Mechanical Splendours

The most iconic clock towers in Europe

Europe is called the ‘Old Continent’ for its long history – which has also been cruel and gruesome more times than not. However, the centuries haven’t only given us wars and misery, they’ve also left us with culture and beauty. There are many European cities with iconic clock towers that used to serve a pretty clear purpose: telling people the time! And, while nowadays we don’t use them for that anymore, the clock towers in Europe have become architectural and historical landmarks of their cities, silent testimonies of the years passing and of the events that have taken place under them.

Besides having this practical purpose in their origins, clock towers are usually located in or next to important government buildings, and, of course, in their respective cities’ main square.

Some clocks don’t just count the minutes and hours, they turn each new hour into a celebration of the passing of time and tell stories from the changing of the seasons to the astronomical signs at large.

From London’s Big Ben to the Prague Orloj, in the following lines, we’ll take you on a tour of some of the most important, beautiful and iconic clock towers in Europe.

Ankeruhr • Vienna, Austria

Art Nouveau masterpiece from the early 1900s.

Every day at noon, visitors to Hoher Markt may be lucky enough to catch a special mechanical performance unfold right in front of their eyes. This unusual clock not only marks the passing of time, but also features a collection of copper figures representing popular historical personalities; during the main showtime at noon these characters parade around the clock for a must-see spectacle.

Prague Orloj • Prague, Czech Republic

The oldest functioning clock of its kind.

Legend has it that a councilman from Prague had the designer of this piece blinded after the clock’s completion to prevent him from building anything quite like it ever again. Whether or not this story is actually true, it’s clear that the Astronomical clock located in Prague’s Old Town Square is unlike any other in the world.

The astronomical clock at Old Town square is the unique one in the world, and it is able to record the babylonian time. It has became the unique technical sight.

When you come close to the Hall, you will notice the astronomical clock on the south side of the Hall tower. It is usually the point of main interest for the tourists from abroad. The building works were started by Mikulas from Kadan and by the end of 15th Century the clock was finished by Hanus of Ruze . Regarding to Jirasek´s legend, the astronomical clock was constructed by master Hanus. After he finished the clock, the Prague councillors made him blind, so he was not able to construct another copy of the clock. Therefore, he was supposed to take his revenge on them by stopping the clock working. But in real, the astronomical clock stopped working by itselves in 1865, and there were plans to remove them. Later, the clock was repaired by Ludvik Hainz, one of the Prague´s watchrepairer.

The astronomical clock is built of three parts. At the highest level you can find mechanical figures, which are loved by children and tourists. Movement of the figures works on the same principal as cuckoo clock. Every hour, you can see twelve biblical apostles, each of them with his attribute, moving in the two windows under a little roof. From your view, you can see in the left window as the first apostle St.Peter with a key, St. Matthew with an axe, St. John with a calix, St.Andrew with a cross shaped as X, St. Phillipe with a cross and St. Jacob with a wash board. In the right window you can see St. Paul with a book, St. Thomas with a javelin, St. Simon with a saw, St.Tadeas with files, St. Bartholomew with a piece of leather, St.Barnabas with a scroll. As these figures are moving, also another figures on both of the side starts move too – a skeleton is pulling a rope and by ringing he initiates the march of the apostles. Meanwhile he nods to a Turk, who represents an allegory of delight, but he is turning his head to sides as he does not want to listen to the skeleton. A miser represents an allegory of meanness, shaking his stick to the sceleton, holding a sack in his hand. Next to him a coxcomb reflects a sin of vanity while watching himselves in a mirror. A cock crows after the both of the windows are closed, what ussually makes all of the tourists laught. By making the noise he wakes another hour of life and the clock starts chimes.

The astronomical clock itselves is split to a zodiacal calendar and clock. The surface representing allegories was drawn by Josef Manes in 1865. The original paint is saved at the Prague´s Museum, so you can see only a copy on the wall of the Hall. Close to the calendar is placed a statuette called Philosopher with a quill, representing an allegory of philosophy, Astronomer with a binoculus representing an allegory of astronomy, Chronical with a book for an allegory of rethoric, Archangel Michael with a fiery blade. The clock shows different times and also some astronomical figures. As the machinery still contains many of the original parts, became the astronomical clock a unique technical sight.

Untill the end of war the clock were initiated to work by a transmission crank , thereafter there was supplied an elektromotor, which works on the same principle as Big Ben does in London.

Astronomical clock shows four different times. The central European time, which means the Germanic time, where the time is shown by sun clock hand. The time is read with roman numerals on the circuit sphere. Present time is chimed by the clock only since the year 1948! Before that, they represented old Czech time, where each oncoming day started by sun set. This time is characterized by golden gothic numbers placed on a ring of inner sphere which works separately. Babylonian, unequal time means, that in summer, the hours are longer than in winter as last only from sun rise untill sun set. The astronomical clock at Old Town square is only the one in the world, which is able to record the babylonian time too.

Astronomical time is read in Roman numerals. There is placed a calendar clock face at the bottom, which is showing current day and his placement in the week, month and year.

The astronomical clock was under reconstruction between september until november in 2005.

Rathaus Glockenspeil • Munich, Germany

Watch the life-sized knights perform!

In addition to telling time, this unique clock tower in Bavaria’s capital retells several stories in Munich’s capital, from the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V (founder of Munich’s first brewery) to the traditional dances that have become a cultural staple. The life-sized figures put on a show two or three times a day depending on the season; 11AM and noon year-round, and an additional celebration at 5PM.

History

Part of the second construction phase of the New Town Hall, it dates from 1908. Every day at 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. (as well as 5 p.m. in the summer) it chimes and re-enacts two stories from the 16th century to the amusement of mass crowds of tourists and locals. It consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures. The top half of the Glockenspiel tells the story of the marriage of the local Duke Wilhelm V (who also founded the noted Hofbräuhaus) to Renata of Lorraine. In honor of the happy couple there is a joust with life-sized knights on horseback representing Bavaria (in white and blue) and Lothringen (in red and white). The Bavarian knight wins every time, of course.

This is then followed by the bottom half and second story: Schäfflertanz (the coopers‘ dance). According to myth, 1517 was a year of plague in Munich. The coopers are said to have danced through the streets to “bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions.” The coopers remained loyal to the duke, and their dance came to symbolize perseverance and loyalty to authority through difficult times. By tradition, the dance is performed in Munich every seven years. This was described in 1700 as “an age-old custom”, but the current dance was defined only in 1871. The dance can be seen during Fasching (German Carnival): the next one is in 2019.

The whole show lasts somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes long depending on which tune it plays that day. At the very end of the show, a very small golden rooster at the top of the Glockenspiel chirps quietly three times, marking the end of the spectacle.

The Munich Hofbräuhaus

The Zytglogge Tower • Bern, Switzerland

Clocks, prisons and paintings in one!

The 15th-century astronomical clock of Bern was added to its already existing medieval tower which already served as a prison, guard tower, center of urban life and memorial! In addition to the time-telling capabilities, visitors will be treated to a stunning fresco depicting Adam and Eve’s eviction from Paradise.

Strasbourg Astronomical Clock • Strasbourg, France

One of the oldest preserved automaton in the world.

The current version of the clock, located in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Strasbourg, is actually the third version set in place. It includes a calendar, planetary dial and a display of the positions of the sun and moon as well as different solar and lunar eclipses.

Big Ben • London, England

The second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world.

Though one of the only clocks on this list that solely tell time, Big Ben has become one of the most recognizable and iconic landmarks to decorate the London skyline. Parts of the tower are due for a renovation come 2017, so pay a visit before the chiming comes to a pause!

La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin • Blois, France

A mechanical dragon clock!

Every hour on the hour, passersbys of this unassuming building in Blois are treated to a show that’s truly larger than life. For about five minutes, the dragons guarding the building emerge from outside the windows for a surreal spectacle they won’t soon forget.

History

Inaugurated in 1998, the museum highlights the life and work of Robert-Houdin—multi-talented illusionist, prestidigitatorinventorclockmaker and maker of automatons.

In 1981, descendants of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin left to the city of Blois the building and all its accessories with a gift requiring they be exposed to the public. 170 objects that were constructed or collected by Robert-Houdin are in the museum.

The museum hosts a number of events, some of which recur. The include: exhibition of portraits of the greatest magicians; magical encounters (on weekends in July and August); lectures on Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin; evening shows; proceedings of ‘the Gala magic clubs of Blois’; and awards to the best magical practitioners.

Guided tours are conducted by illusionists.

Horologium mirabile Lundense • Lund, Sweden

Lund Cathedral’s astronomical clock, hidden away for almost a century.

First constructed in 1380, this treasure was stuffed into storage in 1837 and remained there until 1923. The board of the clock is currently only set up for the years 1923-2123, which means it will once again beg for an overhaul.

This part of the wheel shows the date, the name date and the phases of the moon and sun

Torre dell’Orologio • Venice, Italy

Also known as St. Mark’s Clock.

Visible from the waters of the Venice lagoon, this clock tower displays the time of day, dominant zodiac sign and the current phase of the moon. It is Venice’s official time keeper, setting the standard to which all other clocks should be set.

Zimmertoren (Zimmer Tower) • Lier, Belgium

Also known as the Cornelius Tower.

Whether you want to know the time of day, the season of the year, the age of the moon, the dominant zodiac sign or even the position of the tides, this clock has it all. You can even track the metonic cycle and the epact; the hand on this dial revolves only once every 19 years!

Eastgate Chester Clock

The original clock mechanism was manufactured and installed by JB Joyce in 1899. We’re proud to service, restore and maintain time on this prominent landmark in the city of Chester.

Installed in 1899, the Eastgate Clock is positioned on the bridge over Eastgate Street in the city of Chester, the original entrance to the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix. The whole structure of the public clock and gateway, as one, is classified as a Grade I listed building and the tower clock is believed to be the second most photographed clock in England to “Big Ben”, officially known as Elizabeth Tower, at the Palace of Westminster in London.

Proposed as a commemoration for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1897), JB Joyce & Company was commissioned to manufacture and install the clock mechanism, with the clock design by Chester Architect John Douglas. The clock officially began ticking on the 24th of May, 1899. Today, JB Joyce forms part of Smith of Derby group and we’re proud to service and maintain time on this magnificent clock tower.

The clock tower has four, 4ft 6 inch dials that were originally gas lit, but are now powered by electricity with battery back-up and a computer chip which keeps the clock to precise time. The clock has a flatbed frame, a pinwheel escapement (48 pins), and was originally designed with an additional wheel in the train to shorten the weight drop.

The oldest public clock in Paris

The oldest remaining part of the Palais de la Cité is the Conciergerie on the Isle de la Cité, right in the heart of Paris, and it’s here where you’ll see old father time, pretty much literally as this is where the oldest public clock in Paris is located…

This is where the first Royal palace was built in the capital in the 14th Century, a remarkable step back in time known as The Conciergerie.  Almost the entire lower floor of the palace was converted into a prison in the fifteenth century. It was here that Marie-Antoinette was held before her execution, the cell can be visited to this day.

This area is also where you will find the oldest public clock in Paris.

This clock sits above the bedroom of King Louis XIV in Versailles. Look closely and you can see the Sun King sitting in the center of the timepiece.

The wharf known today as Quai d’Horloge was begun in 1580 and completed in 1611. Back then it was known by other names including Quai des Spectacles due to the fact that opticians had shops there!

The clock that gives the quai its name today is on the corner of the Boulevard du Paris. It is built into a tower that historians say dates back to the mid 1300s.  The clock was built by Henri le Vic, a German engineer who arrived in Paris in 1370 and installed in the tower by royal decree replacing bell that used to be rung for important times of the day. The clock kept time for the citizens of Paris to know when bars should be closed and when shops should be opened.

It is an incredible piece of engineering and even more incredible that several hundred years later it looks as good as new! What’s more, it works after a bit of recent restoration (2012). See 9 Incredibly Beautiful Clocks In Paris

The Glockenspiel in the eponymous square in Graz

The city’s Glockenspiel is situated in the square of the same name. It plays three different melodies and watch them pirouette as they gleefully make eyes at each other. It happens three times a day (11.00, 15.00 & 18.00) on Glockenspielplatz.

Come dance with me! The Glockenspiel in the eponymous square in Graz leads the way. A sweet maiden and hearty lad clad in traditional costume pirouette three times a day (11.00, 15.00 & 18.00) up in the gable of the building on Glockenspielplatz square. The mechanism’s cheerful 24 bells play three different melodies. A charming, romantic show beyond compare. Enchanted and each with a spring in their step and a smile on their face, lucky viewers head off once the last note dies away. 

In 1884 the spirits producer Gottfried Maurer bought a house in then “Fliegenplatzl” square. On his journeys to North Germany and Belgium the businessman got to know carillons and had one installed in his house in Graz. On Chrismas Eve in 1905, the 24 bells in the iron roof turrent chimed for the first time. In 1929 Gottfried Maurer bequeathed the carillon to the city of Graz, conditional on its continued existence. In World War II the bells stopped chiming. They were used for making arms and were renewed only in 1956.
So the Graz carillon plays its three melodies again, three times a day. But they are not always the same. As the positions of the 800 steel pins on the barrel can be changed. Five times a year you can hear new melodies. Alpine folk and yodelling songs alternate with Christmas carols and pleasant melodies by contemporary composers. But always the arcaded windows in the gable open to show a dancing couple in traditional Styrian costumes. The crowing culmination of the show is the golden cock raising his wings. It is a copy of the cock Gottfried Maurer saw on the city hall in Munich.
In his time, Gottfried Maurer was quite a smart advertising strategist. Not only the carillon lured people into his wine shop. The art-nouveau facades of the house and the adjacent building also belonging to the businessman in various subjects of the reliefs and mosaics stimulate the viewer to drink some wine. Even the dancer of the carillon raises his glass to the people.
That’s just suitable for the so-called “Bermuda triangle” in which you find the carillon. Many a reveller has got lost there in one of the numerous restaurants, cafés and bars…
+++ By the way +++
Since 1998 there has been a second carillon in Graz. Unlike the traditional purely mechanical carillon described above, the bells of Mariahilfer Kirche carillon on the right bank of the river Mur are computer-controlled. Moreover, the organ player can play live music on them via a keyboard.

Altes Rathaus, Salzburg

The Austrian city of Salzburg has its own clock tower as well, also one of the city’s main landmarks. It’s located in the Rathaus, the old city hall, a Medieval building that distinguishes it from the rest thanks to its little bell tower, charming, colourful and beautiful. One of the most popular sights of the city.

Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio Torre d’Arnolfo clock

Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio has one of the most particular clock towers, as its clock it’s not located at the top, but at the very end of the tower itself. Nonetheless, the palace’s high enough for the clock to be seen by everybody. The tower was allegedly designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio in the early 14th century, but the clock itself wasn’t added until 1353.

The solid, massive building is enhanced by the simple tower with its clock. Giovanni Villani wrote that Arnolfo di Cambio incorporated the ancient tower of the Foraboschi family (the tower then known as “La Vacca” or “The Cow”) into the new tower’s facade as its substructure; this is why the rectangular tower (height 94 m) is not directly centered in the building. This tower contains two small cells, that, at different times, imprisoned Cosimo de’ Medici (the Elder) (1435) and Girolamo Savonarola (1498). The tower is named after its designer Torre d’Arnolfo. The tower’s large, one-handed clock was originally constructed in 1353 by the Florentine Nicolò Bernardo, but was replaced in 1667 with a replica made by Georg Lederle from the German town of Augsburg (Italians refer to him as Giorgio Lederle of Augusta) and installed by Vincenzo Viviani.

Photo by Igor Sobolev

The Kremlin Chimes on the Spasskaya Tower of Moscow Kremlin

Russia’s capital has its own clock tower by the Red Square: the Spasskaya Tower, that was designed by Italian architect Pietro Antonio Solari and built in the late 15th century. The clock is usually referred to as the Kremlin’s clock, as the tower is part of the Moscow Kremlin. Fun fact: the landmark was so loved by locals that it used to be almost worshipped, and many thought it actually had the power to protect the Kremlin from its enemies.

Wells Cathedral clock

In the north transept is Wells Cathedral clock, an astronomical clock from about 1325 believed to be by Peter Lightfoot, a monk of Glastonbury. Its mechanism, dated between 1386 and 1392, was replaced in the 19th century and the original moved to the Science Museum in London, where it still operates. It is the second oldest surviving clock in England after the Salisbury Cathedral clock.

The clock has its original medieval face. Apart from the time on a 24-hour dial, it shows the motion of the Sun and Moon, the phases of the Moon, and the time since the last new Moon. The astronomical dial presents a geocentric or pre-Copernican view, with the Sun and Moon revolving round a central fixed Earth, like that of the clock at Ottery St Mary. The quarters are chimed by a quarter jack: a small automaton known as Jack Blandifers, who hits two bells with hammers and two with his heels. At the striking of the clock, jousting knights appear above the clock face.

On the outer wall of the transept, opposite Vicars’ Hall, is a second clock face of the same clock, placed there just over seventy years after the interior clock and driven by the same mechanism. The second clock face has two quarter jacks (which strike on the quarter-hour) in the form of knights in armour.

In 2010 the official clock-winder retired and was replaced by an electric mechanism.

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4, Source 5, Source 6, Source 7, Source 8, Source 9, Source 10, Source 11

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