‘UNEXPECTED TIMES’: A SUNDIAL ON THE PONTE VECCHIO


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Florence in January.  -8°C at night, zero during the day – but sunny enough in the middle of the day to be able to have coffee or even lunch outside. Apart from the Uffizi, no queues for anywhere. Most significant places on the tourist trail almost to oneself. Despite the cold, there is no frost: the air is so dry that the pavements, piazzas and even the cars are quite clear of frozen white crystals. By the river I caught the electric flash of a male kingfisher flying up from the water to an overhanging bush, his hunting perch. I watched him as he scanned the water below, occasionally diving down and returning to the same branch. Twice, I could see the glint of a tiny fish in his beak. 

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Since I was 17 I have been lucky enough to visit Florence quite often, not least because Mrs RH regularly goes there on business, and I am a keen ‘trailing spouse’. Over the years I don’t know how often I have crossed the Ponte Vecchio – or even simply walked to the mid-point to admire the views up and down river from the open areas between the pricey shops. This time I was walking the length of the Vasari corridor that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno. A section runs straight over the bridge and then passes across the facade of Santa Felicita, into which the Medici family could sneak from the corridor to a large private balcony for spiritual refreshment. Passing the middle of the west side of the bridge, in the ‘tourist photo opp’ gap where Cellini’s bust adds to the photogenic view, I have never before looked upwards.

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Here, on the roof of a shop, is an ancient sundial, supported by a white marble pillar. An eroded and almost illegible engraving below the pillar records that in 1333, floods caused the bridge to collapse and that “twelve years later, as pleased the Commune, it was rebuilt with this ornamentation”. The sundial itself, with its columnar divisions reminiscent of a rose window, marks the CANONICAL HOURS. The gnomon’s shadow indicates the hour of the day. If the sundial is the ‘ornamentation’ to which the inscription refers, then it is around 650 years old.

If you look closely at the pillar, you’ll see, halfway up the south face of the hexagonal column, a lizardsundial-ponte-vecchio-florence-1

Seeing the sundial for the first time ever, yet in such a familiar place was a reminder that Florence is a city that demands great attention as one walks through the streets. Many buildings, even unassuming ones, have fine adornments high up that will catch the eye… but only if you are looking out for them. 

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JUMIEGES ABBEY: AN ELABORATE EARLY SUNDIAL


Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 1

A picnic lunch at the Abbey of Jumièges, Normandy, has much to commend it – not least tranquility and a stunning view. As we sat enjoying the sunshine on our white bench, we both noticed something unusual on the nearest tower, something not mentioned in anything we had read about the Abbey. On the south wall below the 4 levels of arcaded towers you’ll see in the header image a small red item pointing down at 45º. A gnomon – and where there’s a gnomon, there’s a sundial (although the reverse is often not the case). So we went to investigate.

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The Abbaye de Jumièges was a Benedictine monastery founded in 654AD. In the c9, the original abbey was burned down by Vikings, then rebuilt. A new and larger Abbey was consecrated in 1067, and it was further enlarged in the c13. Restoration work was carried out in the late c16. Subsequently, a vast sundial dated 1660 was crudely carved in the south face of the tower.

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The primitive design and execution of the sundial is rather at odds with the architectural precision of the stonework and the daring of the conceit of  building a hexagonal tower on two square ones, and topping it off with a circular tower… just because they could. The rustic sundial has more in common with the medieval Mass or Scratch sundials on churches, primitive devices that originally evolved simply to indicate the time of the next Mass, with the Priest moving a stick into the appropriate hole on the wall to mark the forthcoming canonical hour. From being an ‘event marker’, the addition of a gnomon and roughly scratched numerals placed higher on a church wall would later provide a community with a way to mark the hours – at least when the sun shone.

A rough medieval scratch dial above a church door near Epernay (sans gnomon)France sundial

Longburton Church, Dorset: a more sophisticated scratch dial high on the Ham stone south wall – ?c16Longburton Church, Dorset: scratch sundial

Returning to Jumièges, here is a closer look at the sundial, with embellishments that seem to have been carved freehand and endearingly ineptly for such a splendid and august building. Yet the time markers have clearly been carved with precision. My only negative comment on this exuberant and enjoyable timepiece is the modern gnomon that looks completely out of place to me. Maybe it’s the colour that’s the problem. Or the flat utilitarian blade of metal. Anyway, without glimpsing it from our picnic spot we would never have seen that side of the tower, and we would have missed an unusual treat.

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All images: RH

 

SUNDIALS AT HOUGHTON HALL, NORFOLK


On a recent trip to Houghton for an exhibition, I forgetfully left my camera in the car. Suddenly we were confronted by a fine ornate C18 pillar or column sundial, fit for one of the marginally better-curated theme pages of this sub-blog, SUNDIALS. Resorting to an iPh*ne in low light was far from ideal, so apologies for the quality of the images. Fortunately you can see the ingenious ways in which the 4 gnomons are attached to achieve the correct shadow angles; and the numbering variations of the faces, depending on their orientation. The result is dawn-to-dusk time-telling. Always provided the sun is shining!

1.  A FOUR-SIDED C18 PILLAR  SUNDIAL IN THE GARDENS AT HOUGHTON

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2. A FOUR-FACED SUNDIAL ON AN OCTAGONAL TOWER: HOUGHTON HALL, WEST FRONT

By the time we got to the house a light drizzle was falling and there was no hope of a decent photo. I’ve had to borrow, as credited. I’ve included 1 poor effort at the end simply to give the sundial’s context in relation to the house. Thanks to Elliott Brown for use permission for the first two. You can see these and his other images HERE. Again, you can clearly see the variations in the gnomon placement; and in the numbering / angling of the faces. And, thankfully, proof that the sun does shine in  Norfolk.

Houghton Hall Sundial EB grab 1Houghton Hall Sundial EB grab 2

The image below is credited to Edmund Patrick and licensed via wikimedia commonsHoughton Hall Norfolk 4-face sundial Edmund Patrick wikimedia commons

Bad weather shot… in all senses
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