What's the loudest noise you've ever heard? A pneumatic drill? The roar of a jet plane taking off? Your other half when you fail to empty the dishwasher (again)? Well, I've just heard something so immense I'll never unhear it. I'm standing at a height of about 50m on a creaky scaffold in northern Italy, watching 29-year-old Fabio Zambon and three other burly men ringing four massive bronze bells, which are spinning like slot-machine reels. It's only so ear-splitting - over 100 decibels - because I'm right next to them. I have no doubt that if I was listening from a bar's terrace in a nearby piazza, aperitivo in hand, the chimes would sound pleasantly sonorous. What I maybe wouldn't pick up from there, though, is the evidence that the ancient Bolognese tradition of bell-ringing is safe for another generation.
The music's resonating from the splendid pink-and-white marble, 15th-century campanile in Ferrara, a historic town an hour's drive north-east of Bologna. In early May, Fabio will head to Bologna with his father Angelo and a gang of bell-ringers to hit some serious bongs during one of the region's most important festivals, the Descent of the Madonna di San Luca. Its highlight is a procession from the terracotta-hued hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca to the vast Gothic cathedral in the city centre, which leaves at 6pm on 5 May. As the parade follows the icon of the Virgin, snaking its way through the spectacularly lengthy Portico di San Luca, the Zambon family and their fellow pealers will ring the bells of all the churches along the route.
I first meet the sturdy elder Zambon in an evocatively musty room directly under the bells. “I took up ringing mainly because I was always so impressed when I saw people doing it when I attended mass,” Angelo says. “Also, I got involved due to tradition; this pursuit has been happening in Bologna and the surrounding region since the 1500s and I wanted to be a part of that.” Angelo's ove of the bells runs so deep that he was president of the Unione Campanari Bolognesi - the local bell-ringers' association - for a decade.
“For me, it was mostly a family thing, since my old man was doing it,” says Fabio. “If I have children, I'd like them to follow in our footsteps.”
The Bolognese system of bell-ringing is unique and only practised in the capital of Emilia-Romagna and a few other towns nearby - Ferrara, Faenza and Modena. Until the 20th century, it was usual for the art to pass from generation to generation in the same families, creating dynasties of bell-ringers. Now, though, the only family upholding the custom besides the Zambons are the Cesaris. They're kept busy laboriously rotating four, five or six bronze bells to create elaborate peals, which demonstrate in loud fashion the Church's power over the people (and remind them they're late for mass). The instruments range from 25kg up to Bologna Cathedral's enormous three-tonne La Nonna (the grandmother), which takes a team of 12 strapping locals to make sing.
According to Giovanni Vecchi, the capo torre (tower chief) of Ferrara, who's resplendent in a curious egg-shaped hat that wouldn't look out of place in Harry Potter, it's surprising there's anyone left to ring. “In the late 1960s and early 70s, the custom all but went the way of the dodo,” he says. “Individuals drifted away during this time, due to massive cultural and economic changes here: industrialisation, urbanisation and an increase in secularism.” However, in the past two decades, there's been a rebound against what many perceived as a loss of Italian tradition and a number of young people have started to chime. There are now over 200 bell-ringers in the region.
To the untrained ear, it might not seem there's much method, especially when they launch into their most robust routines. However, it's a skill that takes devotion to perfect. “I started when I was about 14 or 15, which is a standard age for beginners. At first, you practise on your own, but after a few months it's possible to operate the bells as part of a team,” says Angelo.
“It took me three or four years to reach optimal technical proficiency,” says Fabio. “To succeed, a fair amount of strength is needed, due to some of the bell sizes. It also needs a lot of dedication, discipline and even innate talent.” The subtle complexity of the style becomes apparent the more I watch: everybody has to be in complete sync to create the perfect harmony. If even one person takes their eye off the bell, everything goes wrong.
Angelo tells me about a phenomenon that he and his fellow campanaros call ‘the sign'. “It's not related to religion, yet it is sort of mystical. It's when you feel a supreme inner calm, that you are in tune with the bell and in tune with the cosmos.”
Thanks to the resurgence of these steadfast men, the rest of us get to enjoy a little of that same serenity. I'm sure I'll feel it too, as soon as my ears have stopped ringing.