Hubert Burda Media

The Renaissance of Officine Panerai

Known for its everlasting contributions to art and science, Florence may well be horology’s other spiritual home.

Giovanni Panerai — he’s the reason why the few of us have arrived here in Florence for a packed weekend visit with an itinerary planned with as much reverence as had we been visiting Vatican City or the temples of Bagan. Signor Giovanni, after all, was the founder of Bottega Panerai, Florence’s first watch shop in 1860 and the precursor to what we now know as Officine Panerai. Our pilgrimage is not to lay hands on a new novelty (there’s SIHH in Geneva for that), rather we’re here to experience Giovanni’s Florence — an enigmatic city considered the cradle of the Italian Renaissance. 

As the brand’s current CEO, Angelo Bonati, said recently: “The history of Panerai was born in this city and it represents our origins.” 

Put up at the Hotel Savoy (it opens out onto Piazza della Repubblica, a cafe-filled square well-known as a meeting place for “men of culture”), our first destination, as with any respectable pilgrimage, is church. And the Duomo of Florence, the city’s most iconic landmark, is just three minutes away on foot. Church construction began in 1296, but it was only consecrated in 1436 by Pope Eugenius IV after goldsmith-turned-architect Filippo Brunelleschi defied the laws of gravity to successfully erect his massive red-tiled cupula.

Whereas other guided tours paint an introduction to ecclesiastical architecture, ours rather unusually delves into the basics of Italic Time, also known as Julian Time (after Julius Cesar who introduced the Julian Calendar in 46BC), Ave Maria Time or Italian Time. It is a measuring system that calculates the hours of the day from sunset to sunset, with the 24th hour being not midnight but the hour when the sun sets. A clock indicating Italic hours must therefore be adjusted throughout the year to always align the last hour marker with the setting sun.

The lesson is not for nothing. Just above the main entrance, the clock of the Duomo is one of the oldest mechanical ones still in existence and also one of the very few in operation that tells Italic Time. Its fresco dial, discovered after restoration works in 1973, was painted by Paolo Uccello, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

Just as how the Corporate Medicis have come to the aid of Rome’s Trevi Fountain (Fendi), Colosseum (Tod’s) and Spanish Steps (Bulgari), as well as Florence’s own Uffizi Gallery (Salvatore Ferragamo), Officine Panerai has paid tribute to the city of its birth by sponsoring the 2014 restoration of the clock’s mechanism.

As guests of the proudly Florentine watchmaker, we’re taken through inner passages and into a narrow stairwell. Some hundred steps later, energy spent, we reach a narrow wooden door. Behind it, lodged between the inner and outer facades of the Duomo, is the completely restored movement made of steel and brass. Regulated by an anchor escapement with a pendulum and suspension about 150cm long, it is hand-wound once a week. One by one like communicants, we file quietly into this narrow space as if to receive the Eucharist, but instead we each whip out our smartphones for a picture of the centuries-old innovation. 

Photo taken, we climb yet another flight of stairs, this time to step out onto the Duomo’s terrace, an area few have the privilege of accessing. From here, roughly 110ft above ground, the city of Florence is breath-taking. It’s not lost on the lot of us that the medieval cityscape we’re looking out above hasn’t changed much from the 19th century. This is still Giovanni’s Florence, but for one significant exception — Ponte alle Grazie, the bridge on which he opened his first Bottega Panerai selling Swiss-made watches was destroyed in World War II. Though it has been rebuilt, it can hardly be considered a faithful reconstruction of the former.

What Officine Panerai considers as its historical home since the early 20th century, however, still exists today; and it is barely a stone’s throw from the Duomo, in the Archbishop’s Palace on Piazza San Giovanni, directly facing the Baptistery where Dante and members of the Medici Family were baptised. Whereas a century ago it used to span just 58sq-m, the Panerai boutique has recently quintupled in size to boast four display windows (instead of one) and a second-floor VIP room. A makeover by celebrated Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola has also struck a balance between contemporising the interiors and paying heed to tradition, employing coffered ceilings and striped striato olimpico marble flooring in the boutique as a nod to the patterned facade of its famous neighbours.

Visiting directly from the Duomo, we’re told that this is the only boutique in Italy that displays historic pieces and instruments from the Panerai museum. As enthusiasts would know, the brand used to supply precision apparatuses and watches to the specialist divers of the Royal Italian Navy from the 1930s to 1950s. The heritage boutique is also the only place in the world where one can purchase the Radiomir Firenze Special Edition, a timepiece hand-engraved with motifs that recur in Florentine iconography such as the fleur de lis. Not even the watchmaker’s other Florence boutique, over at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, is allocated pieces.

Sited within the 15th-century Palazzo della Gherardesca, the 116-room hotel is in itself a wealth of history with its frescoes, bas-reliefs, stuccowork and oriental silk paper that celebrate Florence’s ancient excellence in art and craftsmanship. Here, Panerai’s ground floor boutique is fittingly filled with original frescoes that depict ancient sailboats, a reminder of the watchmaker’s long-standing ties with the Italian navy. Making the most of our jaunt to the Four Seasons, we decide to amble through its private 12-acre park that, for several hundred years, was kept hidden away from public view. A worthy alternative to the ticketed Boboli Gardens known for its classical sculptures and Roman antiquities, this one houses contemporary works, such as a Dario Tironi Apoxyomenos made not from bronze or marble, but plastic children’s toys and household appliances — an inventive commentary that one can surely appreciate.

Not forgetting that we’re all in town because of a Florentine watchmaker, we head over to the Museo Galileo for an understanding of how the discoveries of the Tuscan-led Renaissance gave birth to modern timekeeping systems. Named for the father of modern astronomy and housed in the 11th-century Palazzo Castellani, the museum is home to one of the world’s most outstanding collections of scientific instruments gathered over the course of three centuries by the Grand Duchy’s Medici and Lorraine dynasties. Among the thousands of objects are the only two surviving telescopes made by Galileo.

The polymath’s celestial observations not only made significant advancements in the calculation of longitude at sea (but it would take another century and a half for the marine chronometer to be perfected), he also discovered the isochronism of the pendulum, helping open up a new direction in timekeeping. Linked by an interweaving of astronomy, precision mechanics and methods for navigation and timekeeping, Panerai has paid tribute to the Tuscan by funding the interactive Galileo and the Measurement of Time exhibit. It also donated the Jupiterium, its exceptional planetary clock, which shows the movements of the moon, sun, Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites, just as Galileo himself had observed in 1610.

Though it isn’t the first time those in our group have stood transfixed by the majestic orb — it was first presented at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm in 2009 and later travelled across Asia — its profundity resonates no less. Charged with heresy later in life, Galileo may have died a broken man, but his work and that of his peers continue to inspire generations, including Giovanni, present-day Panerai and me.