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Maurizio Tower

It's hard to miss the Maurizio Tower when you are in the Piazza Duomo in Orvieto. It rises against the sky like something out of a child's nursery rhyme, with a simple yet beautiful clock face and a bell and bell ringer that stand on top of the tower like long-limbed cranes flanked by a pair of two smaller bells, also on stilt legs. The bell ringer (who is made of bronze) has on some peculiar headgear in the shape of a conical hat, and the large bell he may be about to ring, which stands at twice his height, has a tail vane on its own head, in the form of an angel or herald blowing a horn.

The bell ringer is Maurizio. His tower was originally built to be a sundial. Looking at the bronze ornament, it is easy to imagine the real fourteenth century bell ringers of Orvieto who probably would have announced special events to the locals and brought them to the square. There are other famous bell towers still standing from medieval Italy as homage to the lonely ringers - Giotto's Bell Tower Florence is an excellent example. There is yet another well-known bell tower in Rome's Piazza del Campo, the Torre del Mangia, which was Italy's second-tallest tower and named after a lazy bell ringer called Mangiaguadagni, whose name aptly meant 'profit eater', or the eater of time.

It's a marvelous wonder that in Orivieto such an excellent piece of mechanical engineering from six hundred years ago should still be operational, but it is in fully working condition. Maurizio was brought back into the public eye and his tower was put into use again from 29 October, 2011. The building that houses the tower is today used as a point of information for the Duomo and the Museum System of Orvieto's Opera del Duomo (MODO). Of course, the majority of us uber-connected visitors to the Piazza Duomo will hardly need Maurizio to tell us the time, but he continues to do so. Maurizio continues to ring the bell, very precisely, every hour on the hour. He swings his body and strikes the bell at each hour and nearly every tourist on the square looks up to marvel at it and match the time against their watches and cell phones.

The Torre di Maurizio is very rightly one of Orvieto's symbols. The motley bronze crew atop the tower and against the blue sky makes a striking picture that catches the eye even when you are looking at the tower from beyond the other side of the Duomo that stands across it. It is also a source of the local Orveitani's pride for another reason. The clockwork mechanism was far ahead of its times, clearly, since it is still operational after so many centuries of weathering. It is today one of the most ancient documented automated clockwork that is still standing, and not just standing but also continuing to announce the time to townspeople.

The mechanism is simply elegant, with a timekeeping device and an automaton (Maurizio) attached to the timekeeping device with a pin. The pin lets Maurizio turn to his side and strike his pole against the bell every hour. The clock is very precise, which makes you immediately wonder about the clockmaker (along with his apprentice) that worked away with his precision tools, charts and diagrams off the cobbled streets of Orvieto and the workers who climbed the tower to place Maurizio at the top, looking towards the Duomo.

But there was a vast empty space at the time in the Duomo's place, since work had just begun less than a century before Maurizio climbed the tower. Work on the Duomo began in 1290, and the history of the tower is very closely linked to the history of the Duomo. The automated timekeeper was built between 1347 and 1348 at the request of the Opera del Duomo, which was the body overseeing the building of the Duomo. The timekeeper was commissioned in order to help support the work site of the Cathedral.

The main purpose of the clock was to regularly indicate the beginning and end times of the daily shifts for the workers who were working on the Cathedral site just across the Tower of Maurizio. While this attention to workers' rights may not seem like a revolutionary idea today, it was a fine example of human innovation and forward thinking for the medieval times. It was even more important because in the Medieval ages, the concept of time was very imprecise to begin with. Sundials were really the best available ways of telling time, and this automated bronze timekeeper that rang the bell at the regular intervals we know as an hour today was a revolutionary idea fit for a Cathedral with the stature of the Duomo di Orvieto.

The timekeeper was a big solution to a very practical problem facing the Opera del Duomo during the building of the Duomo. The workers on the cathedral site had to be paid wages according to a common reference standard. The easiest way to do this was to make sure that every worker worked the same number of hours. The Opera del Duomo's Treasurer also noted down the attendance of workers as well as delays, as he was in charge of paying the workers their weekly wages.

There was also a vengeful and life-affirming notion behind the building of the automated timekeeper. The Black Death or the plague was sweeping across Europe at the time, and Man's very existence was threatened. Times were very difficult, and to keep spirits and hopes up, what was needed was a strong symbol of human innovation. The beauty of the ornament at the top of Maurizio Tower therefore is not just a reminder of the practical engineering feat, but also a reminder of the dark times that had wiped out between thirty to sixty percent of the population of Europe.

Another interesting peculiarity that sets the Maurizio timekeeper apart from other medieval clocks is that it did not move roosters, angels or other out-of-context characters that were so popular in medieval automated clock towers. Here was a bell-ringer that was perfectly in tune with its purpose, which was to time the working classes. In fact, the ringer has features that were made markedly less refined than the other bronze statues on the facade of the Duomo cast in 1325. You can tell that here was a real representative of the working classes.

There is a quirky dialogue that is carried out by the two inscriptions on the ornament - one on the belt of the bell striker and the other on the crown of the bell. Maurizio's belt says in high-falutin tones that 'Da re a me, campana, furo i pati:' (which literally translates as, 'between you and me, bell, let us make a pact') and continues by glorifying his position with 'tu per gridar et io per far i fati' (which means 'you're here to cry out and I'm here to act'). The inscription on the bell's crown responds pertly with a response that cuts the worker down to size while affirming their mutual relationship at the same time: 'if you want me to respect our pact, hit me softly or I will break and your act will have been in vain'.

A question that may come to many people's minds when standing below the tower is - who is Maurizio?

There was never a real bell-ringer named Maurizio for whom the automaton is named. The name of the tower is nothing but a transformation of the Latin word for masonry building, 'muricium', which could also mean a worksite with a little stretch of the meaning.

The clockwork that moves the time-keeper at the moment is not completely as old as the ornament itself. There were a few additions made in the eighteenth century, when a counterwheel was installed to strike the quarters of every hour on the two sentry-like smaller bells behind the ringer and his main bell. There were also some other adjustments made in the decade following 1860. A few decades later, in 1905, the headgear on the automaton was replaced.

The tower against which the clock is hung is boxy and gray. But the white clock face with its black dials and the gleaming bronze ornament atop is perfectly complements the simple medieval stone face of the tower. It is not possible to go up to the very top of the tower except under special circumstances, such as during Culture Week or during the days dedicated to the Italian Environment Fund. But the mechanism of the clockwork can be viewed on a screen at the entrance to the tower. There is also an information video screened at the entrance, about the MODO, that gives the visitor much more than the Duomo to chew upon when in Orvieto.