“Siamo alla porte coi sassi” (we‘re near the gates with stones) is one of the old Florentine sayings. It means “we’re nearly there” as well as “there’s not much time left”. Where on earth did such a strange and so typically Florentine expression come from? To explain it, we must go back to mediaeval times when public clocks did not yet exist. Daily life in those days was measured by the chiming of the bells in the city, which also indicated sunset, when the gates into the city were about to close.
People who had come to the city for work had thus to hurry so as not to run the risk of being shut up inside the walls for the night. In the same way, people who were on their way to Florence realized that they had to walk faster or spur their horses to a gallop so as not to remain shut outside the walls until the next morning.
What did the usual latecomers do – after all times have not changed, someone is always late – when they were within sight of the city and the guards were starting to close the heavy old wooden gates? They did not give up hope but picked up a handy rock or stone and hurled it in the direction of the gates to announce their imminent arrival and persuade the custodians to wait for them.
This is one of the two versions of the origins of the saying and probably the most reliable.
The second version relates that the guards used to block the gates shut with huge stones and that the sentries were in the habit of crying out to latecomers, whether they were coming into or going out of the city: “Hurry up. We are ready with the stones at the gates!” to warn them that they were about to remove the stones that temporarily prevented the gates from closing.
How was time measured in that period? The “hora italica”, which followed the movement of the shadow on the sundial, was used in Florence. The new day started after sunset and ended at sunset the next day. The 24 hours in fact coincided with the Ave Maria at evening Vespers. This was followed, with the falling of darkness, by one o’clock (called “the hour of night”), two o’clock, three o’clock and so on.
The modern time system, known as the “French system”, was not introduced in Florence until 1750. Paolo Uccello’s clock in the Cathedral follows the ancient “hora italica” system too.
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