Malta Diary; For whom the bells toll – Malta’s lengthy campanology history
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George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron and more popularly known as Lord Byron (born 1788 and died 1824 with fever, aged 36) loved the Mediterranean, its romance and its climate. However, he detested Malta – and perhaps for his good personal reasons. He lived in Italy for seven years and is regarded still as a hero in Greece when he joined Greek forces and fought with them in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
One of England’s greatest poets, a long-distance swimmer of great fame and with a notorious reputation as a womaniser, he paid two visits to Malta in the first years of the 19th Century.
During the first, a stop-over on the way to Greece, he fretted and fumed on his ship’s deck in harbour after being refused permission to land as the vessel was quarantined as the result of an outbreak of Yellow Fever on board.
On his second, a return from Greece, he landed in Valletta and hated every moment and furiously described Malta’s capital city as a place of “Hells, bells and smells”.
Despite his splendid and rugged physique and his athletic feats he was disabled in one leg and walked with a heavy limp.
Valletta is built on a slope, rising at the entrance and descending towards the Grand Harbour. Byron struggled with the ups and downs, including the stairs to be found in many streets as pavements – and hence his “hells”.
“Smells” – yes in the oppressive heat, with sanitary facilities still a feature of the distant future, there were smells everywhere; the fish and meat markets; rotting vegetables, general household rubbish and human habitation drainage flows.
Malta has over 300 churches and chapels. Each town and village has its splendid Parish Church. Larger cities like Valletta have three parishes and a wealth of minor churches and chapels. All of them had and have their bells.
These played an important role in daily life. The poor had no pocket clocks on gold or silver chains to mark the time of day. Their day was apportioned by the angle of the sun and the tolling of church bells. These chimed the Matins at the crack of dawn, the Angelus at Noon and Benediction in the evening – every evening, 24/7.
In addition, church clocks chimed the quarters and the hours. They peeled loudly when fresh news occurred – such as parish births or marriages (they were the news media of the time), tolled heavily to announce parish deaths and during funerals. They peeled joyously and loudly on Sundays and on feast days, at baptisms, First Holy Communion and Confirmation days, on the arrival of a dignitary such as a Bishop or a new Parish Priest and – in short – never stopped. On every Friday at precisely 15.00 they tolled sombrely to mark Christ’s Crucifixion and death.
These obviously riled Lord Byron no end – and with good reason!
However, he seems to have been indifferent to the city’s baroque structures, it’s parallel grid streets and many splendid palaces.
Nowadays, much of this campanology has declined and almost all bells have been mechanised and have timers and melodious tones. Still, there are objections because it has become a human mission to find fault in everything and accusations of church bells disturbing night sleep and siesta snoozes, disturbing pet dogs, cats, budgies and anything else that can conceivably be disturbed.
This trend of thought came to mind during the week because a splendid new bell manufactured in a French foundry has been installed in the belfry at the Mdina Cathedral, replacing a bell that had been there working faithfully for 519 years – and was therefore a part of history! Even so, it was not the oldest bell at Mdina as this is a bell that was installed in the year 1370.
Think of it – these lived through the arrival and departure of the Knights, lived through the Great Siege of 1565, the building of Valletta to substitute Mdina as Malta’s capital city, lived through the coming and going in Malta of Napoleon Bonaparte, the arrival of the British in Malta, the French and Russian revolutions, US independence, two World Wars, space travel, the conception of mobile ‘phones and the internet and, so many, many other things.
These have now been retired to the cathedral’s museum for a well-earned rest.
The Birkirkara Parish Church of St Helen prides itself as having the largest bell in Malta because there was an epoch of pique and rivalry as to who owned the largest bell – as well as the largest dome, the tallest spire, the widest parvis and other such pettiness.
Remarkable too that most churches displayed not one but two clocks on their facade bearing Roman numerals. One was an accurate time-keeper and the other distorted time – designed to confuse the Devil as to the actual time!
In all, it is estimated that in Malta there are 44 bells dating back to the 17th Century, 169 from the 18th, 307 from the 19th Century and 288 from the 20th Century. The considerable increase during the 19th Century was the result of Maltese bell foundries that went into gradual decline.
And, as if these are not enough there was the recent construction of a Bell Tower in Valletta overlooking the Grand Harbour to commemorate victory in World War II.
If only these bells could talk – what a rich history they have lived through to relate!
“The bell does not ring without reason”
If a bell rings (even metaphorically) it rings for a good reason; that is to inform or alert about something i.e. alarm bells.