One of my earliest memories from previous travels in Italy involves the sound of church bells. There is timelessness in those sounds. That perception is enhanced when what reaches the ear is colored by reverberating off old stone surfaces. In communities of any size, there are a number of bell towers each with their unique metallic occupants, each with their own unique metallic voice. In short order, we learned to recognize the Ascolani bells that are speaking to us.
Although mostly welcome, under some circumstances, bells have potential to be less appreciated. Retirement is synonymous with getting older with all those assorted issues. However, in compensation, retirement also finally grants a pardon from being under the perpetual sentence of an alarm clock. When exercising the well-earned prerogative of rolling back over for a little more sleep, another form of sonic intrusion is not necessarily welcome.
The sound of bells, particularly serious bells, may be like relations with some people. There are those acquaintances that are best appreciated at a certain degree of distance. So it was by happenstance that our apartment in the historic center of Ascoli is situated where we can recognize the distinct metallic voices coming to us from a sufficient distance to be appreciated but not so close as to alter our enthusiasm for them.
Here the churches are older than in the U.S. and harken back to a time when the bell of the church was a pivot around which the community functioned. Bells signaled the milestones in the passing day. In simpler times, the bell, like the church itself, brought order to life. The early morning call to first Mass told you when to be up. At midday, the bell on the church announced it was time for Pranza and the extended rest break from the early afternoon heat in the fields. The evening bell announced it was time to stop for the day.
In Ascoli, an accommodation appears to have been reached catering to those of us with insufficient religious fervor. Although a first Mass of the day may be celebrated much earlier, we are not usually aware of bells much before eight in the morning. In addition to the church bells, the bells of the Palazzo di Capitani on the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli announce both the hour and the quarter hour. A larger and somewhat deeper toned bell gives us the hour, in the twelve-hour format rather than the twenty-four. A smaller and higher pitched bell signals whether it is the first, second or third quarter-hour.
But this civic service begins and ends at respectful times in deference to that portion of the community who may actually sleep. We have to assume most everyone does sleep to some extent. But in Italy that is not always apparent. There is a vitality of life here that some seem to extend into early morning. And we are also aware that the workday starts early here. Perhaps we are discovering the necessity of very strong Espresso coffee taken in regular and repeated doses.
Another aspect of an Italian community of any size is the sheer number of churches in evidence. In Rome, the number of churches defies the imagination. In Ascoli, the map of the historic center lists over thirty church sites in this relatively small area. A community achieves special distinction through being the seat (the ‘Cattedra’) of the Bishop of the Diocese and hence the site of the seat of the Bishop becomes the Cathedral. Therefore, the Diocese will have only one Cathedral regardless of the size of other churches in the area.
During the post Protestant Reformation period, the Roman Catholic Church began in earnest to reassert its dominance over Christendom. There was an emphasis on the building of new churches and in commissioning of more elaborate religious art. Prominent families, who were not remiss in finding opportunities to compete with each other, sponsored parish churches or alternatively, chapels in larger churches. In addition to this pious, if not so humble competition, those concerned about judgment and damnation hoped they might improve their chances of ultimate salvation and bliss, rather than eternal torment, by being laid to rest in a sacred place they themselves had paid to build. It has been suggested the church may have encouraged that notion.
But there was a turning point here that made the most significant change in the domination of the church in daily life. This area of Italy was one of the regions designated as a ‘Papal State.’ That position harkening back to the presence of the Roman Church in European affairs as a significant military and political power from medieval times. This area was essentially under theocratic rule until the arrival of the troops under Napoleon in the very early nineteenth century. At the core of the French Revolution was antipathy not only to Monarchy but also to the theocratic structure that was seen to underpin it.
The power of the swords, muskets and cannons of Napoleon’s forces set about to dismantle as many of the symbols of theocratic power as possible. High on that list were the structures of the various, powerful religious orders and communities, each with their own imposing Cloister or Convent attached to a large church here in Ascoli.
Once Napoleon was defeated, the Papacy attempted to reassert its theocratic hold on this area. But too much damage had been done to the theocratic infrastructure and there was an undercurrent of sentiment that Napoleon had set loose that did not want a return to theocracy. This region remained under nominal Papal theocratic rule until the movement to unify Italy as a secular state took hold in the late nineteenth century.
The proliferation of churches that had primarily been supported by the theocratic-political structure foundered. Ultimately, many communities found they could not support the multiple churches that had been built. The turbulent twentieth century and the ongoing economic stresses, plus a growing wave of secularism, have seen decreasing support to this proliferation of local churches.
Some churches in Ascoli have been deconsecrated and converted to other uses. That is particularly true of some of the associated structures that formally housed religious orders. The former Cloister of the Church of Saint Augustine is now the Ascoli Main Library and also houses the Contemporary Art Museum. Other deconsecrated churches simply stand empty and without function. The large church of Saint Augustine itself stands largely empty and devoid of activity except on rare occasions. Other seemingly abandoned churches share a priest and see only occasional use for a wedding or baptism. At the foot of our street, the Church of Saint Giuliano is closed and boarded up and is now adorned with graffiti.
Walking past these places that have fallen into disuse, a sense of melancholy can set in. There are countless names and faces we will never know who, in the past, came into these buildings to celebrate weddings and births and to mourn the dead. They no doubt also came into these places seeking solace and a better sense of direction faced with life’s many mysteries. And now many of these places stand in the process of silent decay. But the underlying reality appears to be that within the community there is a core of religious conviction that has coalesced into presently functioning parish churches that are meeting the needs of their congregations. What survived Napoleon is a religious faith based on conviction rather than one theocratically imposed.
As I write this during a post Easter, spring afternoon, my window is ajar. At this moment, I am hearing the peel of the largest bell at the Cathedral of St. Emidio almost a half mile away. The slow, deep tone of that bell peel in the afternoon most commonly calls the community to acknowledge the passing of one of its members. There are fewer sounds that so effectively convey the essence of mourning. The words of John Donne, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” come to mind at this moment.
And so there is the ceremonial ringing of bells, bells for the passing hours and encountering church buildings that have fallen into disuse but then to be superseded by more viable religious bodies. There is awareness that the sounds of bells are still a way of calling a community together to remind one and all of a common humanity. The sounds of bells reaching us today are coming from places that the devout still turn to in this modern age.
So for one who admits to having lost some level of previous religious identification, I have a heightened sense of awareness for what I think I hear in these distant bells, each with their own distinctive metallic voice. Those bells have been calling out a message for a very long time. The bells seem to signal that the rhythms of life need to be seen as being sacred and not taken for granted. So in those special sounds, I’m finding some inspiration.