One of the first features many tourists seem to notice when they visit the Maltese islands, are the many traditional colourful balconies which dot mosty historical cities and villages in Malta and Gozo. Colourful, wooden, made of stone, open, or enclosed, these balconies seem to strike a chord when it comes to those who prize architecture, cultural heritage and local customs.
Being a defining urban part of the local landscape, traditional balconies enhance and enrich Malta’s streetscape, as well as serving as an architectural map providing epitomes of different architectural styles prevailing during particular periods of history. As such, it appears to be quite unclear who introduced balconies in Malta. Some maintain it was the Arabs, others think that the machinolations of the Holy Land influenced the Maltese who started featuring balconies as the prime focus in the facade of their houses.
There are notably three types of balconies in Malta. The stone type balconies are the oldest and could have been introduced as vantage points for military purposes, especially since these were open balconies. Later on, open balconies started also to be incorporated within palaces and residential buildings. At first, stone balconies were produced with plain panels, however little by little, balconies began to symbolise the status and power of the family to whom they belonged, therefore these started to be sumptuously carved with various designs, most notably that of the eight-pointed cross which was the symbol of the Order of the Knights of Saint John. Floral and foliage motifs, as well as sculptures of animals, mythological beasts and gargoyles were also the order of the day.
In the case of Valletta, richly decorated balconies also served the purpose of conforming to the regulations laid down by the knights, whereupon it was stressed that each corner of the city had to display some form of sculptured ornamentation. This is why there are many large balconies in Valletta which literally wrap themselves around corners. Many of these balconies are wrought of iron and not of stone. The wrought iron balconies are the second type of balconies which one can find around Malta and Gozo. These balconies, having iron panels instead of stone ones, were also open, with no canopy to provide shade or protection from the elements. During the Baroque period, the stone panels of open balconies were replaced by balusters, which soon started to become very popular.
The third and last type of traditional Maltese balconies are the timber balconies. These are closed balconies with glass windows, which offer protection from weather conditions. They can also serve as an extra space for the family, in that they are almost like a small room. The standard Maltese timber balcony has three to four glass windows in the front, and one on each side. Some historians believe these were introduced by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, and that the first closed balcony was built around 1679 to cover the corner balconies of the Order’s main palace – the Palace of the Grand Master, which today is the Presidential Palace, in Valletta. During the 18th century this type of balcony became very popular and spread from Valletta to most villages where it replaced the open stone or wrought-iron balconies. Maltese timber balconies were usually painted green or beige, although nowadays they are painted in many different colours.
Balconies served, and still serve, a number of functions – it is well known for example that during medieval times, women, who were discouraged from going out and about on their own, used to sit in their balconies to watch life in the street go by, or even to converse with their neighbours. It was therefore a means of entertainment and socialisation. Balconies were and still continue to be used to hang and dry clothes, host plants, and serve as a religious statement, as many people tend to adorn their balconies with drapes, lights, and religious effigies during religious feast days, as well as during the Christmas season. More practically, balconies serve as climate controllers and provide light and fresh air.
Nowadays, balconies are usually made of concrete with aluminium frames, however historical traditional Maltese balconies are still prized. So much so in fact, that in 1996 the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA) launched a project to protect and safeguard traditional wooden balconies, by enabling residents to apply for funds should they want to restore or replace their current balcony with a wooden one.
Our traditional balconies are a heritage to be preserved since unfortunately, like any kind of historical feature, these balconies are in danger of decline, mostly due to erosion and urbanisation. This is why an effort must be made to cherish and restore such architectural gems, before they degenerate completely.