Who invented the bell and how it was first used are unknown. In Western antiquity, bells were widely used by the Etruscans: tomb illustrations suggest that music, which included bells and many other instruments, was important during banquets, religious celebrations, and funeral rites. Bells are among the most ancient bronze artefacts in China, where they were used to summon philosophers to gather for meals and prayer. They also had more practical daily purposes, like in Greece, where they were rung to signal the opening of a market and the sale of fish.
The first church bells rang in the city of Nola, now a suburb of Naples, in the fourth or fifth century CE. The bishop Paulinus of Nola is credited with the introduction of bells in Christian worship. His small hand bells were subsequently known as “nolas” and the larger tower bells as “campanas.” In fact, with the transition from smaller to larger bells, the bronze from the Campania region (where Naples is located) was considered the best, hence the name campana, which means “bell” in Italian. The bronze alloy is obtained by mixing 78% copper with 22% tin.
Only a few bell foundries still remain in Italy. The oldest dates from 1040 in Agnone, a town of about 5,200 current inhabitants in the Apennine hills of the Molise region. The Marinelli Pontifical Foundry, the successor to the original foundry in Agnone, dates from 1339. It is Italy’s oldest family business and among the three oldest family businesses worldwide. The company is co-owned and operated by brothers Armando and Pasquale Marinelli. The foundry typically produces up to 50 bells a year and currently employs around 12 people.
The Marinelli Pontifical Foundry still uses the same “lost wax casting” technique that it has for nearly a thousand years. Even technology has not changed the technique nor reduced the production times, which vary from two to several months. There are multiple steps in the manufacturing process. The first step is the creation of the “soul,” which is a brick mold in the shape of a bell. Then several layers of clay are placed over the soul to create a “false bell.” Next molten wax is poured over the surface. (In a separate process, friezes and decorations are made and applied to the false bell.) Then successive layers of clay are applied to create the “mantle” of the bell. The structure is heated and the soul acts as a kiln, which causes the wax parts to melt and ensure that the inscriptions remain on the layers of clay.
Next, the mantle is raised to uncover and remove the false bell, which is discarded. The mantle is repositioned on the soul. Into the space between the soul and the mantle, molten bronze at a temperature of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit is poured to produce the new bell. Casting is the final step in the long process and is accompanied by invocations of “Santa Maria.”
In 1924, the Vatican awarded the title of “pontifical foundry” to the Marinelli company. (The Roman Catholic Church now accounts for 90% of all orders placed.) During the Second World War, the fascist regime ordered the seizure of half of Italy’s church bells to produce cannons. The Marinellis’ grandfather would alert priests ahead of time so that they could bury their bells, hiding them from authorities. In 1944, the 17th-century bell in the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which is a campanile) was damaged during the bombings. The foundry produced a 1,300-pound replica, which was installed there and started service on Easter, 2004.
In 1961, the foundry cast a special bell to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Italy’s unification. In 1992, one of its bells commemorated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. In 2000, Pope John Paul II was presented the official Jubilee Bell, which is hung in St. Peter’s Square. The bells of the Marinelli Pontifical Foundry can be found throughout the world, including at the United Nations Building in New York City. To review the history of the company, visit the Historical Museum of the Bell, which is located right next to the ancient foundry.