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Vatican bell foundry fears uncertain future

The centuries-old foundry that supplies bells to the Vatican, while priding itself on being Italy’s oldest family business, is beginning to fear for its future.
AFP | By Katia Dolmadjian, Agnone, Italy
UPDATED ON APR 06, 2009 10:35 AM IST

The centuries-old foundry that supplies bells to the Vatican, while priding itself on being Italy’s oldest family business, is beginning to fear for its future.

Craftsmen skilled in the time-honoured art are a disappearing breed, said Armando Marinelli, co-owner with his brother Pasquale of the business in the Molise region of southern Italy.

“The problem is finding the manpower,” he said, adding: “Lots of young people come but then get bored.”

The Marinellis produced their first bell in 1339 at the family workshop nestled in the Appenine hills.

“But the village of Agnone has a tradition of foundries that dates back 10 centuries,” Marinelli said.

The dark and dusty workshop is anything but pretentious. Four craftsmen ply their trade amid piles of clay, charcoal and wood, stirring glowing embers on which small grey moulds are drying before being used to form miniature bells.

“The Vatican gave us the title of pontifical foundry in 1924, and the (Roman Catholic) Church today accounts for 90 percent of our orders,” Marinelli said.

“Our biggest bell was created for the Jubilee in 2000: five tonnes and six metres (20 feet) in circumference.”

The foundry produces about 50 bells a year, “sometimes fewer when there are larger ones,” veteran craftsman Antonio Delli Quadri said, standing in a room stacked from floor to ceiling with plaster moulds of Madonnas, saints and decorative friezes.

The artisans use wax to transfer the designs onto a brick “core” slathered with clay, slightly smaller than the bell to be forged.

Another layer of clay is applied to form a “false bell”.

After this hardens, the wax inside is melted, leaving the imprint of the design in negative on the inside of the false bell in the technique known as “lost wax”.

Molten bronze, at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 Fahrenheit), is poured into the space to form the bell.

“A bell foundry is anything but an assembly line. You have to have a passion to create,” said Marinelli.

The foundry is considered Italy’s oldest family business and among the three oldest family businesses worldwide, according to the American magazine Family Business.

The business, which employs about a dozen workers, is among Europe’s 12 remaining big foundries.

“Our main fear is also that the family dynasty may end. We think about it all the time. I have three small children, and so far the workshop is just a playground for them,” Marinelli said.

“My great-grandfather was a bell maker, but unfortunately I’ll be the last because my two children are doing completely different things. That’s how it is,” said Antonio Delli Quadri, his sparkling blue eyes set off by a shock of white hair.

The secret to making a bell with perfect timbre? “The base, where the sound comes from, should not be overloaded with designs, and its proportions must follow very precise mathematical rules,” he said.

“And a good founder should be able to produce the entire chromatic scale,” he added.

Delli Quadri then picked up a wooden mallet and performed an impromptu concert on 10 big bells hanging in the workshop. Their deep tones reverberate in the eardrums of everyone listening -- perhaps the origin of the Italian expression “deaf as a bell”.

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