Italian Priest Is Fined for Ringing Church Bells 200 Times A Day

I think we can safely file this under "The Most Italian Thing Ever."


Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discusses life in Italy

Italy feels a little cramped sometimes, especially for a girl that hearkens from vast swaths of flat cracked dirt in the Lone Star state.

Consider that two Italys fit inside one Texas, and yet Italy has twice the population. Texas is all heat-shimmering freeways, featureless suburbs, weedy marker-less places, peeling billboards, vacant strip malls, bleak parking lots, and miles of undeveloped land with a rusting pump jack in the distance.

Here in Italy, over 50% of residents live in apartment blocs. In our own 15th-century palazzo, we share a roof with five other families. The brother of a beloved Italian cinematic icon lives downstairs. a foreign couple that everyone in town believes are money launderers (rumor has it they showed up at their closing with two suitcases stuffed with 270 thousand euros) has the second floor, we share the third floor with an Italian-American actor, the fourth floor belongs to the Bickersons, and the fifth floor is the part-time residence of a retired couple. So, yes, we live on top of each other. Less space; more people.

This was also the situation at the Santa Maria a Coverciano church east of Florence. Dozens of families live close to the campanile, or belltower, where the parish priest, Don Leonardo Guerri, rang the church bells. He didn’t just ring them to summon the faithful to Mass. Nor did he ring them to solemnly celebrate a saint’s day or the birth of the Bambino Gesù. He rang them dozens of times every day, sometimes every half hour, just because he felt like it.

The noise was deafening. Dozing pigeons that had settled inside the campanile were sent flapping in panic. Covid refugees sitting at their kitchen tables smart working (Italian-speak for remote work) had to slap both hands over their ears. Babies startled from their naps began crying. Shift workers couldn’t sleep. From eight in the morning until nine at night, Don Leonardo was clanging those bells like a demented Hunchback of Notre Dame. If people didn’t like it? Screw ‘em.

In a “normal” country (and let’s face it—what’s normal anymore?), an email might have been dispatched to the appropriate authorities who would have ordered Don Leonardo to stop. But there is no part of Italy that is straightforward or efficient. That is, like it or not, a big part of her charm. Italy is Marcello Mastroianni driving the Triumph TR3 in La Dolce Vita, only he’s driving it right off a cliff.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discusses life in Italy
How the author sees Italian bureaucracy, encapsulated in a movie still.

What followed were four years of ceaseless, pointless wrangling. Petitions were signed by 500 exasperated families, phone calls were made, and there were letters sent to the Curia and the municipality. Threats of criminal charges were issued for disturbing the peace, as were requests for compensation of damages.

But Don Leonardo stood firm. From his pulpit, he shook a fist at his detractors, vowing “Per cognome faccio guerrieri e le guerre non mi spaventano." By my surname, I make warriors, and wars do not scare me.

Don Leonardo’s surname is Guerri, you see. The word means war. This parish priest was determined to wage it.

But why?

Don Leonardo refuses to disclose his motives. Perhaps he felt that his parishioners had grown slack in their religious observances—the bells were meant to gently “remind them” to go to church. Perhaps he meant to punish Italians for their infrequent attendance. Be that as it may, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori signed a decree in 2014 regulating the bells throughout the diocese, specifically to “avoid putting a strain on the sense of Christian devotion.” Don Leonardo clearly thumbed his nose at this decree and kept yanking the bell pulls.

Then agencies for environmental protection got involved. Studies were done—studies!—to determine if the bells exceeded “acceptable decibel levels.” As though the metaphorical blood dribbling out of residents’ ears wasn’t proof enough. #BecauseThisIsItaly, these protracted and wildly unnecessary formalities dragged on for over a year. Meanwhile, “The disturbing noise became even more unbearable during the lockdown that forced us all to stay at home,” a resident complained. “The bells get into your brain.”

After four years of testing noise pollution levels and filing petitions, of bully pulpits and legal threats, the environmental protection agency, ARPAT, concluded its study and levied a 2,000 euro ($2,225) fine at Don Leonardo Guerri, effectively ending his “war of the bells.” Now, he is allowed to ring them twice a day: to call his parishioners to Mass, and to pay homage to the Blessed Virgin at 6pm.

500 families in Florence are sleeping easier tonight. Never mind that they were driven insane for over 1,460 consecutive days by a renegade priest. Italy is full of these monomaniacal madmen.

Don Leonardo Guerri will have to fight any future wars in his head.