il tempo vola and l’ora italica clock restored in florence

Paolo Uccello, Dial of the mechanical clock of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1443, fresco, cm 670 x 677
Paolo Uccello, Dial of the mechanical clock of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1443, fresco, 670 x 677 cm

Time and the measurement of time are great visual and conceptual inspirations for some of my Timeless watch jewelry. Clock mechanisms and clock styles have varied greatly over the centuries. One major clock, located in Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) has just been restored again to its former splendor. What makes this clock special as a work of art is its uniqueness in design; and it is the only clock in the world that still tells Italian Time.

The clock inside Florence's Duomo
The clock inside Florence’s Duomo

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) painted the fresco of the clock face, including the heads of 4 [probably] prophets in each corner in 1443, found on the inside of the west walls above the main entrances. The clock itself was commissioned to a Florentine clockmaker almost a century after the first public clock was installed in Florence at the Palazzo Vecchio in 1353. The clock in the Duomo has a circular dial with Roman numerals noting the time in a 24-hour increment, but this is not the way time is told how we know it, as standard “French Time” based on the 12-hour design, nor as 24-hour “military time”. Instead, this is “Italian Time” or Ora Italica, and the clock hand, a golden shooting star, actually turns backwards, or counter-clockwise.

Joking aside with the Italian concept of time being relative and leisurly (if you are late to an appointment, you say you had a contratempo, caused by something that went against time) — this clock refers instead to the time of day based on sunrise and sunset, not unlike the movement of a shadow on a vertical sun-dial, opposite of the movement of the sun. The number XXIIII in the case of this clock is located at the bottom of the dial and refers to the hour of sunset and curfew time. In the 1400s, this was the time of day in which Florentines would head home before the city gates would close to protect its citizens. This was also a time when body clocks followed the more natural rhythm of the sun and daylight hours. And, yes, since the time of sunset changes throughout the year, the clock must be tediously reset each week to be more accurate.

4 different historical versions of the clock face
4 different historical versions of the Duomo clock face

In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei improved the clock by designing a new pendulum, but in the same century, the 12-hour clock design prevailed and this clock was updated as such. Uccello’s original design wasn’t uncovered and restored until 1973 after researching the original work contract. A more detailed and historic account of this particular clock and time in its day can be read here.

The name Uccello in Italian means bird. From this reference, I can’t help it but to segue way into another image of time found in a church in Florence, in the Basilica of Santa Croce. In one of the numerous beautiful semi-precious stone inlays is a small image of an hour glass with wings. This graphic symbol is a perfect representation for, as the saying goes, Time Flies, or il tempo vola, and considering the context, that we are all mortal and time is precious.

Semi-precious stone inlay referencing time, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Semi-precious stone inlay referencing time, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Read and see more about stone inlay tomb decoration in Santa Croce, Florence on this blog.

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