Europe

Italy's iPhone bell-ringer brothers

Giacomo Rubagotti in the bell tower in Chiari Cathedral
Image caption Giacomo Rubagotti stands beneath church bells which he can now programme to play hundreds of permutations - just by using his mobile phone

In the small northern Italian town of Chiari, near Brescia, a technological revolution in church bell-ringing is taking place.

As an area famed for producing highly skilled bell restorers, many of Chiari's 20,000 population have a proud family history of bell-related craftsmanship.

The Rubagotti brothers, Luca and Giacomo, are no exception.

"We've been doing this job forever. We're craftsmen," they say.

In their workshop, a beautiful 16th-Century bell in its original mounting sits in the corner, awaiting restoration.

"Old bells are truly priceless," says Luca.

"You really couldn't put a value on a bell like this one, so we renovate them and try to preserve the original mountings too."

Their father Carlos learned his trade at the now-closed local bell factory - becoming one of the first people to try building motorised bells.

Nowadays many bells are controlled by electric systems that can be programmed to chime at particular times and in numerous permutations.

A godsend

His sons have inherited their father's passion for innovation. For while the Rubagottis' world is one of ancient traditions and time-honoured craftsmanship, they too are intent on pushing boundaries - which is where their childhood friend Giorgio Campiotti fits in.

As a computing expert, Giorgio was able to put the brothers' vision into practice by creating a program that allowed priests to operate their church bells remotely - meaning they would not have to be physically within the church.

Instead, the tech-savvy priest can now just take out his smart phone, load up an application, and set the bells ringing.

It is a far cry from the days when churches would need to have someone living in the church tower, complete with a squad of bell-ringers, to help the chimes ring out on the hour.

And as the number of priests in Italy drops, Giorgio says being able to manage several churches at once is a godsend.

"Today there are fewer and fewer priests in Italy," he said.

Image caption There's an app for that - the interface seen on an iPhone

"So they have to administrate, to look after many churches - two or three. So a remote system can help a priest who has to be in two or three places at the same time."

100% automatic

The application contains hundreds of different combinations - making it very easy for the priest to choose whichever tune he wants the bells to play.

One church caretaker, Silvano, is sold on the idea, and uses it to administer his bells.

"These sonatas are ready. I can go into the library, scroll down and chose a different one. I simply select the one I want, press play, and it starts on its own.

"The system is now 100% automatic. I can programme them for an entire year and they chime on their own."

Although the church may not be the place you would naturally expect to find people on the cusp of technological innovation, the Rubagotti brothers have been pleasantly surprised by the take up from priests.

"The priests are very attracted to the new technology, to the digital system," says Giacomo.

"One priest, my friend, has three cellulars: one iPhone, one Blackberry and one Nokia system. He loves hi-tech!"

And while some quarters of the religious community miss the traditional routines of rope-tugging bell-ringers, Giacomo says without his technology the sound of church bells would be heard less and less.

"It's very important to maintain the culture of the bell, the sound of the bell.

"The bell is the voice of good. It's the vibration of good."

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