Canepina’s Six-Hour Clock and the History of Italian or Roman Time

Canepina’s six-hour clock has been on that wall for years, for centuries, without anyone ever having noticed.

Since it stopped working, no one has ever paid it any attention! People have walked by it for years without ever realising it existed! Yet there it is, above the door to the Salone Del Quarto Stato, or “Hall of the Common Folk”, in Canepina’s Museum  of Folk Traditions, which was a Carmelite Convent back in the 1600’s.

I believe the disk of the clock face is made of plaster. Attached to the wall like a rose window, its centre holds a small grotesque mask whose cheeks are puffed out. The mouth, left ajar, most likely provided the point of entry for attaching the clock hands to the mechanism inside (though who has ever seen those clock hands?) while the Roman numerals circling the clock face are interspersed with small crosses.

None of this ever excited anyone’s curiosity, including the numbers, given that the world is full of clocks with numbers done in unusual designs!

At times, mere dots stand in for the numbers, so accustomed are we to telling time by nothing more than how the hands are positioned. So even if someone glanced at it now and then, the clock never drew any attention to itself. It was just part of the decorative scheme.

But then one day a friend took me to where it stood, pointed up and asked: “Do you know what that is?”. A clock!” I told him with the confidence of someone who gives an obvious answer. “No! – he replied – it’s a rose of the winds!”. A claim that left me puzzled, though my friend tried to convince me by adding:

“I was here when they restored the place, including the roof. Behind that wall was the cabinet that held the mechanism, all of it in wood, including the toothed gears, and there was a pipe that went from the mechanism to a point above the roof. Up there, – he added – there must have been a weather vane to show the direction of the wind”.

And where is the mechanism now?” I asked.

It was all rotted away inside. As soon as they touched it, it went to pieces!” – he answered. Then, still trying to make his point: “Have you looked at the numbers around the clock face? They only go up to six!”

He was right! I’d never noticed it, but if we were talking about a clock, then, at the very least, the numbers had to be in the right places. But the spot where the twelve should have been held the six, while the place of the six had been taken over by the three. What was going on?

I thought for a second. Then I got an idea and said to my friend: “I’d like to believe you, but puzzles me are those numbers. If it was really a rose of the winds, then, as far as I know, the numbers should be multiples of four. You’d never see a six”.

My observation seemed to shake his conviction, and for a while neither of us said a word. Then I broke the silence by saying: “Listen, I’ll look into it. I’ll do my research and let you know what I find”.

I started off by gathering information on roses of the wind, seeing that my mind always tends to give credence to the other person’s arguments before looking into my own. But I soon realised that my friend’s claim was off the mark, so I did what everybody does nowadays, in the privacy of their own home, daring to enter far-fetched possibilities in some search engine, just to see what comes up. First I looked around to make sure no one was looking and then I Googled: “Six-hour clock”.

What do you know! I must have stumbled upon just the right words, because they led me to so many pages, I didn’t know where to begin. Then it all became clear to me.

Our clock was definitely a six-hour model, better known as an Italian or Roman clock: “Roman” because it was used primarily in the Rome area and in religious circles in the larger Lazio region.

The chiming of its bells, which explained why that pipe went up to the roof, was based on the old system of “Italian time” followed mainly by the Church from the 13th century on.

In Italian time (in vogue from 1200 to 1800), the day didn’t start from midnight, as it does now, but from the Ave Maria said in the evening, as dusk was falling, or roughly half an hour after sunset.

Each day began when the Sun went down, while the twenty-fourth and last hour of the day ended at sunset of the next day, all in accordance with a venerable biblical tradition. At sunset, one day ended and the next got underway, with the entire night belonging to the day after.

The lone hand of the six-hour clock did four full laps around the clock face to cover all 24 hours of the day, and so each number marker had to stand for four different numbers. Here’s a quiz for you: what would today’s 10 pm have been? I say four o’clock, what about you? And where did the clock hand point at 3 in the afternoon?

The Italian expression: “Wearing your hat at an eleven pm slant” can be traced to Italian time, seeing that hat brims get pulled low, to keep the setting Sun out of our eyes, at sunset, which meant eleven pm on the Italian clock.

But while such clocks were being used in Italy, the rest of Europe was dividing the hours of the equinox into two groups of 12, the way we do today, with the days starting from midnight. In Italy, this way of keeping time was known as “oltremontana”, or “French” or “German” time, referring to the fact that it was practiced by peoples who lived “beyond the mountains”, on the other side of the Alps.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in the areas of Italy occupied by Napoleon, French Time was officially imposed as the standard.

Once the French had withdrawn, the Papal State tried to restore the old way of telling time, based on the Italian clock, but the Church was eventually forced to fall in line with what had become the universally accepted method of counting the hours, though some Roman clock faces were kept in place, causing further confusion among the public at large.

One of the best known examples is the clock on the tower of Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

And so evidence of the historic six-hour clock (which told “Italian” or “Roman” time) has been discovered in Canepina.

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