WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange must be grateful to the person who invented the balcony.
Last weekend, when he addressed supporters and the assembled media gathered at the Ecuadorean embassy in London’s Knightsbridge, he was able to make use of a balcony (admittedly a small one) as his platform. Without it, he would have been much more vulnerable to possible arrest had he inadvertently stepped from Ecuadorean sovereign territory on to the streets of London.
Controversial figures have always found balconies convenient. To get the idea, think of Mussolini ranting on the balcony of the Palazzo di Venezia in the heart of Rome. The balcony is the ideal location from which to set forth your views.
Of course, it’s not just controversialists who have the benefit of balconies. You can use it to offer prayer and blessings, as the Pope does regularly at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome provided by the architect Carlo Maderno in 1612. Four hundred years earlier, the west front of Wells Cathedral in Somerset had been provided with a balcony, partly hidden within the stonework, on which the clergy could congregate and from which the choir could sing, providing a semi-mystical experience for the crowds below.
And, of course, no important royal occasion in London could pass without an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The façade facing the Mall was added in 1913 on the orders of George V, to give more gravitas to the palace front; its predecessor, designed by Edward Blore (who also did some early 19th-century restoration work on Ripon Cathedral) was not memorable, though it, too, had a balcony for special appearances.
In some ways the Buckingham Palace balcony is rather odd, being set so far back from the gathered crowds, behind a forecourt and railings. It is just as well that these balcony appearances are only visual spectacles. Speeches from the palace balcony would be very hard to hear, even with modern amplification.
Royal balconies were not always provided so the monarch could be seen. In the early 16th century a balcony was added high on the north wall inside St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle for the use of Queen Catherine of Aragon, where she could be hidden from public view. It was refurbished for Queen Victoria to attend the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra; the Queen was still in mourning for Prince Albert so felt she could not attend publically.
Sometimes, the lack of a balcony is keenly felt. How much more impressive could Neville Chamberlain’s waving of his ‘Peace in Our Time’ paper have been if, instead of having to lean uncomfortably out of an open window at 10 Downing Street, he had been able to stand on an impressive balcony. And surely Mrs Thatcher would have loved a balcony from which to claim election victories, rather than being awkwardly framed in an upstairs sash window at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square.
Then, of course, there are the romantic associations of balconies. The thousands who crowd into the courtyard of the so-called Casa di Giulietta in Verona to see Juliet’s balcony believe that it’s where Romeo wooed her – though in fact the balcony is a 20th-century fake and Shakespeare doesn’t mention a balcony at all. Still, it’s a good story, and the idea of the balcony has certainly lodged itself as a picturesque notion. The word itself comes from Italian, and originally meant a scaffold and before that probably from a very old German word meaning a beam.
Scaffold, beam or balcony – it hardly matters, for the balcony is here to stay as an architectural feature. And though Ripon cannot boast anything as grand as Buckingham Palace’s balcony or as romantic as Juliet’s, there are still plenty around.
Perhaps the most prominent are the three balconies on the town hall, provided by the architect James Wyatt. They are not the most convenient of public spaces, and it’s hard to get on to them, but they do provide a focal point for civic events in the city. There are balconies, too, on some of the city’s grander houses; take a stroll round The Crescent and look at the varied ways in which balconies have been incorporated into the buildings. Less logical, perhaps, are the more modern uses of balconies. Some use balconies as stage dressing.
Still, whether it’s for speeches, for waving, for romance, for public announcements or for private sunbathing, a balcony, properly constructed and integrated into a building, can provide an extra and valuable dimension to any structure – as Mr Assange discovered.