The Maltese gallarija is the enclosed painted wooden balcony with glass windows that is such a prominent feature of Malta’s towns and villages. Yet, despite now being so closely associated with traditional Maltese architecture, when Valletta was first built in the 16th century, there were almost certainly no gallariji at all, only open stone balconies.
(Photo: Gallarija in Valletta © Juliet Rix)
The origins of the gallariji are obscure. People used to think they were an Arab phenomenon pre-dating the Knights, but Maltese historian Judge Giovanni Bonnello points out that not only are all the names for the various parts of the balcony derived from Italian rather than any Semitic language, but the first evidence of a gallarija in Valletta is not until 1675, the date of the earliest known painting of the long gallarija of the Grand Master’s Palace.
It seems quite likely that this was the first gallarija in Malta, which would explain the name; gallarija means ‘gallery’ not ‘balcony’ (Italian for ‘balcony’ is balcone) and the gallarija of the Grand Master’s Palace is indeed a gallery – a long wooden walkway linking several of the palace rooms. The grand master apparently strolled up and down here keeping an eye on the goings on in the streets and squares below.
This might also explain the sudden popularity of the enclosed wooden structures. If the palace has one, naturally everyone else wants one too! They might not be able to manage a whole gallery – but a shorter version, perhaps superimposed on an old stone balcony, is better than nothing. The craze lasted. While there are enclosed wooden balconies elsewhere in the world, the Maltese have made the gallarija their own.