Paolo Uccello’s Clock


Even if their names are not immediately associated with the history of clockmaking, certain great Florentine artists did play an important role in the history of time measurement. After all, they lived in a city which was the birthplace of various master clockmaker, who would make Florence one of the centres of this nascent industry for centuries. For example, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi also invested timepieces; his clock in the Palazzo dei Vicari at Scarperia can still be seen today. Leonardo da Vinci may not have made clocks but he did meticulously study their mechanisms. And it was Galileo himself who proved the isochronism of small oscillations.

As for Paolo Uccello, his name is linked with the large clock that can still be seen over the main doorway of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.  The original mechanism, subsequently modified a number of times over the centuries (the present one dates from 1761) was designed in 1443 by Angelo Niccolai degli Orologi, grandson of the Niccolò di Berardo who had built the clock at Palazzo Vecchio (since destroyed). Angelo’s workshop was in a street that was subsequently renamed Via dell’Oriuolo (oriuolo being an old form of the word orologio – “clock”)

Within the cathedral it was Paolo Uccello who painted the large circle with the twenty-four hours laid out in the sequence that was typical of the time – that is, what we would consider “anticlockwise” and starting from the bottom rather than the top. The first hour of the day was immediately after sunset, while the 24th corresponded to the hour of the evening Ave Maria. Thus, by beginning from the bottom, the hour at which the sun was at its zenith corresponded to the hour at the very summit of the clock face.

The Duomo clock measured out the rhythm of civic and religious life in Florence, although there were no chimes to strike individual hours. The face itself had only one clock hand – again the work of Paolo Uccello – even if the star-form design is so elaborate that you might be forgiven for thinking that there are actually three clock hands.

In 1750, the clock face was adapted to what was becoming the dominant 12-hour system, late imposed as the norm under Napoleonic rule. This new system had the great advantage of cutting the maximum number of chimes from 24 to 12 (thus reducing the possibility of error for those counting each chime to tell the time.) In 1968 the clock underwent painstaking restoration of the original 24-hour format. The frescoes of evangelists to the four sides of the clock face are also by Paolo Uccello.




Certainly something to see next time you are visiting Florence!!


(Adapted from Secret Florence by Niccolo Rinaldi, Published by JonGlez)



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