When a bird beats time: Russian cuckoo clocks
17 September, 2018
Something I really like about classes here at Liden & Denz is that you do not only learn grammar and things strictly connected to the Russian language, but you also get in touch with the real culture of this fascinating country. For example, today during our conversation class, I found out that there is a piece of furniture which is traditionally present in Russian dachas in the countryside: the cuckoo clock.
My grandpa had an obsession for cuckoos, so I have flashbacks of him winding them and hanging them back on the kitchen wall. For this reason, since I was a child, I implicitly assumed it was a very Italian thing, but I was absolutely wrong!
What is it, and what is its history?
The cuckoo clock is a typically pendulum-regulated clock which gets its name as it strikes the hours with a sound like a common cuckoo’s call and has an automated cuckoo bird that appears through a small trap door while the clock is striking. In some clocks birds move their wings and open and close their beaks while leaning forward, while in others, only the bird’s body leans forward.
Such a clock was first imagined by the Italian architect Domenico Martinelli in 1669. He was fascinated by the sound of the cuckoo bird and wanted to use it to beat time. The mechanism to produce this particular type of clock was used for the first time in the middle of the 18th century and has remained almost without variation until the present. It is unknown who invented it and where the first one was made, but it is thought that the first “chalet-house” clock appeared around 1740-1750 in the Black Forest area in southwestern Germany and has not lost its relevance to this day.
The most common style is the “traditional” or “chalet” one, which implies that the wooden case is decorated with carved leaves and animals and that the clock is hanged on the wall. But while most modern cuckoos try to imitate this typical style, some manufacturers supplement the models of classical design with a wide range of products in trendy styles: techno, high-tech, modern.
In the Russian culture the cuckoo clock is a symbol of tradition and home comfort. It is also present in the country’s literature; we may quote, for example, Leonid Filadov’s “Clock with cuckoo” – “Часы с кукушкой”, which was first published in 1990. The action takes place in Moscow, and the protagonists are a married couple, the Kuznetsov, who live a very ordinary and boring life. One day an unexpected guest comes to visit them and then “diversity” appears in their life. The action of the play develops around the cuckoo clocks, which are always present in the apartment, see everything that is going on, keep on striking time and making the typical sound.
If you have the possibility to visit a typical Russian house you may have the chance to spot a nicely-carved wooden cuckoo clock. Otherwise you can just go somewhere where the classic dacha style is recreated, for example at the Kvartirka Soviet Cafè in Saint Petersburg (Malaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, 51), which is located at a three-minute walk from our school. In this place you fell the real Russian cozy atmosphere and the décor is exactly as if you entered someone’s house in the Soviet era, like your beloved grandma’s. The interior of the café is filled with items from that period: tapestries with deer and heroes, disk telephones, books, lampshades and old televisions. While waiting for some traditional Russian food, you can kill time over a game of checkers or dominoes, watch a Soviet movie on a big screen or listen to the quiet music.
A unusual cuckoo-clock
Are you a fan of atypical clocks? Well, here in Saint Petersburg there is one. Being honest it is not a cuckoo-clock, but a peacock-clock!
It is an over 200-year-old automaton adorned with gloden mechanical birds made of bronze, silver and strasses which was realised by the British jeweller James Cox during the second half of the 18th century and bought by the Russian Empress Catherine II.
Since that period it has delighted tsars and visitors with its performance of singing birds, which have survived and remained unaltered up to now. The clock is located in the Pavilion Hall of the State Hermitage Museum and today is only wound in certain days. If you don’t want to miss the chance to see it in action, have a quick trip at the Hermitage on Wednesday at 5 pm, you won’t be disappointed!