The old clock ticks on


Our forefathers never felt the need, or bothered to relate the time of day to measurement; all their activities fell within nature’s clock of sunrise, sunset, and shortening days and nights through the seasonal cycles, year after year. Dates were not usually mentioned by merely numbers of days with the application of the liturgical calendar. With the consolidation of the local church in the later 15th century, points of reference for meetings, contracts, council elections and other appointments were usually made for the feasts of Santa Marija, Mnarja, Carnival, St John, Pentecost, Corpus, St Michael, Rosary, Assumption, St Girgor, St Joseph, Christmas, Easter, St Anne, St Martin, St Catherine, etc.

With the introduction of bell ringing and the evolution of the various devotions, the time of day likewise did not need a numerical value; you could meet or visit someone, settle a promised transaction, start or finish work at times like Pater noster, l-Ewwel Ave Marija, It-Tieni Ave Marija, or Ta’ l-Erwieh or Ta’ l-Imwiet, and, when established, also the Angelus. For the latter, midday bell ringing was apparently introduced in 1575.

There were occasions, however, where some sort of definite time limits became necessary, and this was solved by resorting to simple means of measuring the start and end of a unit of time.

One form of measurement was that of the burning candle, or candila accisa, which was also in use in other countries. A notice or bando of October 1469 refers to offers made for a tender by the Council of Mdina. At the start of bidding the candle was lit, and as soon as the flame went out bidding had to cease and the tender awarded to the most advantageous offer (1).

In 1688, Grand Master Gregorio Carafa established that the time limit for speeches by each lawyer in the council should not exceed half an hour for the presentation of the case, and a quarter for the reply. The vice chancellor therefore placed a sandglass, or ampulletta, on the Council table (2). At times the sandglass or hourglass was also used to mark the duration of lessons and siesta at the seminary; the former six ampulli long, and the latter, one. One ampulletta was probably equivalent to half an hour. An ampulletta dated 1806 exists at Gharghur parish, on which are three painted nails, symbols of the passion, which, turned over several times, was presumably used to time the traditional three-hour Good Friday sermon. For the end of year or carnival quorant’ore or kworanturi, a sandglass, was also available in some churches to control the half-hour sessions during the devotional forty-hour adoration. The sandglass is commonly depicted, often with winds attached, as a symbol of time that flies, at cemeteries, but especially on decorated gravestones as at St. John’s Co-Cathedral and other churches; we used also to see it incorporated in the decorations accompanying the cappella ardente and the tubru set up in churches for funerary ceremonies.

Sundials and meridians

Since prehistoric times, the travelling shadow cast by a fixed rod, used to be the easiest to understand as a non-mechanical indicator of the sun’s passage and time. This evolved into several styles of vertical and horizontal sundials and meridians. Between 50 and 60 examples can be listed for our islands. The most prominent name linked with local sundials is that of George Fenech (1902-1989) who was chief engineer at the dockyard and in the civil service and on his retirement in 1962 opted for religious life, being ordained priest in 1966. He was also an astronomer, and started making sundials after having been previously stimulated by reading about Pope Pius X who had the same interest. Over the span of twelve years he made and restored many dials. His personal initiative was that of the Casino Maltese at Valletta; his last, that of the Rabat Seminary (3). Paul I. Micallef (1931-1995) published a survey of local sundials and pioneered the concept of Maltese prehistoric temple alignment (4).

Vertical Sundials carved or painted, can be met on the walls of various buildings, especially churches, palaces and important buildings with a scattering on private homes, but only a handful of Horizontal Sundials, dials resting on a flat surface are found. Meridians are a variation in sundials, and are meant to register mid-day throughout the year. The 17th century historian G.F. Abela appears to have introduced the first meridian in Malta in his villa San Giacomo at Marsa. Only a handful exist. That on the Casino Maltese in Valletta is also shown in a lithograph of 1842. There was formerly a 15m long meridian in the Grand Master’s palace, on the marble floor of the Council Hall, receiving a ray of sunlight from a hole in the roof. Unfortunately the whole thing disappeared when the hall was converted into a ballroom.

Only a few could afford watches or clocks before the mid-19th century, but increasing demands to synchronise communal and administrative activities stressed the need for timepieces which eventually appeared in the form of public clocks and church clocks.

Town clocks

Mdina Cathedral had the only mechanical community timepiece. During the 19th century, government often encouraged community clocks by paying for or contributing to the installation of church clocks, as in the case of Ghajnsielem, Nadur, Fontana, Mellieha, Stella Maris Sliema, and the Sacro Cuor also in Sliema. The former Vittoriosa Clock Tower was the best known and most written about as a public clock. It was already there in the first half of the 16th century as a lookout tower, but the clock was added in 1629. It was destroyed by a bomb in 1942 and its remains disappeared, taken down by Clearance & Demolition Department in 1944.

Its machinery was taken to the Inquisitors Palace and later to the Maritime Museum for repairs; its bell dated 1504 was taken somewhere else on condition that it should be returned to Birgu (5). The bell was hung on a beam in the clock-tower square in 1943 and was rung on the 23rd May to celebrate, with the rest of Malta, the recent Allied victory in North Africa (6). The Gozo Citadel Clock Tower was first built in 1639 and the present one in 1858 replacing a lookout post. The Palace Courtyard Clock, inaugurated in 1745, has four dials which tell the time, date and moon phases. The bells are struck by four bronze slave figures. In 1894 it was modified by M. Sapiano to remain silent between 6pm and 6am not to disturb the governor’s slumber. It is often referred to as Ta’ Pintu, Tat-Torok, or Tal-Palazz.

The oldest known clock maker is the oft-mentioned, but unnamed Maltese clock maker of 1142, who made a contraption for Roger II wherein the figure of a girl released metal balls on a bronze plate to sound the time. His clock was praised by Abu al Qasim and Utman iben Rahman, Maltese-Arab poets of the time, as mentioned by El Qaswani the Arab cosmographer. Among the clockmakers of the past appear the names of Calcidonio Pisani, Gaetano Vella, Petruzzo Tanti, Salvatore Micallef, Giacinto Clerici, Giacomo Attard, Pasquale Sapiano, Giglio and Salvatore Miceli. Especially for church and large clocks, Gananton Tanti and Michelangelo Sapiano still remain outstanding. The 1861 census registers 52 watchmakers, and that of 1851 gives 30, which became 65 in 1901. In 1931 they were listed as “clock-watch makers/repairers”.

The best known, and the one to remain linked with the history of horology in our islands will always be Michelangelo Sapiano (1826-1912). Besides church and public clocks, he made and repaired others for private homes. 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. He made a pocket watch for which he was rewarded by the Society of Arts Manufacture and Commerce which in 1908 also presented him with its prestigious gold medal.

The clock at St. John’s Co-cathedral was made by the Maltese, Giacinto Clerici; in 1768 Gaetano Vella was entrusted to make a new clock for which plans and agreements were made, but this never materialised. Petruzzo Tanti made that of Balzan, whilst Gananton Tanti was responsible for those in Gharghur, Mqabba, Msida and Senglea. Church clocks and their makers have a long, chequered history and volumes could be written about them.

Guns and time-balls

In days gone by, the Saluting Battery below the Upper Barracca would give the signal for Midday gun, taking the place of H.M.S. Egmont (formerly Hibernia), which had stopped giving time signals for 8 o’clock, noon and sunset. The Saluting Battery ceased doing so in 1923 (7). It-Tir, as the Midday shot was commonly known, would prompt housewives to prepare the day’s pasta dish. In Gozo a gun used to be fired at noon taking its instructions from a chronometer at the Jesuit observatory at the Seminary in Victoria (8). A time-ball used to be released at the Castille Signal Station, which being visible from both the Grand and Marsamxett harbours, proved convenient for adjusting clocks and watches. A similar time-ball was released at the Customs House in the Grand Harbour(9).

The Maltese Wall Clock

Although many may refer to the Maltese wall clock as Tal-Lira, the name is not convincing. In our case the word lira refers to Italian money and to the pound sterling since the 19th century, and was therefore a relatively recent introduction to our vocabulary, and though not as old as the clock itself, even then, it would not have paid for any clock in the Maltese style. In any case our currency was then still based on scudi, karlini, and other denominations inherited from the Knights, when the clock already existed. I doubt that ordinary people had any particular name for this clock since it was never within their reach. However, the accelerated development of the middle class, in the last century brought these clocks closer to them at a time when chiming ones were more frequent than mere timepieces, and lira could have referred to the clock’s musical notes. Allogg Malti is a more genuine and safer name to use.

The Italian altar clock died out in the early 18th century, but the general design persisted in Malta.   A pioneer is believed to have been Kalcedonju Pisani in the village of Siggiewi, and he was followed by others in Zebbug (10).

The term “altar” applied in Germany appears to refer to a general tabernacle shape when placed on a table.

We call this a Maltese clock not only because it is the handiwork of Maltese artisans, but also because it has a combination of characters which give it local flavour. The clockwork, spandrels, finials, bracket and gilding could have already been observed somewhere else in isolation, but as a combination create the Maltese clock. Some are more Maltese than others, presenting face paintings and finial symbols related to local families, landscapes and seascapes. Others have decorations and scenery in a foreign style. The variety, and also the similarities, were seen together in one place only on the unique occasion of the exhibition organised by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti 1992.

The appearance of the Maltese clock is that of a rectangular flat box, which, without the bracket below is some 60 to 70cm high and about 50cm wide. The whole assembly is meant to be decorative, apart from telling the time. Earlier forms were mostly simple time pieces with one hand, but later many were made as chiming clocks and increasingly had two hands. Chiming clocks also have windows or slits on the sides of the box to allow a clearer sound. Each clock required the involvement of a clock-maker, carpenter, painter and gilder.

Although the 1992 exhibition included some ninety Maltese clocks, over seventy of them were of the familiar wall type. Twenty-six were dark green, eighteen black, seventeen red, four blue and two brown. Only two or three were merely polished timber. All the coloured specimens were gilt, but were entirely gilt without colouration. Some had varnished to simulate the gilding. The spandrels were mostly painted with floral motifs and decorations; the dial or face of nearly all the clocks exhibited was painted; and seascapes could be seen in about half of them, with some tower and galleons, while others had landscapes and floral designs; only two had a plain, unpainted face. About a third of these wall clocks pointed to hours and minutes with a single hand, the rest with two. At the top, some had the eight pointed cross on the centre finial, a few others had a family coat of arms, other single specimens showed the arms of Pinto and Wignacourt and two depicted St Paul and a Catherine wheel. One should be careful in accepting the eight-pointed cross as a sure indication that it was made during the Order’s reign, because it was officially used only by the Knights and could not be used haphazardly by all and sundry, the cross started to appear in all sorts of decorations after they left, and still is today.

This wall clock was scattered in many places, auberges, convents and stately homes during the time of the Order of St. John especially during the later 18th century, and the style continued for some time into the nineteenth. It is recorded that in 1700 Padre Gerard Cachia, on returning to Malta after his release from slavery, donated a chiming clock to the Mdina Carmelites, and although we do not know whether its clockwork was imported, we know that he commissioned a local carpenter to make the box. Hompesch is said to have donated one of these clocks to the people of Zabbar with his coat of arms on the top centre finial and some Order’s galleys on the dial.

Metal wheels were individually handmade and formerly had wooden shafts tipped with metal to prevent erosion in the housing, but later models were made entirely of metal. The clock case is made of walnut, chestnut or any other good quality timber able to withstand and sustain the treatment for the gilding process without changing its stability. Most of these clocks have an outer glazed door to protect the decorated dial and front, which in turn forms the second door, to the back of which is attached the movement with a pendulum visible through a small aperture.

Metal weights operate the mechanism under pendulum control. The cord to which the weight is attached passes over a wooden wheel or pulley held within a strong but simple metal bracket at the highest point in an upper corner at the back of the wooden door to allow the longest possible interval between one winding and another. As it is, rewinding the weight up the height of an average clock harnesses enough energy for a run of one or sometimes two days before rewinding. When the clock also has a chiming movement, two upper corner pulleys and corresponding weights are present, one on each side. The earlier clocks were comparatively plain in the sense that they had little decoration in the form of finials and brackets; in fact some of the earliest do not have a bracket at all. The case and frame were nearly always gilt; only a few, recycled, repaired or redecorated clocks in the gilding absent.


(1) E.R. Leopardi The Sunday Times of Malta 16.12.1956; Melita Historica 1958.

(2) P.P. Castagna Lis Storia ta Malta; Leopardi op.cit.

(3) M. Spiteri Lehen is-Sewwa 17-5-1980; 2 & 6-2-1985;

(4) Paul I. Micallef Maltese Sundials 1994, Heritage 1981; G. Lanfranco in Malt. Bigort. 1997

(5) Ir-Review 1-4.67; Lor. Zammit Sun. Times of M. 24-5-1970; L. Zahra Pronsotiku Malti 1990; Lehen Farsons Feb. 1990.

(6) J.F. Porsella-Flores L-Imnara V 3, 1996

(7) J. Bonnici & M. Cassar The Malta Grand Harbour – 1994

(8) P. Mitchell Melit. Hist. 1962

(9)     J. Bonnici & M. Cassar op.cit.

(10)    E.J. Tyler The Country Life International Dictionary of clocks (Edit. Alain Smith, 1979).

Guido Lanfranco is a writer on local history and folklore.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Treasures of Malta, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Treasures of Malta is a magazine about art and culture which is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.


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