One of the best ways to appreciate the impact of the Maltese balcony is to walk the perimeter of lower Valletta and see the rows of balconies sitting one atop another, looking similar to eyes, where each property in Valletta watches silently over Valletta’s part of the water.
All of them are wooden, sporting glass windows that provide a discreet surveillance position to the viewer within. Found all over the island and mostly on the older part of any village or town, the traditional Maltese balcony is a key architectural feature that strikes one as unique and extremely versatile, which in fact it is.
The origins of the typical wooden Maltese balcony hark back to ancient times and to the ‘muxrabija’, a creation of the Arab world. Literally a peep-hole looking from the inside outwards, the ‘muxrabija’ was generally a wooden window frame which screened the window space completely. It was effective in allowing the person on the inside to observe all that was going on outside, whilst not being visible to the people in the street below. It was an excellent way in which menfolk could keep their womenfolk shielded from prying eyes, usually eyes belonging to other men, in a time and place when women wore clothing that covered them from head to toe. In Malta, a case in point was the tradition for women to wear the ‘ghonnella’, a cape-like creation of black cloth worn by all young women as soon as they came of age.
Over the centuries the balcony evolved in varied ways. One of the best locations where one can view a synthesis of this development is Mdina. There, antique balconies are many and varied, each one visibly harking back to specific eras and styles of architecture. Some of the smallest wooden balconies can be found in the narrow lower streets of Valletta, each sporting merely three glass windows. Whilst the more typical wooden balconies have from four to five windows, perhaps the largest wooden balcony on the island is the one encircling the left and right corners of the façade of The Palace in Valletta. Whatever the size, the enclosed wooden balcony allows the property the benefit of an extension looking out onto the world outside, bringing light and air indoors, whilst filtering heat and cold from entering directly inside.
For many families the balcony is an excellent place for drying laundry, for lounging and enjoying a good read, for keeping a collection of plants in conservatory style, for storing things as in a box room or merely for the enjoying of standing leaning out and observing the world go by. The original balconies are sought after especially in the Malta real estate market, where buyers are actually asking for it specifically. It is a great thing that the authorities are original townhouses in Malta that adorn these balconies. Lately, whilst driving by St. Julian’s it seems that developers are now having to keep the original facade of the home and build above the house.
Stylistic changes have created varied models of balconies over time. There are the open stone carved balconies, the open wrought iron balconies, the open balconies with aluminium fixtures, the open balconies with a combination of wood, wrought iron and stone… The onus remains that of letting in the light and providing seemingly outdoor space to a property. This is especially valuable to the smaller homes that keep their owners bound indoors. The outcome of the ‘muxrabija’ is in fact completely contrary to its original intent and a far cry from the tradition which kept the inhabitants of a property firmly ensconced indoors within introverted homes.