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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Torre dell'Orologio (St. Mark's Clock Tower)

What is the Torre dell’Orologio?

The Torre dell’Orologio is a renaissance clocktower that was designed by Mauro Codussi to hold a brilliant timepiece, the work of master clockmakers Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri.

St. Mark's Clock Tower

Torre dell’Orologio History

High above the Piazza San Marco, on the north side, stand two mighty figures, sculpted from bronze and wielding hammers. If you peer closely you can make out the sheepskins they’re wearing, prompting some observers to speculate that they’re shepherds. Those with an even keener eye might be able to distinguish that one figure is older than the other; this alludes, perhaps, to the passing of time. For between these giants is a bell, cast in the late 15th century and struck by the giants’ hammers every hour. Most Venetians, however, refer to the mechanical men as the ‘Mori’ (or Moors) due to the dark colour of the bronze and the city’s deep connections with North Africa and the Levant. In fact, the figures were probably meant to be the biblical characters Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve.

This scene sits atop of the Torre dell’Orologio or Clock Tower of St Mark’s Square. It was designed by Mauro Codussi and construction began in 1496, creating a grand entrance to the Merceria, the main street linking the political and governmental zone of the city – San Marco – with the commercial – the Rialto. The two wings, on either side of the tower, were added later in 1506, possibly by Pietro Lombardo, and were extended to the height you see today in the 18th century. The main purpose of the tower was to hold this wondrous clock. Created by two master clockmakers from Reggio Emilia, father and son Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri, the clock was built into the tower and considered the most sophisticated astronomical chronographic device in existence. Around its outside, in Roman numerals from one to 24, circle the hours. On blue enamel with gilded decoration are the signs of the zodiac sitting on a moveable inner ring. Finally, in the centre, we see the Earth and Moon. Moving around the Earth and pointing to the hours of the day is the clock hand in the form of a blazing Sun. Just above the clock is a semi-circular gallery with a tabernacle and statue of the Madonna. On its left is a panel displaying the hour in Roman numerals and on the right the minutes in Arabic numerals. Originally, these panels opened as side doors every hour, whereupon the three wise men and an angel processed out and bowed before the Virgin and Child. When repairs were made in the 19th century, the doors were turned into panels with gas lamps behind them to make the clock easier to read. Now, the mechanical procession only occurs twice a year: during the week of Ascension, and at Epiphany.

Winged Lion of Venice on St. Mark's Clock Tower

Just below Cain and Abel stands the Lion of Saint Mark. Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of Venice, is represented as a winged lion with a paw on his own gospel, which reads in Latin: ‘Peace be with you, Mark, my Evangelist’. In the 2nd century, the four evangelists were interpreted as the four facets of Christ and characterised in a tetramorph, a symbolic arrangement of four living creatures originating from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision. Most often, Matthew is the man, Mark the lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle. They derived from the zodiac signs (the lion is Leo, for example) and in turn form the four elements – Leo corresponds to fire. The Christian lion took on even more meanings. Like Christ in the tomb, lions were thought to sleep with their eyes open and thus, once endowed with wings, they represent Christ’s resurrection. Mark’s description of John the Baptist as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ was associated with a roaring lion. In Venice, the Lion of Saint Mark is frequently portrayed – as on this clocktower – with one foot on land and another on the sea to symbolise the city’s balance, or dominance, as a maritime power.

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