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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Orologio ad acqua del Pincio in Rome

What is Orologio ad acqua del Pincio?

The Orologio ad acqua del Pincio, or The Pincio Water Clock in English, is a 19th-century water clock designed by Father Giovanni Battista Embriaco, and one of only two in the city of Rome. It stands on an island in a small lake inside Villa Borghese.

Pincio Water Clock

Orologio ad acqua del Pincio History

This 19th-century clock is only one of two in Rome engineered to run only on water. This type of instrument is one of the oldest mechanical methods of timekeeping, known to have existed as far back as the 14th century BC in Egypt, and prevalent in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Sundials, another popular ancient method for timekeeping, had the major disadvantage of not working during bad weather or at night, therefore the ancients developed a device known as a clepsydra (or literally ‘water thief’): a simple structure formed of a vessel from which water escaped through a small hole at a steady rate, thus marking the passing of time. This timepiece is undoubtedly more complex in form, however the principles behind it remain the same. The device comprises metal pipes and flat weight-scale type basins on which the water falls from above, making the basins swing, which in turn moves the clock hands and pendulum, and causes the clock to chime.

If you look closely you’ll notice the metal pipes have been craftily disguised as tree branches and the basins as leaflets. A transparent glasshouse framed in cast iron holds the entire apparatus, and has been architecturally designed in a way that merges aesthetically with the serene dense foliage that surrounds the clock setup. There are also four dials on all four sides, making the clock visible from every angle.

The water clock was installed in the gardens on the Pincian Hill in 1872. Created by inventor Father Giovanni Battista Embriaco, the clock was designed to work at all hours of the day in perpetuity, but has in fact had to be restarted a few times over the century and a half it’s been running. Father Embriaco, a Dominican friar from the Italian region of Liguria, was a professor at the College of St Thomas in Rome and a passionate engineer who was uniquely interested in clocks. He submitted his first prototype of a water clock or hydrochronometer to Paris’s Universal Exposition of 1867, where it won prizes and received accolades for its sophisticated engineering. The original prototype, however, was never installed anywhere or even unboxed, as it was impossible to do so without ruining the entire apparatus. Today, Rome houses two surviving water clocks made by Father Embriaco, one in Villa Borghese gardens and the other in the courtyard of the Palazzo Berardi, in the centre of the capital.

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