The Malta Independent 17 November 2018, Saturday

Mysteries Of the Maltese ‘gallarija’ (2)

Malta Independent Friday, 11 April 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

GIOVANNI BONELLO writes about the Maltese balcony and proposes much new material

Valletta and the harbour towns preserve indelible physical evidence of this boxing in of previously open balconies. These, formerly with lightweight wood or metal railings, were not designed to carry the additional heavy load of the wood and glass superstructure. Problems of stability and safety must soon have manifested themselves in the original fragile stone brackets when these were forced to cope with the unbargained-for weight of the new wood and glass erections.

The solution adopted by the structural engineers of the time to overcome their overweight problems is still very much in evidence today – the masons reduced considerably the existing stone area of the floor of the balcony, by truncating the ends of the old corbels and diminishing the depth of the balcony and thus the leverage exerted. The smaller depth allowed for the new overload without breakage of the projecting stone.

Scores of these “new” wooden balconies, over older truncated corbels, can still be seen in Valletta and elsewhere. One example relates this situation in clear and unequivocal language.

The house in Valletta on the corner between Christopher and Fredrick Street (the back part of the old Palazzo Spinola) at first had two open balconies, each with antique corbels of equal size and pattern. However, when one of the original open balconies came to be covered, the corbels beneath it were hacked off to make them shorter. Till today, the open balcony with the light railing rests on full-sized brackets, while the corresponding, wooden closed one, on stone brackets that have been, very visibly, chopped short. The same truncated corbels can be viewed today under many balconies, originally open, but which, in time, acquired the heavy wooden boxing.

It is difficult to pinpoint a reason why, where no closed balconies once existed, they suddenly started sprouting all over the place. I believe that one reason could be related to a more advanced technology that enabled glass to be manufactured in larger panes. Originally glass came in rather small pieces, suitable for windows, but not for balconies. Add to that the irresistible force of mimicry: if the Grand Master attached a closed balcony to his residence, others were sure to follow.

I have mentioned the Palace balcony over Old Theatre Street as the likely precursor of all closed wooden balconies in Malta. The corbels on the front (Republic Street side) were erected by Grand Master de Redin (1657-60). It seems unlikely that the balcony had been covered by then. A sketch of the palace façade, almost certainly made by William Schellinks in 1664, shows an open balcony with just a protective ledge jutting over it, but no wooden or glass uprights.

The masonry corbelling was later extended to much of the length of the Old Theatre Street elevation by one of the two Cottoner Grand Masters (1660-80) evidenced by the family coat of arms on the supporting brackets and it is probably at this time that the long open balcony was boxed in. Sieur de Bachelier, in his 1679 book, is the first to mention, in his description of the palace, that “a glass-covered balcony joins all the rooms of this side of the building (Old Theatre Street)”.

Bachelier adds a curious observation: “Today’s Grand Master (Nicholas Cottoner) willingly strolls there (through the balcony) without being seen, and discovers from his walk all that is happening in the two piazzas in front and at the side of his palace. If he sees two knights ambling together, he immediately perceives their thoughts and the subject of their conversation, as he knows the minds of all those he governs, and the secret practices of their intrigues.”5

Bachelier unwittingly suggests the reason why in Malta a balcony came to be called a gallarija, rather than a balcone. The Grand Master’s balcony was a galleria – a long windowed corridor which linked all the rooms on Old Theatre Street. If the mother of all balconies was – correctly – referred to as a galleria, the others which followed the Grand Master’s would equally be called gallarija, though technically the later ones were not.

How indigenous can we claim the closed balcony to be? Isolated specimens, closely, or less closely, resembling it, can be found in Europe and South America – the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, Palazzo Roverella in Ferrara, S. Agostino in Siena, Palazzo Salviati in the Corso, Rome, the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima and the Abbot’s house in Gyor, Hungary, to mention some. But the fact remains that only in Malta did the closed balcony become the overwhelmingly important feature known to us today.

With the outbreak of Baroque, particularly in Valletta and, to a lesser extent, in Mdina, the Maltese balcony reaches the zenith of its splendour. Now no longer an excrescence stuck to an unwelcoming frontage, architects deliberately plan their elevations around, and subservient to, splendid gallariji, their contours not constrained by the tyranny of the rectangular; sinuous, curved, bombee shapes become fashionable, with elaborate, luxuriant, eccentric stone corbelling to support them.

Not much of the exquisite antique woodwork survives. When the time came for the timber to be replaced, more often than not the “economic” alternative prevailed, and today a plain, right-angled wooden cage replaces the multi-surfaced, curved original, the betrayal given away by the stone floor underneath which still retains its original incurved and winding footprint.

The Maltese gallarija boasted of its own furnishing too: very high-legged chairs or stools (like today’s bar stools) which gave the sitters a vantage view over the street, enabled them to pray and pry at the same time, embroider or knit with a view and play solitaire with one eye on the cards and two ears on the current gossip. Then they all had cane or rush tendini, which could be rolled up to let the sun in, and hung down to thwart the neighbour’s snooping.

The closed Maltese gallarija never died out, and shows little signs of doing so today. The wooden segments at the front and sides underwent some evolution – the earlier were in plain flat planks framed in their supports; then some severe moulding appeared, and finally the rectangular flat diamond pyramid pattern took over. Art nouveau gave a fresh dimension to the Maltese balcony, and a few examples of art deco of the 1920-30s showed that the basic structure could adopt a contemporary idiom.

After the war we suffered the abomination of shining gold or silver aluminium balconies, on projecting concrete slabs not supported by corbels. As long as my father remained on the government Aesthetics Board, he vetoed relentlessly the construction of any Maltese gallariji not resting on corbels.

Parallel to the glittering aluminium disgraces, the post-independence period saw a flowering of Maltese-style gallariji completely encased in engraved stone – Baroque taken as far as it would go, and a little further too. Gozo stands out for this riotous lavur, though the new residential estates round our towns and villages also took up the challenge and decided not to lag behind with their vigorous, if sometimes tacky, contributions.

Notes

Thanks to Franco Masini for photos of some Gozo balconies, and to Francesca Balzan for illustrations of early Maltese townscapes.

5. Sieur de Bachelier, Nouvelle Relation, Paris, 1679. p. 98.

Dr Giovanni Bonello is a judge at the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. He is an author and a specialist in Constitutional law

This article first appeared in the Easter 2003 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 first part of the reproduction was published in The Malta Independent last Wednesday.

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