By Richard Bernato Ed.D
Let’s play word association. If someone asked you the first thing that would come to your mind if I said “bells”, what would you say? My first response would be “Consecration,” as I remember very clearly how the altar boys at Mass would briefly shake small bells when the priest consecrated the Host.
Other thoughts also come to mind: • I think of the Hunchback of Notre Dame whose tower bells were Quasimodo’s responsibility. • I think of Brooklyn, the borough of churches and remember how these same houses of worship rang bells on the hour and during holidays. • And speaking of holidays, naturally I’d think of the Christmas season rife with Jingle Bells, Santa’s reindeer, and ringing in the New Year. • I think of Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem, The Bells, was meant to call forth the very vibrations of ringing bells. • What about our own Liberty Bell whose peals signaled our celebration of freedom? • The Bells of Adano?
I will leave it to others to research why the vibrations that bells create are physically capable of appealing both to the human ear and to the human heart. At the same time I do not see the reason to scientifically justify the notion anyway. There is no doubt that they do. Bells produce sound that is undeniably majestic, provocative and evocative. Bells stir the soul to respond. One point for sure is that cultures all over the world have created structures around them, perhaps to encase them, certainly to magnify their power.
I am told that in China and in India there are many kinds of bell towers meant to promote meditation and prayer practices. And yet, speaking of bell towers we cannot forget The Leaning Tower of Pisa whose tilt has overshadowed the fact that it too is a bell tower. Growing up as a second generation Italian-American I very rarely heard my grandparents refer to themselves as Italians so much as in their case, Sicilians and Calabrese.
It was as if they were Sicilians who “happened” also to be Italian. We need to remember that Italy only became Italy around 1870 and that they were born only a few years after that, it’s reasonable to assume that they first thought of themselves as from their ancestral homes before that of a more abstract “Italia”.
Thus the idea of campanilismo, or campanilism “rings” strongly for Italians. The bell tower of each town however grand or simple is the unifying symbol of each person’s town or region, regions that harbored their own dialects, traditions, religious, cultural beliefs and practices. It was said that the average Italian would never move out of ear shot of their bell tower’s reverberations. And so while bells have their place and importance in many cultures we are assured that bells’ peals from their towers across towns and regions of Italy have special function and meaning to Italians. They bond townsfolk. They ground Italian citizens to their region, to their country. They connect in a universal language, family, to neighbors, to homeland. Without a word.