An American Ringer in Verona
A whimsical travel tale
My fellow traveler—not a ringer but a generous and considerate friend—had arranged a day trip for us to Verona from Venice, where we were having a glorious Italian week pretending to be rich and famous, trying not to think about the inevitable personal consequences of an unfavorable currency exchange rate. In preparation for our adventure I had exchanged a few posts with George Morris in Malvern (UK) and Anna Thomson in Verona, asking permission to watch ringing, if there was to be any, that first full week of May. Though neither of them would be in the area during my visit they had both responded graciously and forwarded my request on to the President of the Veronese Association. And so, on the appointed day we left our magic water world for Italian motorways, being assured by email from Paolo Avesana that we would indeed be welcome to go around with the locals on their Saturday evening ringing circuit.
Our afternoon in Verona was spent with wonderful guide Andrea who toured us capably through monuments to Dante and Scala and made sure we understood that there was never a specific Romeo and Juliet—although there could have been, given the religious and political underpinnings of the age. Legend is apparently more popular than fact, however—“Casa di Giulietta,” a brainchild of the 20th century and Hollywood, was jam-packed with tourists.
By 5:30 pm we were standing outside the bell tower at San Giorgio in Braida (“outside the city wall”, according to Andrea) as agreed. I could see the bells as they hang in the top of an “open” tower, quite tall, and could see people standing next to the bells, walking around them, apparently having a look. It was not obvious, however, that San Giorgio was a ground floor ring with a “secret” exterior door which I mistook for part of the church wall. Just before concluding in despair that there had been a miscommunication I was met by Paolo and whisked inside the ringing room just in time for the concerto.
Now before going any further, let me confess that my research on Italian ringing had been quite limited. That knowledge far surpassed, however, both my ability to converse in Italian and most of the Veronese ringers' abilities to converse in English on that day in that tower. Relying solely on customary tower etiquette and protocol, and armed with smiles and a couple of St. Luke's—Atlanta tower shirts to offer as gifts, there were no serious missteps during that first Italian tower grab, so to speak, and I was thrilled to be welcomed to come along to the next tower, Sant'Anastasia.
Ringing in Verona seems remarkably similar to ringing in the English tradition, and remarkably different. The ropes consist of steel cable from the bell wheel to just above the ringing chamber, where a hemp rope is connected. Compared to most North American towers the draft is incredibly long, as most Italian towers are tall. There is no sally or tail end, and the rope end customarily lies in a heap on the floor. The bells were rung up at the beginning of each “concerto” and rung down at the end of each—not much organization to either. It looked as if they intentionally gave the heavier bells a head start, a good idea especially at Verona Cathedral where the tenor, the world's largest full circle ringing bell (88cwt)required 4-5 ringers all pulling together, and included fresh ringers relieving the tired ones! But, I digress.
As we set off for Verona's largest church, I had no idea why the ringers insisted so vehemently that we walk with them to Sant'Anastasia (c. 1290). We had a perfectly good car and driver who knew the way, but discussing it in either language was not an option. On arrival at the majestic Gothic structure, however, it became immediately obvious that I would never have found the way through a back entrance, to the hidden stairs, to the ringing chamber, and especially not past the old priest who, not recognizing me as one of the usual ringers, forbade me to follow them! Even I understood his Italian “No, No, No!” Being vouched for by good ringers can get you into a lot of great places and this was certainly one of those.
Climbing the many flights of stairs up to the ringing room (and on up to the bells) was not insignificant, but well worth the trip. The physical effort of access corresponded with other aspects of the ringing in Verona—the tradition of raising and lowering of bells for each separate concerto, each of which may last only a few minutes; long drafts; heavier bells. I saw several instances of 2 young men pairing to ring one bell, and I wondered if the physicality of The Italian Exercise accounted for the mostly-male group of ringers I saw that day. And there were so MANY of them—20? 30? Possibly, this was a phenomenon of Verona, or of that particular date? There had been a meeting of their regional Association that day. Perhaps tower bell ringing continues in Italy as a traditionally-male activity? I had so many questions, and so little ability to understand the language of the answers, but I can report that the few young women I saw rang very well indeed!
If there was any downside to keeping up with the ringers on this day, it was merely that I could not linger as long in these magnificent churches as I would have liked, drinking in the beauty of the architecture and the art, and enjoying the music—mass was in progress everywhere! The opportunity to visit the ringing at Verona Cathedral turned out to be vastly more special than anticipated. We learned from Matteo, the evening's Master for the ringing, that the Cathedral bells are rung only about 15 times per year, being situated in the City Center and subject to local noise abatement regulations. The exception being made coincidentally during our visit was, of course, for the Feast of Pentecost.
For the Veronese ringing “performances” (concerti) that I saw, the bells were raised more or less at the same time, but not in peal. When all bells were up, rounds were begun. The pace was slow and stately, typical for heavier bells. A conductor, who usually was not ringing a bell, shouted out the number(s) of the bells which were to ring—a type of called changes, if you will. Occasionally, 2 or more bells were called to ring at the same time, using special names for combinations of bells to facilitate the communication. Being so different from the quiet English tradition, the calling at first seemed rather chaotic, but it is actually fittingly Italian, spontaneous and vibrant. And the striking, well, it was generally top notch, spot on.
If I understood correctly, there is so far no method ringing being “performed” around Verona, but some of the area ringers reportedly are learning PB minor on handbells. Their interactions with British ringers both in England and in Italy are definitely impacting their traditions.
My tower visits in Verona may always remain my most fondly-remembered, certainly the most exotic, even though I never took a rope there. The physical, enthusiastic ambience of the effort and the palpable expectation of ringing well captured what I love most about ringing, after all. Before last goodbyes outside the Cathedral, we had an opportunity to chat with the handsome Matteo who, day's duty well discharged, relaxed a bit and became both charmingly amiable and considerably more fluent in English. “First, it's the passion” he said, apparently by way of explanation. Then, “No, no. First, it's the service, and then the passion.” Spoken like a true ringer, from almost any tradition.