Many of the parish priests were confused when I approached them about "registrando," which in the Florentine dialect can also mean "to repair." The older priests were genuinely baffled at my proposition to come fix the bells!'


The bells, which will be featured in a DVD set for release on December 6, 2010, are all located within the city walls, with the exception of San Miniato, San Francesco di Paola and San Domenico in Fiesole. As many churches are currently moving towards playing recordings of their chimes, and even fending off attempts to silence them entirely, Sidney felt that this was a way to show his affection for these instruments-and for the city of Florence, which he deeply loves.


Some of the tunes included on the DVD are ones that even most locals do not normally hear, since many of the churches only play their simplest ‘cenno' chimes on a regular basis. One example is the church of San Frediano in Cestello, where the priest-initially a bit protective of his bells when Sidney came to record them-allowed the crew into the off-limits cloister then went inside and set all the various bells and their chimes into motion. Though most are now computerized, some, like San Piero in Gattolino (also known as the Chiesa di Serumido) on via Romana, are still played by hand.


During his odyssey, Sidney made various discoveries about sizes, shapes, forms and sounds of the historic bells, some of which have been recast numerous times or even replaced entirely. He conducted a thorough history of each one, including the original shapes and the foundrymen responsible for their casting.


There is no doubt, however, that the Piagnona is the centerpiece of the project. Cast by Donatello and Michelozzo, Sidney maintains that these Renaissance masters knew exactly what they were doing in terms of sound: the copper and tin they used produce a perfection of equilibrium that creates totally unexpected notes. Now newly restored and recorded, the project has, as San Marco museum director Magnolia Scudieri said the day La Piagnona rang out after 512 years, ‘brought a piece of the 1400s back to life for present and future generations.'


For Sidney, the project is an expression of his personal connection to the bells in a collective, and spiritual, sense. ‘The answer to the infamous question for whom the bell tolls is, of course, it tolls for you. It tolls for everyone.'


The Bells of Florence DVD features 28 historic bells, their stories, chimes and footage from the recordings all set against a background of music composed by Anthony Sidney especially for this project. Friends of Florence will donate copies to the Library of Congress and major libraries in Italy as a historical document. It will also be available to the general public following its release on December 6, 2010.


See Anthony Sidney's MySpace page for details.


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