Dubrovnik has existed as a town for more than 1000 years --- something like 1360 years, to be more exact --- but so far as I know I am the only person who has ever mentioned the phenomenon of The Clock That Can’t Make Up Its Mind.
This is the so-called town clock that strikes every hour around the day. But it has a curious characteristic, that, having struck, say 5 am at what we would take to be the real time, five minutes later it goes through the whole procedure yet again, without any modification to indicate that the actual time has changed in the interim.
How could one account for this puzzling eccentricity? Could it be that the clock feels the pressure of the other two bell towers belonging to the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries which have also existed for many hundreds of years and which both tend to burst out in a paroxysm of bell ringing at verious times of the day. Could a clock have feelings about a thing like that? It is hard to imagine, for example, Big Ben just taking it on the chin if it was challenged by some nearby upstart with a burst of apparently purposeless ringing.
As usual in Dubrovnik, it is rewarding to look back in history for the answer. The decision to buld a clock was made by the city’s Great Council on November 28, 1385, and the contract to build it was awarded to a clockmaker from the Italian city of Lecce on May 13, 1389. It was not erected where it is now, at the very centre of the town but was almost destroyed in 1435 by a gunpowder explosion in the building which then housed it. The city fathers then decided to build a clock tower, work on which began in 1444, but a after a series of mishaps a new clock was ordered from a Bergamo clockmaker. This worked well for some years, but was replaced by a clock from a firm in Padua.
When the 1444 clock wass built a local man, Luca Zurgovic made two colored wooden human figures whose job it was to strike the bell when animated by a mechanism attached to them. These wooden men wore out within ten years, and what happened then is a matter for controversy ever since. Two fellows called Maro and Baro took their place, ordered to strike the clock on the hour regularly, but whether they did so or not is the point at question.
Local gossip that I have uncovered accidentally (---- that’s a whole story in itself: I was sitting idly at the foot of a statue the other day and noticed a loose stone on the pavement below my feet; I removed the stone, found an ancient document, with, surprisingly, a translation into English, and uncovered the fact that Maro and Baro had been engaged in a feud within a year or so of their appointments to the clock-striking job. So ferocious was their rivalry --- one had to strike from the right side the other from the left ---- that they eventually began to strike at different times thus giving rise to the current situation, a feud that has lasted through history since 1448 or thereabouts, a mere 565 years.
According to the document I uncovered, which now rests with the City Archivist, and can be examined on request, the two worthy citizens involved in this quarrel lived on and on, their mutual hatred keeping them alive for a period previously unrecorded in human history. It is hard to believe it, but the two gentlemen were still recorded as being alive, at their posts in the clock tower every day, sleeping on palliasses at a lower level, and springing up to strike, hour in and hour out as one might say, each at his accepted time, which during all 200 years until their deaths in the 17th century, always varied by five minutes.
Throughout this extraordinary reign, the mutual envy of the two men actually turned them green, so that today, representations of them that are still in place are known to the citizenry as the “zelenci”, which apparently means green men in the local lingo.
As to whether the figures that still strike the bells are models or are actually the mummies of the two original occupants of this post from the fifteenth century, some controversy has existed over the years, and the matter is still, in many minds, not quite settled.
The clock tower was gravely damaged, along with the rest of the town, by a huge earthquake in 1667, when it is thought that either their sons took over their posts, or some other close members of their families. This is but one of the 60 earthquakes that have rocked this city over the centuries, the most recent of them being in 1979, which also did a lot of damage.
Another surprising fact arises from the perusal of the historical record: the clock tower that stands so proudly today at the confluence of the town’s two main streets is not an ancient monument at all, but was built --- rebuilt would be more correct --- from top to bottom in 1929, the original towers having so lost their bearings through earthquake damage as to be in danger of falling down.
At the time of this rebuiding apparently a major civic debate as to the correct time for the bells to be struck was unresolved, and even the unanimity common during the Communist years did not succeed in arriving at a conclusion. In fact, the two present occupantrs of the post were in danger of being damaged as a result of the Serbian bombardment of the city in the 1990s, so there is some reason to believe that they were replaced by copies that are less valuable.
So today we are left with Maro and Baro or representations of them, striking every hour still twice, at different times.
Truly, this is a clock that Can’t Make Up Its Mind, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.