A defining characteristic of local facades, enclosed wooden balconies are as useful as they are pretty.
It’s probably one of the first things you notice as you walk through any town or village. Often painted a bright emerald green, the enclosed wooden balconies prevalent around Malta and Gozo offer the best seat in the house to view the world going by in the street below.
The closed balcony is so ubiquitous that locals tend to take them for granted. In fact, during the so-called modernisation period between the 1960s and 1990s, the feature was almost lost to open stone terraces or aluminium cladding. Thankfully, sense has long since prevailed, and the traditional balcony is once more revered for the architectural gem it truly is.
It is believed that the enclosed format was originally derived from the Islamic muxrabija dating back to the late Middle Ages. Literally meaning “spy hole”, the muxrabija was most commonly a wooden frame which screened a window offering the viewer the opportunity to see out without being seen. It was a window out onto the world for women at a time when women were not allowed to socialise with the outside world.
Older muxrabiji in Malta were made of stone and a handful still exist today, including one in Triq tal-Karmnu in Victoria, Gozo, in what used to be the Arab quarters. There is another stone muxrabija with a decorative style incorporated in it on the roof of 84, Santu Rokku Street, Birkirkara, the former residence of Censu Borg, one of the main insurgent leaders during the French blockade of 1798-1800.
The trend for enclosed wooden balconies is said to have started in Valletta around the latter part of the 17th century, as baroque influences from continental Europe reached Maltese shores. As the most significant element on a property’s facade, the balcony quickly came to symbolise the owner’s social standing. The earliest balconies are thought to be the ones adorning the side of the President’s Palace on St George’s Square, which were already in place by 1741, and the balcony of Palazzo Bonici completed in 1739, and now part of the Manoel Theatre complex.
But it wasn’t just the enclosed structure that became an architectural statement. The stone balcony supports have their own story to tell. One of the building regulations laid down by the Knights of St John for their new city was that corners had to display some form of sculptural ornamentation. Hence the large number of niches, monumental pilasters and cornices that adorn Valletta’s buildings.
The wrap around balconies were another way of conforming with this regulation. But take a closer look at the masonry supports known as saljaturi, especially, yes, the corner ones. They couldn’t just have boring, plain supports, now could they? This was the perfect marriage of functionality with design, where supports were lavishly and elaborately carved, many with grotesque faces with outstretched tongues meant to ward off the evil eye.
By the middle of the 18th century, smaller wooden balconies started appearing on more modest houses, and soon the fashion became so popular that the feature became known as La Maltija (the Maltese) as if the balcony had originated in Malta. As timber became cheaper and more widely available during British colonial times, more and more houses adopted the enclosed wooden balcony feature, even enclosing older open stone balconies.
The balconies were mostly made of red deal, often matching the front door, and used to be priced by a purtella (window section). Apart from serving as a look-out, the enclosed balconies acted as a weather buffer, keeping out extreme heat or cold from the rest of the house. When water-closets (toilets, in other words) started being introduced in private houses, many ended up being installed in the balcony, with the side windows fitted with wooden screens for privacy.
The balcony remains a popular feature of Maltese architecture today, albeit with a modern twist often made entirely out of stone. However, Government grants to restore old wooden enclosed balconies ensure this defining characteristic of local urban heritage will live on. And so iconic is the balcony, that it has even made it to the catwalk as a design element on high end fashion!