09 November 2018

Marking the passage of time in
Saint Mark’s Square, Venice

The Torre dell’Orologio or Clock Tower on the north side of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Torre dell’Orologio or Clock Tower on the north side of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice is an early Renaissance tower dating from the end of the 15th century. Its location was chosen so the clock could be seen from the waters of the lagoon and let everyone who arrived know of the wealth and glory of Venice.

The clock and tower stand above archway into the main street of the city, the Merceria, which linked the political and religious centre of the city at Saint Mark’s with the commercial and financial centre at the Rialto.

Two great bronze figures known as the Moors strike the hours on a bell. One is old and the other is young, to illustrate the passing of time.

Below is an image of the winged Lion of Saint Mark with the open book, before a blue background with gold stars.

Below the lion, a semi-circular gallery has statues of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.

On either side are two large blue panels showing the time: the hour on the left in Roman numerals and the minutes at five-minute intervals on the right in Arabic numerals.

Twice a year, on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January) and on Ascension Day, the three Magi, led by an angel with a trumpet, emerge from one of the doorways normally taken up by these numbers and pass in procession round the gallery, bowing to the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, before disappearing through the other door.

Below again is the great clock face in blue and gold inside a circle of marble engraved with the 24 hours of the day in Roman numerals. A golden pointer with an image of the sun moves around this circle and indicates the hour of the day. Within the marble circle beneath the sun pointer are the signs of the zodiac in gold. These revolve slightly more slowly than the pointer to show the position of the sun in the zodiac.

In the middle of the clockface, the earth and the moon are surrounded by stars against a background of blue enamel.

The clock was made by a father and son, Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri. The tower was built in 1496-1497, the mechanism of the clock was then built into it, and the clock and tower were inaugurated on 1 February 1499.

Legend says the clock’s craftsmen were later blinded to stop them from repeating the work. By 1500, the elder Raineri had died. But his son remained in Venice to look after the clock, and he continued to live in Venice until he died in 1531.

Tourists brave the duck walks in Saint Mark's Square, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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