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Marking time with gun fire in Valletta

Twice a day, Valletta shakes to the sound of gun fire. Forming part of the defences of Valletta since the 16th century, the Saluting Battery commands a lofty position overlooking the Grand Harbour, Fort St. Angelo and the surrounding harbour towns. It sits beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens and is accessed through a maze of cobbled pathways and lush, blooming greenery, gone wild in summer, accentuated with the scent of honeysuckle. The battery is silent on Sunday - the Lord’s day.

Watching the gun firing at noon and four o’clock, ranks amongst the most recommended visitor experiences in Valletta, alongside visiting the gilded St. John’s Cathedral, the National Museum of Archaeology and the Manoel Theatre. Well placed benches, and tucked-away gabbanas make it easy to spend the day there, feeding the cats that patrol the edges of the garden, gorging on flaky pastizzi, and sharing crumbs with the pigeons that perch on the statues. Visitors crane over the fence when the gunner in charge of the Saluting Battery, makes his way out, accompanied by his company of soldiers.

Two guns are loaded slowly; this part of the drill requires great care. The cannon are SBBL 32-pounder guns from the late 19th century. They are smooth-bore breech-loading guns, and the gunner swings open the breech to load the cannon with a cartridge. He makes sure that the cartridge is in place, and shuts the breech-end of the barrel again, moving on to the next one.

When both cannon are loaded, the gunner orders the soldiers to take their posts. Shoulders back and looking straight-ahead, the soldiers stand by as the first gun fire of the day marks noon.

History

In 1566, the Order of St. John commissioned a new fortified city to be built on the Sciberras Peninsula. The new capital was to be designed by Francesco Laparelli, Pope Pius V’s own military engineer and Michelangelo’s assistant. Laparelli was sent to Malta by the Pope to assist the order of St. John in rebuilding the island after the Great Siege. The new city was to be named Valletta, and was designed on a grid system of streets typical of the age when it was built. Fort St. Elmo, the guardian of the city and the port, was also designed by Laparelli. It was only natural, then, that a Saluting Battery should follow, although its original purpose in the 16th century was for defence, rather than a ceremonial one.

The Saluting Battery was built on the remnants of the Ottoman battery, that had mercilessly pounded the ancient fortress of Fort St. Angelo. Laparelli built it in tiers so that a single shot from a heavy calibre gun could go the length and depth of the Grand Harbour, thus controlling all the surrounding areas. When the city ramparts were divided and assigned to each of the Order’s langues, the St. Peter and St. Paul Bastion was given to the Italian langue. Known as the Italian Post, it served as a popular social meeting place for the Italian Knights.

Fast-forward to 1824 and the bastion was opened to the public as a garden and has remained so till this very day. It also serves as the resting place of one of the earliest governors of Malta, Sir Thomas Maitland.

When the British took over the island, the battery took on a more ceremonial role: firing gun salutes to greet visiting dignitaries and ships, marking national holidays, and celebrating religious occasions and military victories. In 1824, a new role was adopted by the battery: the time ball service.

This originated within the Royal Navy and acted as a way for shipmasters to calibrate their ship-clocks. When the cannon fired at midday, it allowed them to set their maritime chronographs by which they could determine the longitude at sea by comparing the difference between the time of the harbour they visited prior, and the time on board the ship at that moment. This continued until 1923 when the time ball service was superseded by the telegraphic signal sent out from the Greenwich Observatory.

The Saluting Battery today

The replica cannon were added in 2011, where they have signalled noon and four o’clock in the afternoon ever since. The NGO Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna has lovingly restored and cares for several important historical sites in Malta, including the Saluting Battery. Its CEO, Mario Farrugia, explains that there are over 700 re-enactments annually, and that the guns are extensively cared for to enhance their longevity.

“When Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna was founded in 1986, it was founded specifically in order to revalue the vast military heritage which was left behind when the British base was closed down in 1979.”

“We were concerned that this heritage would vanish unless someone intervened. We therefore stepped in, restored these sites and opened them to the public as cultural attractions. All of these are now firmly established within the itinerary for all those visiting Malta.”

“Like any other Maltese, I am proud of our city because it’s not just any other city, it’s a beauty of a city. Although small, it is enriched with beautiful architecture, history and character and the Saluting Battery is part of that richness, as it was intended to be the ceremonial platform of the city and the seat of many historic occasions. Grandmasters, admirals, emperors, kings, governors and generals - have all visited this place to take part in important occasions set against the backdrop of the Grand Harbour.”

“As a heritage activist, I’m also concerned with the welfare of our city besides its beauty. I’m glad that, as part of Fondazzoni Wirt Artna, we’ve been instrumental in the huge success that is the Saluting Battery and several other historical sites.”

The Saluting Battery is more than just a historical venue; it is also a place where, over time, history and culture have become synonymous with each other. That is why it is one of the most visited attractions in Valletta, and continues to attract droves of tourists to the Upper Barrakka Gardens to witness the firing of the guns.

Watch the gun firing during the interview with ‘Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna,’ Mario Farrugia here.

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