15 February 2015

LIFE: For Whom the Bells Toll

CHIAVARI, Italy - The Pontificia Marinelli Foundry is in the town of Agnone, a small village in the Molise region in central Italy. They are the bell makers to the Pope and the Catholic Church. The Marinelli Foundry has been making bells for more than 800 years, making them one of the oldest companies in the world.
 Armando and Pasqualino Marinelli
It was Nicodemus Marinelli who bought the foundry in 1339 and the foundry he bought may have been there since 1040 or even earlier. What is certain though is that when Nicodemus Marinelli took over, one of the first bells he made was a two ton beauty for a church in Frosinone, in the region of Lazio. This shows that the bell making skills of the foundry were already known throughout central Italy.

Not much has changed in the foundry since those days. Everything is still made by hand and tradition is still king. The skills and techniques that they use have been handed down from father to son generation after generation. In fact, if Nicodemus were to walk into the foundry today, he would feel right at home. 
 Much of the Work is Still Done by Hand
They still use oak from the nearby woods to fire up the coal ovens used to melt bronze,  bricks, clay and wax are still used to make casts and molds, and the bells are still prayed over by the workers.

In all these hundreds of years only only two small concessions have been made: an air compressor has replaced the hand bellows that help heat bronze to 2,200 degrees, and the big bells are now lifted out of the casting pit using a motorized crane. As some of the bells weigh as much as five tons, the motor does come in handy. 
 The Bell's Soul
Bell making is a complicated procedure and it starts with a solid, bell-shaped brick core, the soul of the bell, which is covered by a thin layer of clay creating a smooth surface.

 The "False" Bell
A "false bell" is formed with a second layer of clay molded in the exact shape of the projected finished product. It is at this stage of production that images or commemorative lettering and dates are applied.

 The "Mantle"
The second layer of clay is then covered by another much thicker layer of clay called a mantle. After it has dried - and has taken on the impressions of the decorations on its inside - the mantle is lifted off.

The "false bell" layer is chipped away and the mantle is lowered over the original inner core. The mold is then firmly placed into the casting trench, which is just below the oven that keeps the bronze in a molten state, and the liquid bronze is poured into the space once occupied by the "false bell."
Foundry Workers 
By tradition, the bells are considered sacred, so each one has to be blessed. As the door to the oven is opened to release the molten bronze, the workers recite a litany of prayers to the Madonna starting with "Holy Mary, mother of God". After a successful pouring, the bell is then allowed to cool – which often takes several days. Once the bronze is cold, the bell is taken from the casting trench, freed from the mold, cleaned and polished.

Not all the bells made at the Marielli Foundry are giants weighing multiple tons. They also make smaller ones that ring out daily in churches across Italy, calling the faithful to mass or a funeral or marking the hours of the day.   
 The 2000 Jubilee Bell
To reward the Marinellis for their service to the Church, in 1924 Pope Pius XI decreed that the Marinelli Foundry would be known as the Pontificia Marinelli Foundry, bell makers to the Pope. And so they are.

Since the Middle Ages, the company has produced bells as diverse as the first bell for the Tower of Pisa, one for the abbey of Montecassino after it was damaged during World War II, the bell of the Catholic Jubilee of 2000 and many, many more. The Catholic Church has always had a special interest in the production of bells, which should not come as a surprise to anyone, for are they not the voice of the angels? 

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