Veronese Bells, Fittings and Ringing - by David Bagley.

S.Giorgio in Braida, Verona.

The oldest Veronese ring.


Until 1984, it was thought that full circle bell ringing was unique to "English" style change ringing. In the Veneto region of north-east Italy covering roughly the area between Verona and Venice there are around 300 towers where full circle ringing with rope and wheel is carried out. It is remarkable that these two almost identical styles have developed completely separately, and yet are so similar. Any ringer trained in the one system can quickly master handling a bell which is hung in the other.

The method of casting bells in Italy has not changed much for centuries. The shape of a bell is precisely defined on paper in terms of angles and dimensions which are unique to each foundry. These figures are simply scaled for different sizes of bells, and a new strickle is made from the master drawing for each new bell cast. All bells, even modern ones, are cast with cannons, usually six arranged radially.

The mould is made by starting with a hollow brick core, and building this up with loam. A 'false bell' made out of a lighter material is constructed around the core, and the wax decorations are placed on the outside of the false bell.

Decorations on an Italian bell are a very important part of the bell, and some decorations are delicate and complex. The art-work is religious in nature, with subjects such as the Virgin Mary, Christ on the Cross, and images of Saints, together with more decorative borders. A plaster mould is carved, and molten wax poured in and allowed to set. The wax is then removed from the plaster mould and stuck to the side of the false bell. The cannons for the false bell are also made out of wax, and are usually highly decorated.

Once the false bell is completed, then the cope is carefully formed around it to avoid damaging the decoration. Hooks are embedded into the cope so that it may be lifted to remove the false bell. Once finished, a charcoal fire is lit within the hollow core, which melts out the wax and dries the mould. This is kept lit for several days, and often a second charcoal fire is lit on top to heat that part of the mould. Once a mould has been made, the strickle is destroyed to preserve the uniqueness of the bell.

Bell metal is usually about 75% copper, and 25% tin but proportions vary a little from foundry to foundry. The moulds are placed in a casting pit next to the furnace and the molten metal at 1100oC is run off under gravity. Once cold, the bell is removed from the pit and cleaned and polished to a very high standard.

The whole process of making the mould and decorations, casting and cleaning takes around 30 or 40 days, even for small bells. Only on rare occasions are bells tuned. This is usually done with an angle grinder. If a new bell needs tuning, then it is said that the founder has failed to cast the bell properly.

Bell frames and fittings.

A Veronese bell and fittings.

The average tower in the Veneto region of Italy is tall and slender, with the bells right at the top. Veronese bells are bells are rung full circle with a rope and wheel, but are heavily counter-balanced which reduces the forces on the tower. The headstock alone might weigh about 60% of the weight of the bell. Each foundry which makes headstocks for the Veronese system will have a different style of headstock. Some are fabricated out of steel, but most are cast iron. Between the headstock and the bell is a wooden pad which is carved to fit the cannons. Steel 'U' bolts are used to attach the headstock to the cannons.

The wheel rim is made out of 'U' shaped steel channel, and is welded into a circle. The spokes are welded to the wheel rim and the whole assembly is bolted to the side of the headstock. Wheel stays are also used to give the wheel rigidity. The rope is attached to the wheel with a toggle arrangement and this is positioned at the same height as the bearings. The ground pulley is always at least one wheel diameter directly below the rope toggle, but sometimes it is much further away, depending upon the height of the frame.

The ropes consist of steel cable from the bell wheel to just above the ringing chamber, where a hemp rope is spliced on. The steel cable does not stretch even with very long rope drafts. The hemp rope is generally fairly thick and has no sally or tail end, finishing in a heap on the floor. New hemp ropes are boiled to remove any elasticity before being spliced onto the steel cable.

Bell frames are fabricated out of steel channel and are not arranged so that the ropes fall in any particular order. Only a very few towers have wooden frames. There is no standard frame design, and the rope 'circle' is different in every tower, but they are sometimes drawn across to make ropesight easier.

Clapper staples are independent and not cast in to the top of the bell. Leather baldricks are fixed to the top of the clapper and pass through the staple which is shaped like a stirrup. The bells usually swing in and out of the tower openings, which makes them very loud outside. Because of the danger of a broken clapper flying out of the tower, a loop of steel cable is passed through the flight of the clapper, and around the side of the ball. This is then tethered at several places up the shaft and passes through the clapper staple.

Veronese Ringing.

Although Veronese bells are hung in a very similar manner to English bells, the ringing is quite different. Since there are no stays, the bells must be rung up before each "concerto". There are two methods of raising the bells, namely the fast way and slow way. When ringing up the slow way, the treble is raised first and starts ringing slowly on its own when it is up. Then the second is then raised and joins in ringing slow rounds. Then all the other bells are raised in turn and join on the end of the slow rounds. When the tenor is up, then the concerto can begin. The fast way is less interesting, and involves all the bells ringing up as fast as they can and sorting out the ringing into rounds when up.

When ringing a concerto, the conductor calls out the number of the bells which are to ring. Each ringer has to hold his bell on the balance until his number is called, when he pulls off and sets his bell at the other stroke.

On 5 bells the bells are usually numbered 1-5, but on six bells the treble is usually number 6 (rounds being 612345). On nine bells, the numbering system is 1-9, and on ten, the new treble is number zero. Additional bells are given letters, not numbers. There are a few other systems of calling, but these are not commonly used.

Concertos usually contain many chords of two or sometimes three bells. Chords are given names, usually based on the ordinal number for the heavier bell in the chord, for example, a chord involving 4 and 2 striking together is called "quarte". Chords with three or more bells are usually called as a pair of bells together with the extra bell(s), for example a chord with 8,6 and 1 could be called "octave e uno". or eighth (meaning 8 and 6) and number one.

Concertos almost always end in a flourish of these chords, which sounds very impressive when it is done well. Lowering the bells after a concerto is, however, a very haphazard affair, with all the bells just running down randomly. Often, once the concerto is finished, the ringers will simply pull their bells off and walk out of the tower!

Some bands are beginning to lower in peal, which is something they have picked up from visits to the UK. They do not usually get very far with this before it all fires up, and they walk out of the tower anyway. I have heard one band "fire" down in peal quite successfully, which is probably more difficult than running down in rounds.

Every 'concerto' is thought of as a public performance, and is often treated with applause at the end. The standard of the striking is, as a result, usually very high. It is usual for a ringer to only ring with his or her own band. It is very rare for any one ringer to visit other towers on their own. Tower 'grabbing' is almost unheard of as a result. I have experienced a 'knock and grab' when the band taking us around stopped at a village for a drink at the bar, and the priest was persuaded to open up the tower!

The one time at which ringers do get to ring on other bells is at a competition. Many bands go into competition ringing in a big way, and the good ones win many trophies. The 1988 young ringers' competition at Sprea (5 bells, 10cwt) had 21 teams taking part! Each competition will have a special concerto composed for it, and a new trophy will be made. Each team must ring this concerto, and the system of marking is complex. Different types of faults gain different penalty points. If the concerto is miscalled, or if a bell turns right over, then this leads to disqualification. Large variations in rhythm lose more points than small ones.

Many of the ringers are affiliated to the "Associazone Suonatori di Campane a Systema Veronese" (ASCSV). This is in turn part of a national organisation called ANBIMA which represents many different forms of music, including marching bands. The ASCSV is run like any other guild or association with a monthly newsletter, and many other events.

If you wish to visit Italy hoping to ring, then it is advisable to let them have some warning first. The Ringing World Diary gives the addresses of the President and Vice President of the ASCSV, but it is best to contact their English Central Council representatives via me at :-

Please note that this email address has been protected to avoid abuse by spammers. You will need a JavaScript-enabled browser.

Information, facts and figures.

There are about 300 ringing towers in northern Italy, but as yet there is no complete list of all of them, although one is being compiled. Another 300 or so are electrically swung.

Weights of bells are given in 'quintali' which are multiples of 100Kg. A bell is considered to be a musical instrument, so the note is of greater importance than the weight. It is strange that the bells are not tuned (harmonically or otherwise) as most other musical instruments are.

Verona Cathedral has nine bells, tenor 88cwt (in Ab) and is the largest full circle ringing bell in the world. The bells were originally cast in 1931 by the Cavadini foundry of Verona and the original tenor cracked with one day left on the bell founder's 12 month guarantee! This newer bell was slightly larger and part of the tower around the trap door was removed so that the new bell could be installed. The headstock alone weighs about 3 tons, and the whole rotating assembly is over 8 tons. The tenor was recast again in 2003 by the De Poli foundry and now weighs 4495kg (88-1-26).

Verona Cathedral.

S. Elena in Venice is the only ringing tower in the city. This is a 250 foot tall tower, with the bells at the top, and rung from the ground floor. There are six bells, the tenor is about 44cwt. There is no local band, and these tricky bells are only rung a few times each year by visiting ringers. They are now the heaviest ring of six in the world, since the heavier ring at Arzignano have been augmented. (Click HERE to hear the back 6 Arzignano bells). The heaviest ring of five is at Cavaion Veronese, tenor 32 cwt approx.

Most towers have diatonic scales of 5, 6 or 9 bells. A few have more than 9, and some have semitones. Breganze near to the city of Vicenza has a ring of 14, tenor 55cwt approx. Vicenza itself has two rings of 12, at S. Marco and at Fillipini.

The village of Altissimo in the foothills of the Dolomites north of Vicenza has three rings, a 28 cwt 10 (Click HERE to hear these bells), a 13 cwt 9, and a 6 cwt 6. Of the entire village population of around 700, a large number can handle a bell! One room of the village bar is full of ringing trophies, two shelves high all the way round the walls.

The Mobile Tower.

The Capanni foundry has built a mobile tower consisting of a ring of 6, tenor about 6 cwt, and the tower is small enough to be lifted onto the back of a lorry. It usually travels around the Veneto region visiting various towns and villages to take part in exhibitions or festivals, but it has even been set up outside St. Peters in Rome to give a special performance for the Pope. Because the bells are very loud, the ringers sometimes wear headphones and the "Maestro" shouts into a microphone!

For those with a broadband connection, there is also a good video clip downloadable from here. There is some more excellent video of Veronese ringing at this page although the last few seconds are of actually not Veronese ringing, but a similar system in the Milan area called Ambrosiano.

YouTube has loads of Veronese clips with more being added all the time. Start here for several excellent clips, even one of Verona Cathedral ringing.

David Bagley 06/12/2007