We were listening to the thunderous yet pleasing ringing of the bells during Cascio’s spring sagra, strolling with friends like Serena and Federico, eating delicious things from the local wood-fired ovens, drinking chestnut beer and grapey wine, and having the kind of great day that Italians have and everyone else in the world is envious of (or should be).
Cascio is called the Terrazzo dell’Ada; it is a perch from which you can see the whole valley of the Garfagnana. Better known Barga sits tantalizingly in the distance.
Cascio was smack in the middle of what they called the “Gothic Line” in WWII. The town was bombed to extinction. Except for the bell tower.
So, when Federico invited me to clamber up its wooden stairs to observe the origins of the clamorous symphony filling our ears, I jumped at the chance. The jump didn’t get much altitude on account of my age, but still.
He flew up the internal stairs of the bell tower as I struggled along behind.
The topmost room where the bells were attached was accessed by a wooden ladder bolted to the side of the square tower. Once you got high enough on the ladder, you threw your weight toward another short staircase and hoped for a landing. Then you pushed your way through the guys.
Stout guys, not fat but well equipped for strenuous activity. The sea of people parted. I lurched toward a corner of a small room dominated by three bells anchored just above our heads. Ropes tied to them were longer than you’d expect, ending like fat white snakes uncoiled over the floor. I kicked one away and headed unsteadily for a corner under the sweet curves of a Romanesque arch where I’d have a view of the piazza below.
The bells were already being rung. Loudly. I plugged my ears with a couple fat fingers. Ah. Now I could concentrate on the vibrations; others played the bells while the bells played me.
I became engrossed in the sound in the way one might become enamored with the perfect bit of chocolate truffle, eyes closed as real time stops but the internal rhythms continue. Suddenly I feel a slap on my elbow. A man besides me points towards my feet. In my spiritual stupor I’ve managed to actually step on the end of one of the ropes attached to a bell. Noticing I still had my fingers in my ears, the man gave me a look that said all it needed to say. Like, “You’re going to get torn in two if you insist on being an idiot around here!”
Thus chastised, I went back to watching the bells, exaggerating my focus on them to look more like a journalist and less like a moron. Each muscular tug of the rope by the campanaro caused an enormous bell to swing in a long arc, maybe 350 degrees. A stop prevented the bell from going completely over the top and coming back down on the other side, which would have royally messed up the ropes, but the experts here kept the rig from hitting the stop by a half inch or so (hitting it would have messed up the sound and the timing).
When things were going right, the little room was serine. When the rhythm of the three bells got off a bit, folks stepped in from the shadows to give direction. Slower tug, less tug, more speed. Timing eventually returned. If someone was tired another took his place. Wordlessly.
This three-note rope-pulled symphony lasted quite a while. By the time the last vibrations had died down, three men took hold of the battants, you know, the ringer dealies that make the sound, and started playing the bell a mano, by hand. As the tension of the big sounds subsided, the jazzy little tune took over. Three notes, lots of syncopation. Intense concentration.
When the piece was over, the “little people” way down in the piazza clapped politely. I turned to look at them while one of the ringers started venting his displeasure at the previous ringing. I didn’t catch all of it, but the gist was that the rope-pulling wasn’t nearly fast or hard enough. I don’t know the Italian for the word “sissies” but it was probably in there.
Then a crescendo as the ropes gained speed and the air became rancid with manly scents; sweat, the searing heat of the ropes, the stench of hot grease as the heavy bells flew to and fro in their tracks.
It was then I noticed the that tower was moving. No, It’s all in my head. Gotta be! Too much thinking of that recent Italian terremoto and aftershocks. Just to check, I sighted along the edge of the window that faced the piazza. Crap, the tower was moving when you compared it to the fragrant shrubbery that grew luxuriantly along the periphery of Cascio’s other bell tower, now just a stump. Yes, that one just up and fell down one day. I’m glad I read the lit.
Imagine all that weight being thrown around on the top of a tower made of bricks! It must be like God’s bigger-than-life sledgehammer slamming into the sides of it. The boys were playing fast and furious now, and the tower was right there with them, bopping to the beat.
Then, suddenly, the fury of the moment came to roost in my hen house; a rope, zinging through the air, smacked me right between the eyes. I happened to be wearing one of those bright orange baseball caps with “Io Bevo” written on it. Io Bevo means “I drink.” This is probably the reason I didn’t feel a thing, really.
Then, after the tower was cleared of the bell ringers and I had retrieved my hat, they demonstrated how they’d rescue a climber if he happened to get injured while repelling down the bell tower. Boy, that made me feel good.