The Malta Independent 22 September 2020, Tuesday

FIRST: Il-Gallarija - An incidental icon

First Magazine Saturday, 17 February 2018, 14:27 Last update: about 4 years ago

Ann Dingli considers the socio-historic position of the beloved Maltese balcony – how its exact architectural origins continue to elude historians and how it has retained a constant metaphorical function as a mirror to our way of life.

Some of the most captivating urban moments within cities take place on the fringes of conventional architecture. We build our personal stories around the great buildings we know, the streets and avenues we traverse, the bridges we use to walk on air; but the adjectives to this narrative live within the incidental, the unplanned. Small-scale architecture has consistently provided city dwellers with spaces that immediately extend from their vernacular habits and rituals - purposes that go beyond shelter for life or work. Like the moment Giles Gilbert Scott created a diminutive red fortress to protect people's phone conversations; or when tidy green timber boxes were installed by mercantile bouquinistes along the banks of Paris for selling books; or when a Spartan projecting box called the muxrabija was built in North Africa as a means for women to keep a watchful eye on the streets without being seen themselves.

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Meanwhile, in Malta, a sheltered balcony called the gallarija manifested itself and a persistent love affair with all things angular was unequivocally entrenched within the islands' national taste profile. Artists and writers throughout Malta's history took inspiration from the visual equivalent of a Mediterranean favela - a juxtaposition of cubes held together in a composition that spoke the physical language of the islands. The closed timber balcony became a big part of this national vista. It rose from a mist of colliding historic geneses to become a key player in Malta's urban make-up, with an appeal that would transcend generations and with a raison d'être that would remain eternally mysterious and beguiling.

Like all things attractive in life, the gallarija owes much of its appeal to its own ambiguity - its refusal to be pinned down by stylistic consensus. In one camp, it is believed to have descended from the aforementioned muxrabija - the original Arabic timber peeping-box that exists peppered in its purist form around the islands. Others believe it to have materialised under the Spanish, during the ruling stint of the Aragonese Crown. A third camp (specifically, Dr Giovanni Bonello) asserts that the etymological ancestry of the gallarijas is Italian, and that it only first appeared in its pure form on the islands in the last quarter of the 17th century - around 1675, to be almost precise.

In this genealogical line, the earliest closed balcony appears in Old Theatre Street, adorning the corner of the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta. Finally, there are those who position the closed balcony as a relative to the 16th and 17thcentury seafaring galleys that passed through our islands' ports - their 'quarter galleries', which looked like balconies and were typically placed on the sides of the stern castle (the back of the ship), seeming to be a convincing precursor.

But what is perhaps even more compelling than its aesthetic lineage, is the Maltese balcony's functional storyline - a curious compendium of real and/or imagined uses, each of which touch on the domestic nuance of Maltese life. Again, there is little concrete evidence of a singular intended use. Some believe its Arabic heritage extends to its operational traits as well as its formal - that it was used as an immobile spying vessel, hovering over urban passageways claiming the literal and moral high-ground over unsuspecting gossip-mongers.

Maltese balconies were described as "glazed cages" in 1852 by Théophile Gaultier, as he wrote of his first moments experiencing Valletta when entering the harbour in June of that year. Gaultier was just one of the many writers making their way through Malta en route to the Orient as part of the 'Grand Tour'. They each described Valletta in their written accounts, detailing the city's "projecting balconies with beautiful Maltese women inside". They describe the balconies as a form of feminine space - a refuge for women who, at the time, couldn't live a public life in the same way that men could. Instead, they leant on sheltered window ledges, watching a world with which they could not fully engage.

But as historical accounts would have it, women were not the only protected surveyors of the streets of Valletta. In the case of what has been positioned as the prototype for the Maltese balcony - the one on the corner of the Grand Master's Palace - written accounts describe Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner strolling along its length, hidden. He supposedly kept a watchful eye over the two piazzas in front and at the side of the palace, acquiring first-hand detection of any knightly behaviour gone awry. The balcony is said by others to have eventually had more of a sanitary use - and not just in moral terms. In the 19th century, when the authorities were clamping down on hygiene regulations, the gallarija may have been adapted to become a micro-site for newly installed water closets when no other convenient location could be identified within the home.

No matter the authentic use for the Maltese balcony, their literal intrusion onto the streets of Malta's villages, towns and cities has always been welcome. They became visual staples in the make-up of the islands' cultural identity, pervading the imagination of locals and visitors alike and animating the visage of both our grandest and humblest buildings - essentially becoming an equaliser between rich and poor. From 1996 onwards, Maltese authorities launched schemes aimed at preserving the integrity of the balconies, both visually and structurally. Financial aid and incentive was provided to any home-owner wishing to restore one of these iconic structures, establishing a top-level interest in keeping their legacy far from languishing.

Still, as many of history's greatest love affairs will attest to, people do not always look after what they love, and the gallarijas' ability to withstand negligence is optically as pathetic as any soured relationship's victim. The passage of time brought about dilapidation, unsightly interventions, cheap imitations and a dangerous attitude of indifference towards conserving not just the physical state of the balconies, but their cultural spirit.

Despite everyone's best and most romantic intentions, the gallarija steadily converted into a relic, and filed the specialists involved in its making - the mason, carpenter, glazier, roofer, blacksmith - into the balcony's history chapters. In the noughties, some of the islands' most forward-thinking architects imagined and devised entirely successful ways to re-interpret the balcony for contemporary usefulness (Architecture Project, M&S Bridge, Valletta; Chris Briffa, Gallarija Miftuħa, Valletta). But, sadly, these examples remained isolated and the potential for a functional revolution was never meaningfully taken up.

Still, this peculiar and utterly defining structure has maintained a white-knuckled grip on its cultural relevance. The tens of thousands of images that exist as offerings to its virtual shrine are mere tokens of the deep-seated connection that people have with it. And beyond the words and images we put out into the world in honour of these structures are the introspective engravings of them that we carry in our collective memory and consciousness. The gallarija is Malta. It symbolises the life of a people who penetrate each other's affairs but who hide behind a veneer of inherited morality. It symbolises the nature of a people who hold tradition as their greatest attribute, even if time has proved that it has ceased to have a function. It symbolises the fact that our true nature is best revealed in the most arbitrary of moments, within contexts we build for ourselves without exactly knowing why we need them.

 


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