A Cannon Can’t Hurt Me

My business card has this picture on the back of it.

My hand through the second Triumphant
My hand through the second Triumphant

Yup, that’s my hand sticking through a hole in a large bell. So what’s the story behind it? Well…

This bell, called the second Triumphant, is part of the carillon in the municipal belfry of Ghent, Belgium.* With its two other companions, the three Triumphants formed the three largest bells of the forty-bell carillon and also served as swinging bells.

Belfry of Ghent
Belfry of Ghent

The carillon was cast and installed by Pieter Hemony in 1659-60. The inspectors were not pleased with the three largest bells; they were deemed inferior to the carillon bells in the nearby church tower of St. Bavo. The business contract explicitly stated that better bells could not be found across the land (actually this clause was standard practice at the time). After misguided tuning to the third Triumphant and lots of haggling, the city still accepted the bells but never paid for them.

Fast forward to 1789. The French revolted against their monarchy, storming the Bastille. The people in present-day Belgium, emboldened by the French uprising, revolted against their ruler, the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. The largest Triumphant, Roland, tolled in the Ghent belfry, signaling the beginning of the Brabant Revolution. The Austrians shot their cannons straight into the tower, blasting into the second Triumphant. Hence, a hole in the bell.

The miracle of this story is that the hole did not mar the sound of the bell. There is no dullness or shortness of tone—it sounds as if there is no hole at all. So the bell has stayed in place, faithfully ringing for the city. The largest Triumphant, incidentally, cracked in 1914 and was brought out of the tower and displayed on the main square below. The timing was uncanny. The Roland bell had come to symbolize the liberty of the people of Ghent, and it cracked just weeks after the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. War had not yet broke out in Belgium, but everyone could sense that it was coming.

There’s much more to report about the Roland bell. Another post for another time!

*Information on this bell taken from Luc Rombouts, Singing Bronze: A History of Carillon Music (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2014), 92-93, 139, 191.

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