Time Keeping


In prehistoric and in later times man paid attention to time by observing the movement of celestial bodies that would indicate to him time spans of the day and those of lunar months. Indeed those same people who built the megalithic temples were so conscious of this that they orientated most of their temples to face the south east to provide a means of alignment to the rising sun.

mnajdra-equinox-sunriseThe temple of Mnajdra is one such building where the alignment of the temple was purposely devised to receive the sun’s rays as the sun rose over the eastern horizon. The rays would penetrate the main entrance of the largest temple and hit two slabs inside the courtyard.

Throughout the centuries communities at large were to mark their time of day by simply following the tolling of church bells. The matutina, the angelus and the għasar were moments when the church bells rang so that the community would be reminded of the obligation to pray at sunrise, midday and sunset respectively or else to attend mass. These bells would be struck by persons guided by simple instruments such as the sundials that were invented more than 800 years ago.

Eventually, more precise and elaborate tools were devised to ensure that the hours of the day would be better observed to provide a more accurate time of day.

This was at least possible for daytime activity while the sun was shining.

Dials of an elaborate and more technical nature were produced during the Renaissance in Europe. Following this there was the invention of clocks. From then on sun dials were used when setting a clock to ensure that the time was properly set.


In Malta and Gozo one may count up to 50 sundials that are spread in numerous towns and villages. Most of these are vertical sundials, that is, they are designed on a wall, with an iron rod (called a gnomon) protruding outwards from the surface to cast its shadow over the segmental lines denoting the hours of the day. There are also horizontal sundials where the face of the clock is set on a horizontal slab and the gnomon is set as a free standing triangular shaped metal piece. Many of these sundials are located on the facades or side walls of private residences, convents or churches. Others are found indoors especially in courtyards. Some may have a motto written in Latin, Italian or Maltese. Others would have a decorative design added to them. Most however are simply made up of a series of lines and numbers scratched onto the surface of the limestone.

sundial-melliehaThe greatest concentration of Sundials in Mlata is found in Rabat. This is close to the old capital, Mdina. There are twelve of them. Five of these are distributed around the courtyard of the Dominicans Priory. Fr. Castronius designed four of these in 1717. They were later restored by Fr. Calcedonius Gulia, a capuchin friar, in 1822. He was also responsible for the fifth sundial in the court. This is a meridian (2.60m x 1.5m). Another Rabat sundial, can be seen on the servants quarters at Verdala Palace (0.8m x 0.8m). The Palace was built by Grand Master Verdala and subsequently used as summer residence of the Grand Masters.

The oldest sundial in the Maltese islands is probably the one found in an old building in Xewkija, Gozo. This is a vertical sundial and it bears the date 10 April 1546.

In Mellieha there is a beautiful sundial in the court outside the Sanctuary of Our Lady within the parish church complex (1.67 diameter circa). A modern sundial can be seen on the exterior of Dar l-Arlogg Tax-Xemx (House of the Sundial) in Sardinella street.

sundial-dominicansA slightly out of the way sundial can be seen at the corner, on the roof of a chapel on what is known as Laferla Cross Hill, limits of Siggiewi. The dial has a form that is typical of most old Maltese sundials. The neighbouring village of Zebbug has a lovely sundial outside a house in Triq il-Kbira (Main Street). This is round in shape and was carved out Globigerina, the local soft limestone.

In Qormi each of the two parish churches has its own sundial. The sundial on the side wall of St Sebastian parish church is modern and elaborate in its design. So is the one painted onto the façade of the Casino Maltese in Republic Square in Valletta. The gnomon casts its shadow to tell the time at noon only. However this rod has an eyelet (called alidade) at its tip which allows the sun to penetrate through it to mark the lunar months and thus create a calendar based on the zodiac signs.

Sundials are the cheapest and most effective way to tell the time, of course, so long as the sun is shining.

Sundials in Malta


Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_002-detail-TemperanceThe origin of the hourglass is unclear, although it may have been introduced to Europe by an 8th-century monk named Luitprand, who served at the cathedral in Chartres, France. It was not until the 14th century that the hourglass was seen commonly, the earliest firm evidence being a depiction in the 1338 fresco Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Unlike its predecessor the clepsydra, or water clock, which may have been invented in ancient Egypt, the hourglass is believed to have originated in medieval Europe. This theory is based on the fact that the first written records of it were mostly from logbooks of European ships. Written records from the same period mention the hourglass, and it appears in lists of ships stores. An early record is a sales receipt of Thomas de Stetesham, clerk of the English ship La George, in 1345

“The same Thomas accounts to have paid at Lescluse, in Flanders, for twelve glass horologes (” pro xii. orlogiis vitreis “), price of each 4½ gross’, in sterling 9s. Item, For four horologes of the same sort (” de eadem secta “), bought there, price of each five gross’, making in sterling 3s. 4d.”

Hourglasses were very popular on board ships, as they were the most dependable measurement of time while at sea. Unlike the clepsydra, the motion of the ship while sailing did not affect the hourglass. The fact that the hourglass also used granular materials instead of liquids gave it more accurate measurements, as the clepsydra was prone to get condensation inside it during temperature changes. Seamen found that the hourglass was able to help them determine longitude, distance east or west from a certain point, with reasonable accuracy.

Wooden_hourglass_3The hourglass also found popularity on land as well. As the use of mechanical clocks to indicate the times of events like church services became more common, creating a ‘need to keep track of time’, the demand for time-measuring devices increased. Hourglasses were essentially inexpensive, as they required no rare technology to make and their contents were not hard to come by, and as the manufacturing of these instruments became more common, their uses became more practical.

Hourglasses were commonly seen in use in churches, homes, and work places to measure sermons, cooking time, and time spent on breaks from labour.  Because they were being used for more everyday tasks, the model of the hourglass began to shrink. The smaller models were more practical and very popular as they made timing more discreet.

After 1500 A.D., the hourglass was not as widespread as it had been. This was due to the development of the mechanical clock, which became more accurate, smaller and cheaper, and made keeping time easier. The hourglass, however, did not disappear entirely. Although they became relatively less useful as clock technology advanced, hourglasses remained desirable in their design. Some of the most famous hourglasses are the twelve-hour hourglass of Charlemagne of France and the hourglasses of Henry the VIII of England, made by the artist Holbein in the 16th century. The oldest known surviving hourglass resides in the British Museum in London.

Not until the 18th century did the Harrison brothers, John and James, come up with a marine chronometer that significantly improved on the stability of the hourglass at sea. Taking elements from the design logic behind the hourglass, they were able to invent a marine chronometer that was able to accurately measure the journey from England to Jamaica, with only a miscalculation of five seconds, in 1761.


lira1The Maltese gilded clock has a very long tradition dating back from the 17th century. More commonly known as l-Arloġġ tal-Lira (the one-pound clock) this unique Maltese wall clock could be found in palaces, convents, stately homes and Auberges of the Knights of the Order of St. John, especially during the late 18th century. Apart from telling the time, these clocks also served a decorative purpose. This rendered the clock’s case designer, as different from the actual maker of the clock movement, into a very important artisan. With comparatively rare exceptions such designers have remained anonymous in contrast to our knowledge of the actual clockmakers.

This type of clock, which is peculiar to the Maltese islands, was designed by Maltese craftsmen and originally it consisted of a rectangular case with just one hand on the clock face and practically no decorations at all. Over the years, the case became smaller but a crown was added at the top and also a bottom bracket or ‘mensola’ as it is known. The wood used was usually white deal or ‘Punent’ as the local craftsmen used to call it.

The traditional Maltese gilded clock is popularly known as ‘tal-Lira.’ Some believe that this name implied that one could buy it for one gold sovereign (lira tad-deheb). However Dr Giovanni Bonello absolutely does not agree with this explanation for more than one reason. He says that artisans’ labour was never cheap and “it does not make much sense that three or four craftsmen contributed their skills, to share one pound between them.”  Bonello continues that “up to last quarter of the nineteenth century, the only monetary unit the Maltese used was the scudo, not the lira. It was only in 1886, when the other currencies (the scudo and the latin dollar) were forcibly withdrawn from circulation.” Therefore to Bonello, it seems “quite unlikely that a popular clock would have been generally baptised with the denomination of a disliked and unpopular currency.”

Moreover, the Maltese clock, like all domestic clocks, surely started as an exclusive appurtenance of the aristocracy and the higher bourgeosie. With the reluctance of the aristocracty to draw attention to money, it is difficult to believe that they would have been referring to this clock that cost a pound!

According to G. Bonello, what could be the origin of this nickname tal-lira, is that since the orologio a lira was becoming popular in Europe and in Malta concurrently when the Maltese clock was asserting itself, it is quite possible that when our ancestors first went in for domestic clocks, they referred to the Maltese clock as l-arloġġ tal-lira, a name by which it is still known today.  Although the orologio a lira is not similar to the arloġġ tal-lira, it is a normal idiomatic practice to call any species by the name of one popular species in the same genus.

It could have been that a lyre (‘lira’ in maltese) was painted on the first clocks and they got their name from the lyre decoration.

The ‘Arloġġ tal-Lira’ was a priced possession, usually reserved for the aristocracy and the nobility. Nowadays, however, it is not as prohibitive to own such a prestigious clock; although one is still considered to be privileged to have such a clock decorating one’s home.

To give a Maltese gilded clock that personal touch and make it more prestigious, some may also choose to have one’s own family coat of arms embossed in gold leaf on the bottom bracket of one’s clock.

How is the Wooden Case of the Maltese Clock  made and decorated

lira5The techniques of water gilding and the tools used have remained unchanged for centuries. The Egyptians used water gilding techniques over 3,000 years ago, and some of the artefacts gilded by craftsmen in the time of the Pharaohs still remain in perfect condition today. The arlogg tal-lira as stated above dates back to the 17th century.

The arlogg tal-lira had two doors. The outer door was glass-framed, displaying the dial behind which was fixed the mechanism, and below which, further down, was the aperture or slot showing the oscillating pendulum.

The clocks measure about 51 cm by 61 cm (20 inches by 24 inches).

White deal makes up the frame of the clock, which includes two ornate parts, one on top called ornat and the bottom part called mensula.

The sanded wood is first given a layer of rabbit glue. Once this coating dries, a mixture of a finer rabbit glue and English chalk, known as whiting, is applied. When dry, the English chalk allows the clock maker to cut designs into it. Each gilder has his own secret about the ‘right’ mixture of rabbit glue and chalk.

About 10 coats of this mixture are applied, one every 24 hours. The coating has to be thick enough to allow the gilder to engrave designs in it. Once dry, the chalk is sanded until it is as smooth as marble.

The next step is to transfer designs by means of carbon paper. Then with a special tool, the design, half a millimetre deep, is cut into the chalk.

The chalk is then coated with a mixture called red bole, boll, consisting of animal fat, clay and rabbit’s glue. Here, again, gilders have their own formula.

Six layers of red bole are applied. Once the red bole is applied, it should not be touched by hand, because the moisture and acid deposited by the touch would repel the gold leaf. The red bole is moistened with water and the gold leaf transferred on to the clock frame by means of a dry brush. The gold leaf is burnished with a special tool having a head made of a highly polished agate stone on a wood handle, making the gold shine by pressing it harder onto the coating of bole.

The rest of the frame except for the gilded parts is painted with a paraffin-based paint.

The clock face and the wood are prepared by two other craftsmen.

It takes about 22 days to make one clock. Nowadays the clock’s timing mechanism is imported. There are timing mechanisms that are wound up by clock work but nowadays a battery-operated mechanism is installed in the smaller version of the clocks.

The clock was copied from the niches holding statues of saints one often comes across at street corners. It would be too much work for one craftsmen to carry out all these processes.

In the old days, the clock-maker used to produce all the parts of the clock.





Pietro Tanti and his son Gio. Antonio

By the time that the Knights of the Order of St John came to Malta, the production of the mechanical clock had advanced quite steadily. This might explain the fact that at this time the mechanical clock had become quite popular in Malta too.

Two blacksmiths who became popular for their prowess in the trade of clockmakers were Pietro Tanti and his son Gio. Antonio, who lived and worked in the first half of the eighteenth century.

QRENDIPietro Tanti, born in 1692 at Zebbug, married Maria Grima after the death of his first wife. From his second marriage were born three children, among whom Joannes Antonnius who was born in 1731. When he grew up he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a clockmaker. Not only, because in 1766 he succeeded in becoming a partner in Marco Morelli’s foundry that produced bells. Gio. Antonio Tanti died in 1817.

Between 1735 and 1749 Pietro Tanti produced various clocks, among which those for the churches at Zejtun, Balzan and Siggiewi. Together with his son Gio. Antonio, Pietro also produced the clocks for the Zebbug and Zabbar Churches.

When Pietro grew old and stopped working, church procurators commissioned his son Gio. Antonio, with the work of clocks. The sum of 300 ‘skud’ was usually paid for clocks produced by the Tanti family and which marked the quarter of the hour and the hour. It was also the custom to pay a small amount of earnest money when the clock was ordered and the rest of the sum was paid on completion of the work when the clock was put in place in the belfry.

Gio. Antonio Tanti succeeded in acquiring the fame of a prime clockmaker so much so that  many church procurators commissioned him with the production of clocks for their churches. Archived documents show that Gio. Antonio Tanti produced clocks for ten churches.

QRENDI2The other works included the clock of the Mdina Cathedral, the clock found in the Archbishop’s Palace at Mdina, the clocks in the belfries of the Capuchin Church in Floriana, and of the Parish Churches at Qrendi, Mqabba, Naxxar, Birkirkara, Tarxien, Cospicua, Lija and Ghaxaq.

Usually a clock cost 300 ‘skud’ and had to be placed in the church belfry up to six months after the signing of the contract. In the contracts we find details about the measurements the works on the clock had to follow. These measurements indicate that the clock had to be specifically manufactured for the particular belfry.  It had to include the hammers, the chains, and pendulums all of which had to be made of iron. With regards to the cost, besides the earnest money, the rest had to be paid up to six months after the clock was to be placed in the church belfry where it was to strike the hour and the quarter of the hour according to Roman style.

According to the contracts, besides the agreements already mentioned, clockmaker Tanti was also bound to:

1) paint the clock face and to provide the ropes of the pendulums and the wood in the belfry on which the hammers that struck the bells had to be placed;

2) manufacture the wheels on the lathe and produce bronze axis for the wheels according to the craft;

3) build the wheel that counted the hours in such a way that it tolled eleven times at quarter to noon and quarter to midnight;

4) provide a minute hand on the clock face, if the circumference of the latter permitted, besides the hour hand;

5) place the clock in the belfry from where it could toll along with the bells in the said belfry, according to the wishes of the procurator, and that it would have a rope long enough for a twenty-six hour period.

Michelangelo Sapiano

sapianoMichelangelo Sapiano was born in Mqabba in 1826. When he was 14 years of age he opened a watch repair shop and at such a young age he managed to repair the clock found in the Parish Church of Mqabba when other clock makers couldn’t do so. This paved the way for him to become famous and gave him the courage to start making clocks. He went to live in Luqa when he was 21 years of age after he married a girl from the town.

Sapiano is most famous for large clocks which were made for churches, convents and sacristies in various towns and villages in Malta and Gozo and also for a large clock he made for the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt.

His masterpiece is a grandfather clock which till a few years ago could be found in No.11, Pawlu Magri Street, Luqa, the house (which still exists) where Michelangelo Sapiano used to live after he married. The clock can now be found in the Mdina Cathedral Museum. For this clock he was awarded a silver medal in an Industrial Exhibition which was held in 1864. Apart from showing the time, days and date this clock also shows the phases of the moon and the time at which the sun rises and goes down. This clock also has a mechanism which marks when a year is a leap year.

Sapiano made other interesting inventions. He invented an alarm clock, which at the time of ringing, produced a spark and lighted a candle to show the time. Another clock he invented had a moving globe with the world map, and every half an hour it showed the position of the world in relation to the sun. He made other precision instruments, including a balance for the Malta Customs, to take weights from 700 lbs down to a fraction of an ounce. For his wife he made a mechanical egg timer with a bell, and to know the time at night he devised a mantel clock to which a long string was attached which would chime the most recent time when pulled in the darkness.

Sapiano was awarded a certificate and a gold medal by the Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce on the 26 February 1908.

He died on the 2 December 1912.

The Suban Borthers

MXLOKKA number of tower clocks in Malta were made by Lawrence and Joseph Suban, including the ones on Qormi’s St Sebastian church and on the churches at Qala, Safi, St Joseph Institute in Hamrun and Marsaxlokk.

The brothers were the twins of one Andrea Suban who had migrated to Malta from his native South Tyrol, which then formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and settled in Vittoriosa.

Andrea Suban reached Malta in 1843 and was probably nudged to remain here because of the need for technical expertise at the Royal Naval Dockyard.

MXLOKK3Another factor that could have led Suban to stay on was the interest in clocks displayed by several British residents and Maltese nobility.

The Suban twins (Lawrence and Joseph who were born on June 13, 1859) were only 15 when their father died but evidently their frequent visits to the shop, tuition from their father and the fact that they were bright and quick to learn enabled them to carry on the same trade with help from their uncle”.

Joseph Suban finished working on the Marsaxlokk Church clock in 1936, a year before he died.

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