Rome’s water clocks and Father Embriaco’s talent
Giovanni Battista Embriaco (Ceriana, 1829 – Rome, 1903) was a Dominican friar from Liguria, with a penchant for clocks. Water clocks, specifically, or hydrochronometers, which he invented. Rome still keeps two of these sophisticated machines he made.
The most famous one is on the Pincian Hill, from where you can overlook the city from a beautiful panoramic square. It was placed there in 1872, although it had been invented in 1867, when Father Embriaco sent a prototype to the Paris Expo (the prototype was never even uncrated, due to technical difficulties). The hydrochronometer on the Pincian was built also thanks to the municipality’s architect, Gioacchino Ersoch.
The system Embriaco invented is based on a mechanism in which water fills two basins alternatively, giving a uniform rhythm to the ringer and pendulum. All the scientists he asked for feedback recognized it was quite ingenious.
“Father Giovanni Battista Embriaco”, a 1860 report by the Lincei Academy reads, “as humble as he is, by nature and by religious profession, submits these inventions to our Academy hoping to be encouraged to perfect them and to present them publicly.”
He obviously received the encouragement he needed, and Rome was happy to welcome his hydrochronometers to embellish public spaces in the city.
The one on the Pincian Hill used to be only one of three water clocks by Father Embriaco in Rome. Unfortunately a second one – located in the courtyard of the former Ministry of Finance – was displaced in the 1960s.
A third clock is still working in the courtyard of Palazzo Berardi, on Via del Gesù. Inside a seashell niche, it is surrounded by four caryatids and two marble busts.
And now it’s time – pun intended! – for you to have a look at these beautiful machines.
Pincian Hill water clock: Viale dell’Orologio, Pincio.
Palazzo Berardi Water clock: Via del Gesù, 42.