Discovering the Bell Towers of Rome
The city of churches, the capital of Christianity, is also the city that boasts the world’s richest collection of bell towers of every period and style, towering in the sky and unmistakably characterizing the Roman skyline.
Some bell towers are so famous that they are now considered major Roman landmarks. That is the case of the twin bell towers at the Trinità dei Monti church that dominate the evocative Spanish Steps below. There is also a pair of bell towers, each a mirror image of the other, located at the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona. According to tradition, the two towers “frightened” the nearby Rio della Plata statue in the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the sculpted river god raises his hand against the threat of an imminent collapse. When the powerful bells sound, the spheres that support the crosses above oscillate at the tolling, exactly as in the case of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte’s bell tower, nicknamed “Il Ballerino” (the dancer).
Proceeding at random by pointing a finger here and there on the horizon, you’ll spot the slender Romanesque bell tower of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which contains seven levels of double lancet windows and triple mullioned windows and a bell dating back to 1289. A similar bell tower characteristic of the Romanesque style can be found at Santa Maria in Trastevere. The oldest surviving bell tower in the city belongs to the church of SS Quattro Coronati, dating back to the 9th century, while the oldest bell (fused in 1069) still tolls at the tiny church of San Benedetto in Piscinula—which also happens to be the smallest. The bell tower of San Giorgio al Velabro, incorporated into the 3rd-century Arch of the Argentari, is the fruit of a 12th-century renovation, and the tallest, measuring nearly 250 feet, towers over Santa Maria Maggiore.
Some of Rome’s bell towers are luckier than others. Luck smiled on the bell tower of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, for example, when it was miraculously saved from the 1943 bombings that razed the basilica itself to the ground. On the other hand, the bell tower of San Crisogono is the unluckiest, since three mullioned windows had to be closed in order to avoid an imminent collapse due to the tower’s excessive weight.
The most curious of Rome’s bell towers no longer stand, but they live on in photographic evidence. We’re talking about the notorious “Orecchie d’Asino” (Mule’s Ears), the twin bell towers erected on either side of the Pantheon by Pope Urban VIII and demolished by Guido Baccelli in 1883 for their ugliness. The most unique bell tower is at the church of Santa Maria dei Funari, whose bell cell is supported by a tower with a small cupola at the top.
The only characteristic that distinguishes the so-called twin churches of Piazza del Popolo—Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli—from one another is their bell towers, one being late Renaissance and the other baroque. Fun fact: lightning struck the cross of the former church the day of the premiere of The Exorcist, which happened to be playing at a nearby cinema.
The medieval bell tower of San Paolo fuori le Mura was completely destroyed by fire in 1823 and substituted by a simple, elegant Neoclassical tower, proving that new tastes can rival those of the past. Other more recent bell towers around the city include those of Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, All Saints’ Anglican Church, and San Camillo, near Via Veneto.
And now for the bells themselves: arguably the loudest and warmest bell in all of Rome is at St. Peter’s Basilica. The so-called Patarina del Campidoglio, which called the people to parliament, was damaged by lightning and replaced by the present-day bell that weighs around six tons. The “Sperduta,” on the other hand, tolled at Santa Maria Maggiore (and is now in the Vatican), and according to legend, it guided the steps of a pilgrim lost in the city’s outskirts. To show her gratitude, the woman donated a fixed sum to the church so that the bell’s tolling could be heard every night. The Bell of Tasso is the smallest of the three bells that belong to the church of Sant’Onofrio, and accompanied the last days of the eponymous poet’s life until his death. It was almost melted down by Garibaldi’s soldiers to be used for a cannon but was saved by the Monsignore of the nearby convent.
The tolling of church bells make up the unofficial soundtrack of Rome. Puccini, for example, used the sound to magical effect in the finale of the first act of Tosca, the most Roman of all operas. Today film composers and directors, such as Oscar-winning Giuseppe Tornatore, favor the irregular effects of the sound of bells, suggesting majestic distances
To celebrate the last Jubilee, over 65 bell towers were involved in an exclusive concert along with ten synchronized bellringers who followed a rhythmic score and manually operated the ropes. It proved to be an exceptional symphony, which introduced the city’s bells, large and small, to Romans and tourists alike, perfectly in tune with the spirit of December, the month associated with this festive and joyful sound.