WHERE ROME - May 1996


A glimpse at how the hours have been measured, from the early Egyptian and Roman creators to the modern Swiss masters.
By Claudio Moro

The most ancient civilization interested in measuring time was that of the Egyptians. Around 1250 B.C. they had divided time into two phases: 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night, regardless of the differences due to the changing of the seasons.

The Romans, after having adopted the Egyptian system, replaced it with the Babylonian concept, which divided the day into twenty-four hours. To achieve this, the Romans used a straight pole or obelisk vertically above a horizontal plane on which the hours were shown. The ruins of such a gnomone in Rome, constructed by Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.C.), can be seen in the crypt of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

The gnomone is considered the precursor to the sundial, the solar clock often seen on the facades of buildings and bell towers. Yet since their use depended on the shadow cast by the sun they could not be used indoors or on cloudy days; thus the water clock was developed and soon became a more popular alternative. A typical example of a water clock is the hourglass, which controls the flow of a liquid (or often sand) from one recipient to another. The hourglass prevailed until the 17th century, when the mechanical clock first appeared. The hourglass, however, continued to be used on ships until the middle of the 1800s. The historical breakthrough in timekeeping came with the mechanical watch, which can be considered one of the greatest inventions in history. However, the details of its inventor are unknown. Its evolution proceeded at a sweeping pace: from large timekeeping apparatuses, the portable clock was developed, first appearing in Italy around four hundred years ago. These were not pocket models, but table models. Before 1600, the mechanism had so evolved that the minute and hour hands were already in use. In the 1800s, with the increasing demand for portable clocks, the first clock and watch factories appeared, renowned not only for their continuous technological research but also for their creations of precious items of jewellery. The most famous ateliers were those of the Swiss Georges Piaget and of the Frenchman Louis Francois Cartier.

Italy unfortunately is without an equally important contribution in the sector, although there are some Italian artisans who produce beautiful and functional watches. In Rome, in Via delle Tre Cannelle, 20, there is an old shop still bearing the inscription "cassaio", meaning a craftsman who works specifically with the watch's internal mechnism. Here, Marco Verdastro, son of Paolo, the sole cassaio left in Rome, not only repairs antique watches damaged from years of abandonment in safes and safety deposit boxes, but also produces new and enticing models, all bearing the name Verdastro.