The Maltese Balcony
The traditional Maltese balcony is one of the first things most visitors notice in Malta. They dominate the streets with bright and vivid colours and in Valletta, you can find the most colourful collection of traditional balconies that date back centuries. The spread of Baroque style architecture of the 17th century is one of the main driving forces in the design of these structures and in 18th century, almost every house in Malta had a balcony.
Closed wooden balconies satisfy the human need for refuge and protection, but constructing protruding balconies in existing houses required advances in architecture, craftsmanship and the availability of the right materials and resources. The hot and humid climate of the Mediterranean also contributed to the widespread use of balconies throughout Malta. The most popular colour for wooden balconies was Vienna Green since it was the most widely available at that time. Two coats of the paint were generally used and varnishing was discouraged as it was insufficient protection for the wood if not done properly.
There is however a deadly element to the use of the Vienna Green colour, as it was discovered that it was in fact very toxic, but its toxicity lay dormant for years because of the airy and sunny balconies which provided the complete opposite of the dark and damp conditions needed for its toxicity to be released. The main pigment in Vienna Green was a chemical called copper acetoarsenic, which when mould is present, converts into arsenic. It was the British who introduced Vienna Green to Maltese balconies, and back in the UK, it was used to colour wallpapers and tapestries. Here closed, damp, dark rooms provided the perfect conditions for mould to grow and for the arsenic to accumulate.
Numerous cases started being reported of unexplained symptoms in the UK such as, loss of appetite, breathing problems, stomach pains, nausea and sometimes death. It took almost 100 years to conclude that the two common threads linking the symptoms, were green wallpaper and a faint garlicky smell. Back in Malta, the paint was replaced due to natural wear and tear, and a different colour green still remains a predominant colour on balconies.
The builders of traditional Maltese balconies often emphasise the use of old style materials in their craft. Marine plywood and other non natural materials are avoided as these are not considered to be a traditional material.
Although there are many types of balcony designs in Malta, you will only find two distinctive types. Open stone balconies and closed wooden balconies. Open stone balconies are the oldest type that can be seen in Malta, because there is very limited resources for wood, but an abundance of soft, workable limestone, which is cheaper and easier to use rather than importing expensive wood for the construction of a balcony.
Wooden balconies started to appear in Valletta in the middle of the 18th century and were considered a fashion statement. The design was originally based on Moroccan wooden balconies from North Africa. During this time, Malta was home to a large population of Turkish slaves, most of whom were master craftsmen which helped in spreading the basic design of wooden balconies that can be seen in Malta today. Mostly made of red deal, wooden balconies are often matched with the designs of the main wooden front door which complements the overall pattern of the house.
The facade of old Maltese houses brings together a combination of the dull, yellow coloured limestone walls in contrast to the bright and vivid coloured wooden balconies, doors and windows. There are also many different types of design that are carved into the wood of the balcony, such as flowers, dolphins, lions, dragons and terrifying faces. Grotesque faces are considered a good luck sign (contrary to common belief) by the people who commissioned them since they believed that these would ward off evil from their houses, and many believed that witches cast evil spells to cause illness and disease to unfortunate people.
In the past, balconies were very popular with the women of Malta because after running errands and doing housework, they would spend their free time sitting on a high stool watching the world go by in the street below. This was the only way for them to get the latest parish or village news, as women had no bars to frequent, unlike the men.