Grand Master's Palace - Grand Master Pinto’s Turret Clock

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Grand Master's Palace - Grand Master Pinto’s Turret Clock

It was 1894 and Governor Sir Arthur James Fremantle just could not sleep. The Moors on the clock were keeping him awake announcing every hour loudly and regularly all through the night. In despair he resorted to Mikelanġ Sapiano, whom he asked to find a solution to his problem. The ingenious Mikelanġ modified the old clock’s mechanism so that it went quiet during the Governor’s sleeping hours, only to start striking the hours audibly again at 6 am – when the Governor awoke.

The clock at the centre of this little anecdote, and which was responsible for so many sleepless nights on the British governor’s part, is Pinto’s Turret Clock which is found in the smaller of two courtyards – the Prince Alfred Courtyard - situated in the Grandmaster’s Palace, in Valletta.

The façade of Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta
The façade of Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta

The clock was commissioned by Grandmaster Manoel Pinto de Fonseca, who used the Palace as his winter residence. Grandmaster Pinto had taken to improving on the Palace’s stucture by commissioning new works and architectural features – something which he did from his own funds. This was one of Pinto’s ambitious and magnificent projects. In a dairy entry, Fra Gaetano Reboul puts the day on which the clock started keeping time, as the 22nd June 1745. Reboul also says that “this clock, to be heard throughout the city, was placed on the turret and was today set in action and started striking for the first time.”

The clock, situated in its own tower or turret, has a three train movement and four dials in all: three magificent dials which show the hour, the day of the month and the month of the year and another dial also showing the phases of the moon. The clock is crowned by four bronze Moorish slaves (jacquemarts), wearing tradtional Moorish garb and headgear, which strike the hours and the quarters with hammers. It is installed with hemispherical, rather than the usual “waisted” tea-cup shaped bells. This is thought to have been done so that the bells would not compete with the Co-Cathedral’s bells - situated not too far away – when struck by the hammers.

The tower itself has a limestone facade which is adorned by pillars and other architectual features which support the finial displaying the four dials. On the large, iron bird-cage frame of the movement are dormant crescents, one at each corner, taken from Grandmaster Pinto’s coat of arms. This is further proof, if any is needed, that the movement - probably the work of reknowned Maltese clockmaker Gaetano Vella - was definitely constructed and installed during Pinto’s reign.

The façade of Grandmaster Pinto's Turret Clock
The façade of Grandmaster Pinto's Turret Clock

As the use of jacquemarts was rather old-fashioned, even in the eighteenth century, and more in keeping with the more elaborate medieval turret clocks, one theory is that the Moorish jacquemarts crowning this clock may actually have been part of a much older, medieval clock which were then reused to decorate the Grandmaster’s clock. The fact that the jacquemarts were Moors would have appealed at it was very popular, at the time, to include Muslim slaves in any work of art as a way of emphasizing the triumph of the Order over the Ottoman Empire.

Interestingly the Pinto clock comes complete with a little room for the clock-winder, who would have had to wind the clock on a daily basis. An electrical auto-winding mechanism now does away with the need for the clock to be wound every day. This was installed during a large-scale restoration of the whole clock-tower and clock which took place a few years ago.

Down the years, Pinto’s clock has been much appreciated as something rather special, which needed to be seen to and properly maintained. During Napoleon’s occupation an official was given the special responsibility of working and maintaining the turret clock, and in 1811 Sir Hildebrand Oakes specifically employed Isaaco Dalton to take care of the clock which had been recently restored.

Author: Christine Tanti

Many thanks to: Keith Muscat

Sources: Footnotes for a History of Time-keeping in Malta – Giovanni Bonello (Antique Maltese Clocks, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti edited by John Manduca).