The Iconic Maltese Balcony
If you walk around Valletta or Mdina, you are bound to notice rows of buildings with brightly coloured enclosed wooden balconies. You may ask, what are these unique balconies called?
The beautiful Maltese balcony is known as the Gallarija Maltija. They are usually painted in bright colours, which match the door of the building, thus creating a “popping out” effect. Typical colours of these wooden structures are red, navy blue, and dark green–although purple Maltese balconies have been known to appear!
Malta’s balconies are quite unique and useful in that they allow people to sit inside the privacy of their own homes and look outside without anyone seeing them. However, they can also be opened if that is wished.
Homes with a traditional Maltese balcony are particularly sought after (if you are seeking to find one, then please scroll down to the end of this article), but read on if you are:
- Curious about the Maltese History behind the traditional Maltese balcony
- Looking for a house or flat with one of Malta’s famous wooden balconies
- Seeking to install a traditional Maltese balcony of your own
- Need to refurbish the historic balcony that you already have
The History Behind Malta’s Traditional Balconies
Where did the Maltese Balcony come from?
Much of Malta’s history, including language and food, comes from the Arabic world and Malta’s architectural history is no example. The Arabic presence is often overlooked in Maltese history, but the origins of Malta’s beautiful balconies are most likely North Africa, where they are called Muxrabija, which means “peephole” in Arabic.
The first enclosed balconies were likely made of stone and were quite popular from around 1300-1400. In 1536, we have a written record that “Moorish styles of architecture” were predominant in Malta.
By the late 16th century, the style became popular during the reign of the Knights of the Order in Malta. Grandmaster de la Cassiere is credited with building the first and largest open balcony in Valletta at the Grandmaster’s Palace. By 1680, Grandmaster Nicolas Cotoner enclosed it with timber and glass. One of his visitors described how the ruler used it:
Today’s Grand Master willingly strolls there without being seen and discovers from his walk all that is happening in the two piazzas in front and on the side of his palace. If he sees two Knights strolling together, he immediately perceives their thoughts and the subject of their conversation, as he knows the minds of all those he governs and the secret practices of their intrigues.
The idea of being able to spy on one’s neighbours caught on. In the early 1700s, there were thousands of Moorish slaves in Malta who could help to build these types of balconies. In fact, some of these Gallarija Maltija are still around: You can find them in Valletta, Mdina, Birkakara, and Rabat / Victoria, Gozo.
By the 18th century, Valletta passed a law requiring that the corners of all buildings be decorated, which is why there are so many ornate cornices, niches for statues, and decorative balconies wrapped around them. This law helps explain why balconies are so prevalent in Malta’s capital city.
As mentioned, Malta’s original balconies were originally crafted in stone, but in the 19th century, during the era of British colonization, timber became widely available and the balconies became even more popular. Painting balconies with bright colours started during this era, with green being a colour signifying the high status of the house’s residents.
What was the Purpose of the Historic Maltese Balcony?
There is no one purpose to these structures, but they could have served many:
Being Practical– Enclosed balconies provide protection both from the harsh Maltese summer sun and winter rains, while still allowing air-flow into the house.
Modesty– Malta was a far more conservative society centuries ago, and many believed women should be protected and shielded from the gaze of other men. (In fact, they used to wear the Ghonnella, a dark and heavy head-to-toe garment.) Balconies would have allowed women to enjoy air and sun without being seen by others.
Surveillance and Gossip– Malta is a small island and there’s a wise Maltese saying: L-arju għandu għajnu u l-ħajt għandu widintu, which translates to “The sky has an eye and the wall has an ear”. There may be some truth to it with regards to the Gallarija Maltija! Having a balcony high up where someone, say a Maltese Nanna, could keep an eye on the street and neighbours can come in handy! Malta’s traditional balconies provided excellent opportunities for observing what was going on around, while remaining hidden.
Privacy– It is said that the new Maltese balcony style became popular during the Knight’s reign so that they would hide their illicit affairs with Malta’s ladies–especially from the prying eyes of Church officials!
What are the Parts of an Enclosed Maltese Balcony?
Malta’s traditional balconies are comprised of the following parts:
Purtella: Each separate hinged glass panel of a Maltese balcony is called a purtella. In historic times, the more purtellas a balcony in Malta had, the more they cost.
Tendini: The blinds within the purtella (glass panels) are called tendini. Very useful if one wants to be hidden from neighbours!
Saljaturi: At the bottom of the balconies are stone supports called saljaturi. These could be plain or ornate, depending on the homeowner’s taste, and also often incorporate beautiful designs. Sometimes they also contained grotesque faces or creatures such as dragons or gargoyles because, in the past, they were thought to ward off the evil eye.
The historic Maltese wooden balconies are truly a treasure. Please read on if you are interested in restoring one, purchasing one for your home or moving into a new place that already possesses one.
Maltese Balcony Restoration
Malta’s Planning Authority stipulates that balconies need to be kept in a good state of repair and be restored as opposed to being altered or replaced. The good news, however, is if you have a home with a balcony that could use some restoration, there is a Maltese government scheme that you can apply for. (These pertain to both the traditional enclosed Maltese timber balconies, as well as the open wrought iron ones.)
If you are looking for a vendor to help with the restoration, here is a list of a few:
Maltese Balcony Manufacturers
If you have the opportunity to add your very own Maltese traditional balcony to your home, why not? They are practical, beautiful, and in keeping with Malta’s history and culture.
A typical Maltese balcony may measure 1.5 x 5.5 meters. As per Malta’s Planning Authority guidelines, there are other balcony measurements that must be adhered to. The dimensions of traditional balconies in relation to the home are as follows:
* The underside of the balcony should be a minimum height of 2.75 meters above the ground.
* Its outer face needs to be at least .75 meters away from the inner face of the hosting wall.
In the event that you would like to build one of your own, here are a few vendors who specialize in building Malta’s iconic balconies:
James Agius Woodworks
FINDING A HOME WITH A TRADITIONAL MALTESE BALCONY
Many buyers are specifically asking real estate agents to locate homes with traditional Maltese wooden balconies, and there are some available! If you would like us at Excel Real Estate to help you, please contact us, or pay our office a visit!
We wish you the best in finding the balcony of your dreams….