Maltese Balcony Mystery

March 1, 2012 20 Comments »

malta balcony

The colorful Maltese balconies are everywhere! But where did they come from?

The first thing I noticed in Malta were the balconies; colorful, enclosed, wooden, and on every single home. How could you not notice them, they are a staple in the architecture here. So of course I thought I’d write a simple little post on the balconies of Malta accompanied by some photography of said balconies.

Simple…ha.

I started asking locals what the origins of the enclosed balconies were. Some people said they had no idea, some people said it was for gossiping (a term that I believe got a little lost in translation), and some people said it was Arabic. I had no definitive answer. But I still kept on taking photos of them.

maltese balcony

The wooden balconies were everywhere!

wooden enclosed balcony malta

The brighter the better!

However through locals I did find out that the government has started an urban regeneration program and supports people financially who restore the wooden balconies. This must be why they stand out so much and look so beautifully kept up.

balcony malta

Some were barely hanging on in need of repair. Government to the rescue!

I continued my balcony education quest with online research. Surely a simple Google search for “Malta enclosed wooden balcony history” would bring me an answer.

Nope.

However I did learn the following (more than I ever thought I’d learn about the history of balconies):

First, lets start with the definition; derived from the Italian balcone meaning scaffold, the High German balcho or beam and the Persian term balkaneh, a balcony is a kind of platform projecting from the wall of a building, supported by columns, brackets or cantilevered and enclosed with a balustrade.

From The Culture of Malta on Wikipedia  – it appears that Spain influenced the Maltese balcony:
Traces of the ascendancy of the Crown of Aragon in the Mediterranean, and Spanish governance over Malta from 1282 to 1530, are still evident in Maltese culture today. These include culinary, religious, and musical influences. Two examples are the enduring importance of the Spanish guitar in Maltese folk music, and the enclosed wooden balconies that grace traditional Maltese homes today.

From The History of Balconies – has interesting info on Maltese balconies:
Head for the Mediterranean holiday islands of Malta and Gozo where the balcony is unequivocally an important feature of their streetscape. In 1679, the corner balcony of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta is believed to have been the first to become enclosed with a wood and glass structure. This fashion spread to the villages during the 18th century.
In 2007, the ubiquitous Maltese and Gozitan balconies were elevated in status when they featured on a set of five stamps, issued by the Philatelic Bureau of Maltapost, illustrating the development of the islands’ iconic building feature.

corner blacony malta

An example of a corner balcony in Valletta

valletta valcony

Balconies stacked on top of each other in Valletta

From Culture in Malta website – The Aragonese introduced the balconies:
The Arabs introduced citrus trees and the flat-topped houses, and they laid the foundations for the Maltese language. The Aragonese, from central Spain, left their mark in the medieval architecture of Malta’s historic town centers and the enclosed wooden balconies which typify the splendid town houses.
(I even looked up Aragonese to find out if they had some sort of Arabic background – but found no answers. )

From some random website called OoCities – No wait…the balconies come from Arabic origins:
Small-scale wooden balconies started to appear in Valletta during the mid-eighteenth century and gradually gained popularity and became the fashion. This might have been influenced in no small way by the construction of the two grand wooden balconies of the Grand Master’s Palace referred to earlier. So universal was their spread that they eventually came to be referred to by the misleading name of La Maltijja (the Maltese) as if they were original to the place.
In reality this type of balcony was derived from North African, mostly Moroccan, prototypes which again derive from the Arabic Muxrabija (look-out place). During the rule of the Order, Malta was home to a huge number of predominantly Turkish slaves, some of whom were master craftsman who might have helped to introduce the wooden balcony to Malta.

Google gave me no definitive answers. Let’s try real smart people then.

I toured a historical house (Casa Rocca Piccola) in Valletta just so that I could go and see the balconies from the inside and hopefully learn more. The docent was knowledgeable about everything in the house, but when I asked her about the origin of the balconies, she didn’t have an answer. She seemed to think they had an Arabic origin with the idea that the women watched the world go by via their balcony; they could stay ‘out of sight’, but watch what was going on. She pointed out that there was a ‘hidden window’ opening where they could sit on a stool and by simply gazing down, see through the hidden window to the street below. She also added that it was a nice place to sit and enjoy the breeze since the windows on the side open up.

Ok – nice point about the breeze, but why have windows at all? However I couldn’t get sidetracked about windows, I needed to focus on origins!

balcony culture malta

A high stool and a 'hidden' window was the norm for balcony culture in Malta

malta house balcony

A view of the balcony from the inside of Casa Rocco Piccola House

balcony window

The windows allow a a nice breeze while women hide behind the lace curtains

Finally I went to a revered, ‘this-local-knows-everything’ friend, Francis. He works for NSTS who is co-hosting me along with GeoVisions on this trip – and I asked him the question about the balcony’s origin. Without hesitating he provided me an answer. He said that it was from Arabic times when women had to be hidden. However the Maltese society didn’t have to hide women, but instead it morphed into the fact that pretty much all women were housewives and they really stayed in the home and didn’t venture out. The saying “a woman’s place is in the home”rings true here. (cringe!) He went on to explain that the housewives would sit on high stools and watch what was going on outside; in a weird way, it was their reality TV.

maltese balcony

Malta's misunderstood balconies...who cares where they came from!

Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Aragonese…I still have no idea. But I do know one thing – the balconies are beautiful.

Weigh in on the research – do you know where they came from?  If so, please share in the comments!


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