Tuesday, 6 January 2015


David and I first came to Venice in 1998 and from that year until our visit in 2006 we never saw one of the city's most celebrated landmarks: the Torre dell'Orologio, the ornately decorated Renaissance clock tower that stands on the north side of the Piazza San Marco.

Built in the 15th Century, the tower features a carving of the Lion of Saint Mark, a statue of the Madonna and Christ Child, a vast clock face marking 24 (not 12) hours, the moon phases and the houses of the zodiac and is surmounted by a huge bell on which the hours are struck by two hammer-wielding Moors scantily clad in animal skins.

For the first eight years of our visiting Venice, the clock was under wraps for restoration and we saw this extraordinary edifice for the first time in 2006 when the scaffolding finally came down. But it was a couple of years later that we got to witness a special feature of the clock that is only ever seen twice a year...

During Ascension Week and on the Feast of Epiphany – today – the panels to the right and left of the central statue, which normally display the hour and minutes in Roman numerals on giant revolving drums, are removed and replaced with doors that, every hour (from 9:00-5:00) open onto the balcony allowing elaborate automata figures of a trumpet-tooting Angel and the gift-bearing Magi to process before the Virgin and Child, tipping their crowns as they pass.

Here they are in action at 1:00 pm today...

The performance today went a good deal smoother than our first memory of clock-watching in 2008... It was raining at 9 o'clock when the Wise Men and their Angelic Companion made their debut appearance and apart from a lot of bedraggled pigeons and a handful of disinterested caribinari, David and I were the only witnesses to the event; which, as you will see from our video that day, is probably just as well!

Today is a public holiday and here in Venice, as in all Italy, Epiphany is still commemorated and is a vital part of the celebrations (at least as far as the children are concerned) since it is the day signalling the arrival  La Befana – a female counterpart of those Santa Claus/Father Christmas/St Nicholas characters who feature in the Northern European and American Christmas festivities...

An old woman riding a broomstick through the air at night, La Befana, wears a black shawl and carries a sack of sweets and gifts which she leaves in the stockings that the children hang up for her. She is covered in soot because – like Santa – she enters the children's houses via the chimney.

Children who have not been good during the year, receive (instead of sweets) bags of ashes or a lump of coal – nowadays, black sugar-candy!

Because she's a good housekeeper, Befana always uses her broom to sweep the floor before leaving. It is polite to leaves out a small glass of wine for La Befana, together with something to eat - just as Santa gets all those glasses of milk and mince pies...

One Christian legend (similar to the Russian tale of Babushka) tells how La Befana was visited by the three Wise Men, seeking directions as to where Jesus had been born. The old woman did not know, but – being a homely, house-proud soul – she gave the travellers shelter for the night.

The following day, the Wise Men invited La Befana to join them on their quest, but she refused saying that she was far too busy with her housework. Then, too late, she charged her mind and went off in search the the Wise Men and the Christ Child, but was unable to find them. So it was that – to this very day – La Befana is searching for them still and, on her travels, leaves toys and candy for all the good children she finds.

Italian children are warned that if they ever see La Befana they'll receive a thwack from her broomstick: a typical adult ruse to keep youngsters in their beds on Epiphany Eve while parents are distributing sweets – or coal – and sweeping the floor.

To mark Epiphany – and the arrival of La Befana – a regatta is held in Venice every 6 January, with veteran gondoliers (in witchy drag), rowing up the Grand Canal to a finishing line at the Rialto Bridge.

Traffic on the Grand Canal comes to a halt and everyone crowds the fondamenta on either side of the Canal. A giant stocking hangs down from the bridge to mark the winning post and great excitement attends the race and the presentation of the special Befana-emblazoned pennants (left) that are the prizes while everyone – especially (right)  little old Italian ladies – get on with the really serious business of enjoying hot chocolate, mulled wine and sweet flaky biscuits called (in the Venetian dialect) galani...


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