L-Arloġġ Tradizzjonali ta’ Malta (tal-lira)
The Traditional Maltese Clock
“The origin of the Maltese clock is unclear. What is remarkable is that Malta – a small island country – was able to sustain an indigenous clockmaking trade. They were produced over a period of around one hundred and fifty years solely for the local market at a time when only the aristocracy and the Church could afford them.”
Although it is difficult to precisely trace the Maltese clock’s origin, it is known to date back to the late 17th century. Its purpose was to serve both as a utalitarian object as well as a decorative one. It was found in houses of the upper classes and of rich clerics. It was also hung in prominent positions on walls of halls and corridors of public palaces and auberges, as well as in church sacrities.
Through time, the Maltese clock underwent various changes, both from the outer part (its wooden case) and from the inner (its mechanism).
Three main artisants are involved in building the final product. The carpenter constructs the wooden case whilst the clock-maker develops the clock’s mechanism. The gilder-painter is then responsible for the whole production and the final touches of the clock.
Why in Maltese, “tal-lira”?
We are short of conclusive documentary evidence for this name. Many publications state that the Maltese clocks owe their Maltese name tal-lira to the fact that they used to cost one pound sterling.
However, Giovanni Bonellolfinds this explanation unsatisfactory, for more than one reason. He says that artisans’ labour was never cheap and “it does not make much sense that three or four craftmen 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 It was only in 1886, when the other currencies (the scudo and the latin dollar) were forcibly withdrawn from circulation.”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.
lBonello, G. (1992). Foot-Notes for a History of Time-Keeping in Malta. In Manduca, J. (Ed.), Antique Maltese Clocks (11-33). Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti & Progress Press Co. Ltd.
The Maltese clock consists of a wooden case and comes in various sizes. It has two doors. The inner door consists of the clock-face, the dial and a small aperture showing the oscillating pendulum. The outer door consists of a glass pane which encloses the clock-face to protect the inner mechanism from unnecessary handling and dust.
All this is firmly attached to the back of the clock-face on the inner door. The clock has two hands – the hour hand which is short and broad and the minute hand which is longer and more narrow. These hands pass through a hole in the middle of the dial.
This type of clock is not produced on a mass level. It is ordered and decorated to meet the customer’s desires. The Maltese clock has a lot of decorations. The four corners of the clock-face are usually decorated with gild or hand-painted flower patterns.
In the middle of the dial there is usually a hand-painting of a Maltese landscape (like Mdina) or a seascape (like Marsamxett, Marsaxlokk and the Grand Harbour of Malta) which serves as a background to the hour and minute hands. The roman numerals around the dial are hand-painted too. The centre of the cresting oftenly bears the customer’s family coat of arms, the Order’s eight-pointed cross, a grandmaster’s coat of arms or flowers.
The Maltese clock comes in different colours, the most popular being dark green. It can also come in dark or light blue, maroon or black. Such colours are selected so as to create a contrasting effect between the gilding and the colour as well as for artistic purposes. In most cases, the Maltese clock is gilded with 23.5 carat gold leaf. The final product is then burnished for a shinier look. All this is done on a bed of various layers of white gesso and rabbit-skin glue and a coating of bole.
It can have two types of movements: a traditional mechanical movement which is adapted to be wound from the inside or a quartz battery movement. The latter is more commonly used nowadays, since it is more practical.
Everything starts with the client ordering the external wooden carcass of the clock. There are four main sizes which vary from 300mm up to 1000mm. The following is the process for the production of a Maltese clock.
- The wooden carcass is produced by a joiner.
- The gilder takes over and gives it a coat of rabbit skin glue to seal the porous surface.
- Thin gauze is used to cover over all joints and knots in the timber.
- This is then given over 10 coats of gesso di Bologna which is mixed with rabbit skin glue as per the individual gilder’s preference and preferred methods.
- The gypsum surface is finely sanded after each coat and any dust is cleaned off properly.
- The clock’s floral designs are engraved into the gypsum surface using engraving tools.
- All surfaces are then coated with bole, a special type of clay mixture.
- The clock is then water gilded using 23.5 carat gold leaf.
- After the surface is dry, the gilt surface is burnished using agate burnishers in order to produce a shiny finish. Unburnished areas retain a matte finish.
- The remaining areas are painted in traditional dark red, green, blue or even black colours.
- The clock mechanism, produced by a clock-maker is then installed.
- The quadrant, adorned with floral designs and scenic views is then positioned such that it serves as a backdrop to the clock’s minute and hour hands.
- A pane of glass is fixed on the outermost frame.
The Maltese clock can be also worked upon using the sgraffito method, where the gilded surface is scratched with the required designs in order to produce an outline drawing on the fresh tempra paint (in step number 10).
Nowadays, the original Maltese clocks are collectors’ items and very hard to find for acquisition since they fetch hefty prices. However, replicas are still being crafted. These try to capture some of the classic characteristics of the original Maltese clocks.
These replicas are very popular and sometimes are given as a gift on special occasions like anniversaries and weddings.
Other typical Maltese clocks include wall clocks found on the façades of churches, chapels and in convents, sundials, and other clocks found in houses on chests of drawers.