Built in 1679, the corner balcony of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta is believed to have been the first to become enclosed with a wood and glass structure. This fashion spread to the villages during the 18th century.
During the 17th century, Knight’s Order issued a decree stating that all the houses in Valletta had to have some sort of design element to it. People decorated their facades in three distinct ways, by adding religious images, through pilaster and cornices that matched the architectural style of the elevations, or balconies that wrapped themselves around the block.
Due to the lack of ties to global trade, and its position in the middle of the Mediterranean, timber was hard to come by before the 19th century in Malta. This delayed the adoption of the Maltese balcony to other villages.
The knights stayed in Malta for 268 years, and during this time, they ‘imported’ many North African and Turkish slaves who were experts at building these type of balconies and were then incorporated within the streets of Valletta, but didn’t really become popular until the 19th century.
Consensus is that the Balcony’s origins can be traced back to North African – specifically Moroccan – prototypes derived from the Arabic Muxrabija (look-out place). The Muxrabija was a wooden frame which entirely screened the window save for small holes or apertures through which the person on the inside could observe the street outside while remaining hidden. At this period in time, women in the Arab world were not allowed to socialize with the world outside – the Muxrabija was their way to look at the outside world without being seen. They were also used as a cooling device for water storage and as a security measure to see who was at the door or on the approaching roads.
The Balcony, unlike the Muxrabija, offers a much easier view of the outside, but its function was not entirely different. Maltese housewives rarely went out unless accompanied by their husband, and the balcony was their way of observing the world while retaining their privacy.
Many balconies in Malta are decorated with faces that show their tongues (tongue-masks). This custom originated in Egypt, where they portrayed the god ‘Bes’ on their facades to ward off an ‘evil eye’. However, Egyptians tended to show more intimate parts of the god. This was a complete no-no in Catholic Malta, so we decided to go for the tongue instead.