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Passing Time


[image ALT: A patch of plastered wall, covered with graffiti, the largest of which is a painted circle similar to a clock face, containing the Roman numerals I thru VI; and in the center, a twisted metal rod sticks out of the wall. It is a device made by a prisoner in Narni, Umbria (central Italy), explained in the text of this webpage.]

This might appear to be a primitive sundial. It isn't.

The basement of the church of S. Domenico in the central Italian town of Narni (42°31 N.Lat., 12°31 E.Long.) served as a prison of the Holy Inquisition for some time; one cell, lit by a single small rectangular window high in the outside wall that meets this one about 60 cm off-camera left, is covered with graffiti etched in the plaster. Most of the graffiti are by one man, who obligingly carved the date as well: 1759.

Now I don't know much about sundials, so what you see above looked like one to me when I first saw it: it seemed like a logical thing for a guy in prison to want to have in his cell, even though it would surely tell time for only part of the day. But under these conditions, does a clockface numbered 1 to 6 make sense? The most important piece of information mind you, I don't have: the orientation (N‑S‑E‑W) of the room.

It turns out it doesn't matter much. I can give you, thanks to the wisdom of the Internet, not one, but two explanations.

The first one came to me from Mario Arnaldi, a sundial expert (see his site) who read this page in an earlier draft. He wrote me that this is a type of clock known as "alla romana". It seems that in the 16c and 17c Italy measured time from sunset: 1 o'clock was the 1st hour after sunset, and 24 o'clock was sunset. When the clock was connected to a bell-striking mechanism, well, at one stroke of the hammer per hour, sunset was a long irritating peal with a tendency to crack bells. Modern Romans being notoriously sensible and practical people, they changed clocks there so that only six hours were shown, and in one day the hour hand would go around four times: much like in the British and American navies (where it is not 4 watches of 6 bells, though, but 3 watches of 8 bells).

And in fact, one does find tower clocks thruout Italy, and smaller ones as well, with only six hours marked on them: here's an example.

But Mr. Arnaldi himself was the first to point out that this has got to be a prisoner's joke: that's no clock on this wall, just a clockface with a stick in the middle.

Here is where the second explanation comes in. It's neither a sundial or a clock, but the "board" for a prisoner's pastime. Imagine, if you will, a string tied to the protruding rod, and at the other end of the string, some object, like a shoe. You throw the object at the stick, or maybe whirl it around on the string, and bet on what number it will hit first before finally slowing down to a dead stop in the vertical position. It's not much, but in solitary confinement, people have survived on less. It also explains the stick.


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Page updated: 24 Jan 07