It is not so easy to identify the inventor of the bell or the first people to use them. Eastern civilisations began making bells at an early stage.
They are included among the most ancient bronze artefacts in China, where they were used to summon philosophers to gather for meals or prayer. In western antiquity, bells were widely used by the Etruscans. However, they also served more mundane purposes, like in Greece, where they were rung to signal the opening of market and the sale of fish.
With the transition from smaller to larger bells, the bronze from Campania was considered the best, hence the name “campana” (Italian for “bell”), from “Campania vase”, due to their inverted vase or cup shape. It appears that the peals of the very first church bell rang out in the city of Nola, and that its brilliant inventor was St. Paulinus, bishop of the city.
Bells have become increasingly identified as religious and social symbols over time. Bell-founders were initially either laymen or monks, and their bells were made of wrought iron.
Bronze bells, obtained by mixing copper with tin, were not made until a later stage. Only a few foundries still remain in Italy, with the oldest being that of the Marinelli Brothers, the only survivor of the once numerous dynasties of bellfounders in Agnone.
For eight centuries, this ancient art has been handed down continuously from father to son. The Marinelli museum even preserves a rare example of a Gothic bell reputed to have been cast in Agnone 1,000 years ago.
Bronze bells of considerable size were probably cast in Agnone even before 1200. It is know with certainty that Nicodemus Marinelli, known as “Campanarus”, cast a 200 kg bell in 1339 for a church in Frosinate. Finely crafted bells made in Agnone from the 14th century onwards can be seen in many bell towers, from where their peals continue ring out.
The production stages for casting a bell require careful and patient work, and, above all, experience and passion.
Technology has not reduced the production times, which can vary from two to several months. By the 18th century, bells had finally assumed a well-defined shape, very similar to that of today, although a disproportion often remained between the height and the diameter, due to which they continued to have a tapered appearance. A bell scale was later established, giving perfect proportions of thickness, weight, circumference and height in relation to the timbre required.
A bell can be regarded as a truncated cone inserted in a cube; it has no straight lines so its outline has to be drawn with a compass, as also explained by Diderot in his “Encyclopaedia”, and this determines the successful outcome of the bell and its sound.
The first step in the manufacturing process is the creation of the “soul”, which is a brick mould in the shape of a bell made using a sliding wooden template.
Several layers of special clay are placed over the soul to obtain a false bell, which will have the exact thickness required for the bronze bell.
Molten wax is then poured over this perfectly smooth surface so that the shape of the future bell already begins to appear, while friezes and decorations are made by hand in a separate process.
Great patience and dedication are used to make clay reliefs, from which a plaster cast is first produced and then a positive wax model, which is applied to the false bell.
At this stage in the process, successive layers of clay are applied to create what is known as the mantle of the bell.
The structure is heated and the soul acts as a kiln, allowing the various wax parts to melt so as to ensure that negative versions of the inscriptions and friezes remain on the layers of clay that have been subsequently applied.
The mantle is gently raised to uncover and remove the false bell, which will then be discarded. It is then repositioned on the soul so that a space is created inside the model into which the molten bronze will be poured to produce the new bell.
At this point, the model is ready to be placed in the casting pit at the foot of the furnace, where it is firmly anchored to prevent any movement during casting.
The bell is cast in a bronze alloy obtained by mixing copper and tin in an unequal ratio (78 percent copper and 22 percent tin), which gives the structure greater solidity.
The casting of the bell is the final step in a long process. It is like the birth of a new creature after a long period of gestation and is therefore a moment of great apprehension, requiring a blessing.
The opening of the furnace, which signals the start of casting, is accompanied by the invocation “Santa Maria!” This mystical symbolism resonates with the shared excitement and is part of a spectacle of indescribable fascination.
After cooling, the bell is removed from the pit and the cleaning operation begins, when it is freed from the soul and the mantle, cleaned and polished.
The final step is the musical test, performed with a tuning fork. The bell is then ready to be installed in a bell tower.
The Local Area
Agnone is an ancient city in the mountains of Alto Molise, whose origins go back to the fallen Samnite city of Aquilonia. In 1139 the powerful Borrello family brought to the city a large number of Venetian soldiers and craftsmen, who greatly influenced its life and economy.
Signs of Venetian culture can still be seen in the original district of Ripa, also known as the “Venetian village”.
Over the centuries, Agnone became a rich and important city and was the birthplace of many distinguished personalities during the 19th century, for which it became known as the “Athens of Sannio.”
Despite this, the price revolution linked to the initial development of Italian industry undermined the magical equilibrium that had been created in the city, encouraging the phenomenon of emigration.
The last growth in population was in the 1940s, since when it has been in continuous decline.
Agnone is known around the world as the home of the oldest bell foundry, established in around 1000 AD.
The history of this company can now be relived by visiting the Historical Museum of the Bell, right beside the ancient foundry.
Agnone’s churches are very important and represent true works of art, both due to their beauty and to the works they contain.
Curator — Camera di Commercio di Isernia
Curator — Pontificia fonderia di campane Marinelli