The Malta Independent 18 September 2021, Saturday

Mysteries Of the Maltese ‘gallarija’ (1)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 9 April 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

In May 1657, Vincenso de Bono petitioned the Grand Master for permission to add “un balcone di tre saliature” to his house in the lane over the Biccerija in Valletta. Lascaris, about to pass away, gladly issued the permit, considering that “it would not be of prejudice to private or public interests; in fact, it would be an ornament to the city”1

Almost nothing is known about the origins of the local gallarija, now so pervasive and unchallenged that it has come to identify with Malteseness. But, if hard fact proves elusive, misinformation about its provenance and antiquity is massive.

In these notes I will try to demonstrate that our closed wooden balcony, is not of Hispano-Moresque origin; that it was introduced relatively recently; and that it is not totally unknown in other countries.

Old, and not so old, authors delight in emphasising the ‘oriental’ ancestry of our gallarija. Fredrick Ryan, in 1910 wrote about “the balconies which are held to be the Spanish miradores, themselves but modifications of the Oriental monacharbis, supported upon solid brackets of stone and closed with gratings”.2

More recently, the celebrated Sacheverell Sitwell, in his lame and cursory book on Malta (only saved from triumphant ignominy by Tony Armstrong Jones’s stunning photography) found that the balconies made Valletta look like “a north African town, a mosqueless Sfax or Tunis, an Oriental town without Oriental figures”.3 That is not the only bit about Malta and its history that Sitwell got wrong. And, if you know who his book “is due in the first instance to”, you would not be particularly astonished.

In truth, the first balcony-related structure in traditional Maltese rural buildings probably harks back to North Africa: the muxarabija – little abutments still found in a few rural constructions. These stone or wooden “peeping boxes”, however only amount to glorified spy holes, from which a person inside had a restricted view of the street from small eyelets drilled in the side and through the floor. Possibly of Arab origin, they constitute an insignificant and rare instance of a faded memory that kept some of its hold on Maltese vernacular architecture.

Muxarabiji, however, stand miles away from the Maltese gallarija, a theatrical, self-conscious and assertive opera-house box onto the comedy of life enacted in the public space below. The muxarabija hides; it glorifies stealth. The balcony ostentates, makes a statement that being at home at the same time as being out, is yours as of right. The philosophy behind them could not be more diverse and contrasting.

In Malta, open stone balconies seem to be as old as recorded rural townscape. Very difficult to place in time with any precision, as most of them are undated – one, in Qrendi, shows 1620. Wonderful examples can be found all over Malta and Gozo. I believe it safe to assign the simpler unfussy ones to the pre- or early Order times, those with mannerist decoration to the middle period and those whose design and carvings cry baroque, to the eighteenth century.

Open balconies come in various forms and styles. Some rest on stone brackets, elegantly decorated with geometrical patterns or with devices from nature; some on solid stone cushions which grow progressively from the perpendicular wall, generally over the mouldings of a door or window.

Again the upright part of an open balcony corresponds to various archetypes. In some, the dressed stone rises solidly from the floor up to the user’s waist. In others, the masonry fence round the balcony consists of daintily perforated slabs. In others still, a bold balustrade encloses the balcony, or, again, the solid slabs make up half of its height, and small balustrades run over them. By some unexplained circumstances, these open stone balconies appear more frequently and handsomely in Gozo than elsewhere.

The term used for the balcony and its components parts give away its non-Semitic provenance too. As often with Italianised Maltese, they constitute linguistic curios. The balcony itself is called gallarija, an obviously Italian word, but put to a non-Italian usage. Italian has balcone, and reserves galleria to a long, covered, but windowed corridor or passage. (I will later attempt to explain why the Maltese came to refer to a balcony as gallarija, not balcone).

Again, the corbels or stone brackets supporting the structure are called by a word of Italian origin saljaturi (sogliature), a use unknown in Italy – there called mensole or beccatelli. So, also the hinged glass flaps are purtelli (Italian sportelli) and the supple blinds used in balconies tendini (Italian tendine). Why, I wonder, have we adopted Italian words, in some cases giving them a considerably different significance?

The open balcony enclosed in stonework, seems, from early times, to have had a popular alternative – that surrounded by a light wooden fence or a wrought iron railing. These, still common today, in most cases would be coeval with the early ones enclosed in stone.

And this brings me to the major mystery. When did the closed wooden balcony first make its appearance in Malta? What models inspired it? Why?

I feel dismayed at disappointing those lovers of legend who prefer the closed balcony to belong to our history from the earlier mists of time. However not a single instance of a closed balcony appears before the late seventeenth century. Only in the last quarter of that century does it make a debut, and then progresses robustly. I find this assertion quite easy to prove, and am mildly surprised that so few have given due weight to it.4

All one has to do is to examine with some attention the dozens of antique paintings of urban townscapes showing Valletta and the harbour cities. In the early ones, up to the years leading to the eighteenth century, not a single covered balcony can be seen. All those depicted are open, with no enclosing wooden superstructure at all. The earliest closed balcony represented on canvas I know of is that round the Old Theatre Street corner of the Palace in Valletta, c. 1675. This could well be the very first boxed balcony in the Maltese islands.

Once the Grand Master (or whoever else) launched the fashion and set the pace, the momentum for closed balconies grew. Over a few years, owners of urban houses enclosed and boxed-in many of their old open balconies. Plenty of evidence survives of this transformation.

The ‘aesthetic’ testimony of these modifications stares one in the face. The large, ungainly wooden boxes fit disagreeably and awkwardly over facades that were not designed to receive them. One can distinguish with a certain ease which open balconies on an elevation were later boxed as an afterthought, from those which were devised and designed as closed balconies from the start as an integral part of an architectural ensemble. Normally, those in the earlier mannerist or pre-baroque palaces and houses show themselves to be evident later additions, slammed over an architecture ill-prepared to accept them. In the later baroque features, on the other hand, covered balconies adhere gracefully to a stonework designed to accommodate them, and emerge effortlessly from it.

Notes

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

1. AOM 1185,f.104.

2. Fredrick W. Ryan, Malta, London, 1910, p.143

3. Sacheverell Sitwell, Malta, London, 1958, p.4

4. Leonard Mahoney was probably the first to remark that the balcony “is a relatively modern feature, and it totally unconnected with the occupation of Malta by the Arabs. These balconies started to appear in the eighteenth century, but their heyday actually dates from the period of the British occupation”. A History of Maltese Architecture, Malta, 1988, p.101.

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.

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