Italy's oldest bell-making shop turns to online overseas sales to keep ancient craft alive

In Italy, turreted church towers are part of the country's fabric, as are the bronze bells in the belfry that call the faithful to mass. But as church attendance has dropped, so has demand for the giant bronzes, so bell makers are turning to online sales to keep their craft alive.

Demand from overseas churches, Buddhist temples has offset the drop in orders from Catholic churches in Italy

Master bell maker Antonio Delli Quadri, 83, was just 15 when he started helping cast bells inside Italy's oldest bell foundry, run by the Marinelli family in the town of Agnone. The workshop is one of five remaining foundries in Italy, which once boasted dozens. (Megan Williams/CBC)

It's difficult to imagine an Italian town or city without a skyline of turreted church towers or an hourly clamour of bells pealing and chiming in the air.

With the Vatican nestled in the heart of the country, the large bronze instruments have made Christianity literally resonate throughout Italy for centuries

But just as the multitudes called to daily mass by the belfry tolling have all but dried up, the ancient knowledge used to produce the giant bronzes is at risk of vanishing.

And that makes the survival of Italy's oldest bell foundry — located in the small town of Agnone in the country's hilly, desolate southern region of Molise — a near miracle.

"This is a complex trade that involves precise understanding of mathematics, physics, geometry and music," said master bell maker Antonio Delli Quadri, 83, whose customers include the United Nations in New York and the Vatican.

"From the rigour of numbers to the harmony of sound."

LISTEN | The story of a bell foundry in a tiny town in southern Italy:

No machines, no mass-produced moulds

Delli Quadri began helping cast bells when he was just 15, starting with "the most humble tasks" inside the light-dappled bustling workshop run by the Marinelli family since at least 1339. Up until the 1950s, some two dozen bell foundries, all family-run, were operating throughout Italy.

Today, the Marinelli foundry is among five survivors and is the official provider of bells for the Vatican.

"You could say by sticking to these centuries-old ways, we're now avant-garde," said Pasquale, 50, the younger of the two Marinelli brothers now running the foundry.

"We haven't introduced machines. We've stayed in the same traditional workshop instead of moving into a bigger factory. We refuse to work with soulless, mass-produced moulds."

Artisan Ettore Marinelli, 28, is a member of the latest generation of Marinellis to keep his family's ancient bell foundry. Marinelli Pontifical Foundry is the oldest bell foundry in Italy and one of only a handful remaining in the country. (Chris Ward-Jones)

Indeed, the materials scattered throughout the workshop — clay, wood, wax, bricks and bronze — are the very same as those the medieval artisans used. The Marinellis also employ the same techniques to design and cast the bells, including a geometric formula involving the height, diameter of the base and distance from the base to the top of the bell, with the thickest part of the bell always a 14th of the diameter.

While bells are an integral part of Catholic churches in Italy and elsewhere, the bronze instruments have played an essential role in community life that pre-dates the time in the Middle Ages when they gradually stopped being hung above town doors and began ringing on church towers.

World's 'first mass media'

Paola Patriarca, a foundry artisan who curates the small bell museum above the Marinelli workshop, where more than 1,000 bells are on display, calls bells the world's "first mass media."

"The sound of bells are now seen as nostalgic, but remember, just 50 years ago, not everyone had a watch," said Patriarca. "Bells served [as] essential services, like warning when it was going to rain, or one hour to sunset, which had a particular importance for workers far afield or in the woods under heavy canopy cover.

"Even for those out fishing, when the sky was clouded over, the sound was a message to head back to shore. Bells kept people safe."

Intricate decorations for the bells are carved in wax. (Chris Warde-Jones)

Bells are booming online

While the world's original mass medium may be fading in Italy, the advent of new, digital means of communication have kept the Marinelli foundry going.

Online orders from expanding churches in Africa, Asia and South America, not to mention from Buddhist temples and musicians, have helped offset the drop in orders from Catholic churches in Italy and Europe.

Still, the Catholic influence is as deeply embedded in the bells as the gold rings believers once tossed into the boiling bronze – both in their nomenclature and production.

Bells blessed by priest

The Marinellis refer to bells as "sacred bronzes" and describe them not as formed but "born," with the initial wooden and brick structure that gives shape to the inside called the "anima," or soul. To this day, a priest is called to the foundry to bless the bell, emitting a flurry of Hail Marys at the moment of fusion, when the bronze liquid is poured into the mould.

'I saw that bell born,' Delli Quadri says of the Jubilee Bell at the Vatican. (Chris Warde-Jones)

"Bells contained parts of the community they tolled above," said older Marinelli brother Armando. "As an act of faith, people would throw their gold bands or necklaces into the bronze as it began setting. So, in a very material way, many bells contain bits of our past. And when bells ring, people hear the older generations ringing in them."

Producing the desired ring remains a challenge. One small mistake can result in having to go back to the beginning of a process that can take up to three months. With large bells, some weighing up to 600 kilograms and costing in the tens of thousands of dollars, precision is imperative.

Delli Quadri said any bell maker who boasts they have never erred is lying. He said his own missteps were thankfully on smaller, less important bells.

Hope for the tradition to continue

Delli Quadri, who has spent a lifetime inside the foundry and perilously perched on belfries to mount the giant bronzes, prefers recalling his triumphs — his biggest, he says, being the Jubilee Bell for the Vatican in 2000.

"I saw that bell born," he recalled with pride, "and followed it through to completion. From the first brick here in the workshop to mounting the bronze on a structure that I built myself in the Vatican gardens."

He said he's hopeful that with the next generation of Marinellis committed to keeping the foundry going, the centuries-old secrets will stay alive, at least for the near future.

"These are intergenerational businesses," said Delli Quadri. "And if you don't have a next generation willing to take on bell making, that's the end."


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams has been covering all things Italian, from politics and the Vatican, to food and culture, to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, for more than two decades. Based in Rome, Megan has also told stories from other parts of Europe and the world and won many international prizes for her reporting, including a James Beard Award. Her radio documentaries can be heard on Ideas and The Current. Megan is also a regular guest host on CBC national radio shows.