18 Nov THE ETERNAL TOLEDAN BELLS
Liturgical rings, warnings for the population or sound signals which mark the hours from the Cathedral’s bell tower. Millenary pealing which are born from the Primate Cathedral and which reinforce the beauty of Toledo thanks to a set of bells, imposing and unique in the world. In the middle appears St. Eugenio, the Fat bell, the largest in Spain —almost 15 tons— with the huge scar that left it silent the same year it was placed, in 1755.
Looking at that Fat bell from the base of the Primate Cathedral, it is reasonable to ask how one could put that mass up to where it should rest forever. Chronicles tell that the frigate’s sub-lieutenant Manuel Pérez directed that operation in which three ship’s guards coordinated a total of 22 sailors helped by the force of several pairs of oxen. In addition, the neighbor of Toledo, Manuel Maldonado, provided with four ropes and two hemp ropes which weighed about two thousand kilos.
It was on the hill of St. Justo nº5 —the place where master Gargollo had developed the foundry work— where the bell was dragged to the tower’s base next to Las Palmas Door. It was built a large ramp to which it was adapted a track with two lanes in order to slide the platform on which the bell was mounted. Thanks to a pulley, it was able to slowly go up with the help of the oxen. Once up, in what would be its home from which to play, the wall separating two of the side bars was undone so that it could get into the bell tower, then rebuilt.
Up there rests the bell of St. Eugenio, presiding over a whole of up to 15 bells (11 liturgical bells, 3 clock bells, and 1 signal bell) and which can be visited since September 6, 2011 (after 28 years closed to the public for safety reasons).
The tour —only available in limited groups and with the help of a guide— begins from a cloister’s door giving access to a first wide staircase of 5 stretches. 30 steps later, we reach the corridor of the bell ringer’s house until the 50s, when the figure of this person in charge of giving life to the bells disappeared becoming this trade automatic. The corridor opens into a hall located below the bell’s tower in which the old pulley machinery that triggered the manual touch of the bells is preserved and which came to be used as a ecclesiastical prison.
This area gives access to another 32 steps’ tower which leads the visitor to the bell tower’s base. From there, crossing an exterior balcony that runs through part of the main Cathedral’s façade, we find the last tower with a narrow staircase of 38 steps leading to the bell tower. It is an imposing wooden structure which allows to see the 8 liturgical bells (with the one of St. Eugenio in the middle) in a first square room and another 6 bells in the upper room (2 fixed bells that complete the whole of liturgical bells, 3 clock bells, and 1 small signal bell).
The liturgical bells of the Primate Cathedral —like those of other temples—were baptized with a name and a specific patronage before being placed, in a curious tradition that is still maintained today and that consecrates the religious bells after a washing and exorcism ritual.
In addition to St. Eugenio —The Fat bell—, St. Ildefonso and St. Joaquín/St. Leocadia (18th C.), we can see La Calderona (15th C.), La Resurrección, La Ascención, Espanta Diablos, Sermonera (16th C.), the Bell of the Saint, St. Sebastián and San Juan (12th C.), in addition to St. Felipe and La Encarnación —La Prima— (19th C.).
The anthropologist and website’s creator, Francesc Llop —president of the Bellringers Association of Valencia— highlights that “the singularity of these bells, in addition to their large size (La Resurrección, the smallest bell, would be the great one in many other cathedrals), is the lost way of playing them: Moreover to the three fixed major bells, the eight bells oscillated until being inverted between the rings, without getting turned completely, custom of other cathedrals. That gave a special acoustics due to the movement of the eight bells outside, a sound now disappeared.
Alejandro Gargollo Foncueva, a bell smelter from Arnuero (Cantabria), made in 1753 the great bell of St. Eugenio impelled by the archbishop-cardinal of Toledo Luis Antonio Borbón (son of Felipe V and brother of Carlos III) who decided to realize a huge outlay to provide Toledo’s Cathedral with a bell according to the very grandeur of the temple.
The Fat bell, however, was marked from its origin. It sound for the first time on December 8, 1755, but the sound was not the one expected due, perhaps, to a small fissure on the side. The iron clapper was replaced by a bronze one in order to improve the sonority, but the fissure turned into a large crack of up to 1.5 meters in length which, irremediably, left it forever silent. The building engineer attributed the problem to a smelting defect, but Gargollo did not only assume such imperfection, but he also did not respond to one of the agreement’s clauses for which he had to cast the bell again in case of faults.
Be it as it may, the grandiosity of Toledo’s Cathedral bell tower is undeniable. The visit to the Primate Cathedral well deserves the effort of walking vertically through the series of stairs and collecting, step by step, a little more of the history that will allow us to discover this unique set of bells, with the one of St. Eugenio —the Fat bell— in the middle.