THE HISTORY OF THE TOWER
From the end of the 1400s and well into the 1600s St Mark's Square, at the
heart of Venice's political and religious life, underwent a series of modifications.
It was from the Clock Tower that these modifications began. In 1493 Zuan Carlo
Ranieri of Reggio Emilia was commissioned to build a new clock to substitute
the St Alipio hammer clock. In 1495 the Senate, in agreement with the Procuratori
de Supra decided to place the clock at the beginning of the Merceria. Work
started in 1496, the tower being designed, as believed today by scholars,
by Marco Codussi.
Two archways belonging to the Antiche Procuratorie were knocked down to make
room for the new construction while adjacent buildings were reinforced. The
works progessed at such speed that construction was complete towards the end
of 1497. On the 1st of December of the same year, master ironworker Simone
completed the bell, now to be found dominating the top level of the tower.
Ten days later master Ambrogio delle Anchore completed the two Giants holding
hammers and saw them put in place. Artists of many different disciplines worked
together on the decoration and internal mechanism of the clock which was finished
by, and inaugurated on, February 1st,1499. It is no coincidence that the clock
was erected at the beginning of the Merceria, the meeting point of the three
poles -political, religious and commercial - that dominate Venetian life.
The Merceria is a street whose axis joins St Mark's Square to Rialto whose
market is the heart of Venice's economy.
The tower thus orients the flow of traffic from one main point to another.
The edifice, completed so quickly, fits well architecturally with its surroundings
but also provides a wealth of important insights into Venetian life. At the
top was the kneeling figure of doge Barbarigo before St Mark's lion ( the
lion was left standing but the doge's statue was removed after the fall of
the Republic). Underneath is a depiction of the Madonna with the Christ child.
During the week marking the Ascension, a series of figures representing the
Magi and the Archangel Gabriel run a mechanical circle around the Madonna
and Child everytime the clock strikes the hour. (It is a common and much loved
effigy found in many European cities.)
The clock is an example of great mechanical, mathematical and geometric precision.
Ruling at the apex of the clock tower are the Giants (one young and one old,
showing the passage of time) who bang out the hours with their hammers. They
have blackened over the years and are now known as the "Mori". The Clock Tower
was designed to be a bright, festive ornamentation for the city with its materials,
colours and enamel finishes. Of note is the astronomic representation finished
with marine-based enamel as is the star-filled sky that backgrounds Venice's
winged lion. But the story doesn't end there. In 1500 the Senate decided to
construct two lateral wings to the tower in agreement with the Procuratori.
The new construction, in four floors and finished with stone ballustrades
similar to those of the tower, were rented out as housing. In 1717 the two
wings were sold into private hands together with the area beneath on the left-hand
side toward the Calle del Pellegrino. This road (calle) was closed and remains
so today interrupting the passageway under the Procuratorie. In 1750, the
clock, it was noted,was showing signs of mechanical wear and the tower in
need of a complete restoration. In 1751 a competition was announced to find
a suitable clock repairer; in the same year Massari was entrusted with the
restoration work. The restoration was taken over and completed by Camerata
who also added two floors to the wings, keeping the terraces utilizable. He
also built eight columns to reinforce the pillars on ground level as much
for aesthetics as for stability.
After the fall of the Republic, the tower came under the control of the city
concil which, a hundred years after the restoration in the 1700s, nominated
a commission to safeguard the tower's condition. In 1857, having noted concerns
pertaining to possible damage to the top level of the tower, the city's works
office was ordered to intervene.
Restoration, the directive stated, should be undertaken cheaply a fornitura,
the work being too delicate to contract out. In November of the same year
work on the building and the clock began, supervision was entrusted to a city
council engineer. The newly formed Ornato Commission was given the job of
overseeing the project. The building underwent radical damage repair, restructuring
and stabilizing. Of note is the cast iron staircase which is hardly in harmony
with the historical features of the old building. In 1975 the Rotary Club
contributed to the cleaning of marble parts and the restoration of mosaics.
Of what we see today, there is little remaining of the clock tower's original
decoration. The two Mori and the bell are the only untouched pieces while
the lion and the statue of the Virgin have been restored. Mosaics, marble
and gilding have been substituted especially on the front wing of the tower.
Structurally the largest intervention was that of the 1700s with the addition
of the columns followed by the consolidation work of the 1800s.