The public-private world of the Gallarija

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The public-private world of the Gallarija

The Maltese gallarija, a rather versatile contraption.  A balcony which is encased with a wooden structure containing front and side windows.  There are similarities to it in other Mediterranean countries but nowhere is it as common in the street landscape.  Although the number of traditional gallariji have been decimated following the introduction of more easily maintained, and aesthetically horrible, aluminium versions, there are still enough left, especially in the old urban and village cores, to classify them as still reasonably common.  Government schemes have also proved useful in protecting and maintaining those that remain.

The gallarija is however much more than a simple balcony in the Maltese context.  It is what I call a shifting medium between the privacy of a dwelling and its interface with the outside world.

The gallarija is at least one floor above street level which already gives it a distinct advantage over people down below.  Its occupiers look down at all that passes beneath them, while these in turn are forced to look up at increasingly uncomfortable angles depending on the number of floors in the building.  The gallarija’s glass windows can be left open or closed shut: giving the occupier options on whether to be sealed completely from the outside world or to maintain some contact with it.  Then there’s the curtains or screens, ranging from translucent to heavy, which also give the gallarija-dweller an element of control on his or her visibility: ranging from blatant two-way to furtive one-way viewing!

The gallarija has also got a number of practical uses as an extension of the house.  It  obviously provides protection from the elements, a sort of Maltese conservatory which gives you light and access to the outside while protecting you from the wind, the rain and the sun.  Its occupiers have also devised the practical Maltese way of lowering a wicker basket on a rope for street vendors to deliver their goods in, be it fresh bread or vegetables depending on the hawker involved: a very practical energy saving mode of shopping from home especially useful for the elderly and those with limited mobility.  For the apartment dweller without access to a roof the gallarija is also the place to hang the washing to dry.  In at least one place I have even witnessed a gallarija with a drain pipe attached implying that there’s a toilet inside, an exaggerated definition of an outhouse perhaps!

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It is said that the mother of all gallariji is the big one which runs almost uninterruptedly along three sides of the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta, and that all other gallariji came about as smaller replicas.  As to the name?  The one in the Valletta Palace served more as a sheltered passage rather than a balcony, similar to an Italian Galleria, hence the redefinition of the Italian “galleria” within the Maltese context.

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