The Malta Independent 20 January 2020, Monday

The Old clock ticks on (1)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 12 December 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

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 offer1.

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 table2. 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 Seminary3. Paul I. Micallef (1931-1995) published a survey of local sundials and pioneered the concept of Maltese prehistoric temple alignment4.

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.


(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

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. The second part of this article will be published on 9 January.

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