If Malta is known for one thing, it’s its balconies. Sure, there are overhanging covered balconies everywhere in the world, but Malta, particularly, seems to have fetishized them, so much so that they are commonly referred to as il-gallarija Maltija. But their appearance on the island is something of a recent occurrence only really picking up pace in the 19th century.
So where did these balconies come from, and how did they turn into the most iconic part of this eye-catching island? Like most things on Malta these days, the story begins with the Order of St. John.
In 1530, the Order, which had spent several years homeless after losing the island of Rhodes to the Ottoman Empire, came to Malta with the blessing of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Here they quickly returned to their trade of raiding Ottoman shipping for God and profit; in other words, they were pirates. Naturally, this provoked the ire of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who sent a task force to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of these pesky knights.
Although not decisive in a strategic sense, the Great Siege of 1565, which saw the outnumbered knights hold off and eventually defeat a much larger Ottoman force, became one of the most celebrated military victories in Europe and finally distilled the myth of Turkish invincibility. The siege also left the island devastated, with the cities of Senglea and Birgu alongside the Great Harbor particularly hard hit.
After the siege, the Order returned to their high-seas antics, which included enslaving Turks and North Africans. In fact, Malta became one of the largest slave centers of Europe, a point that is often overlooked in the rather excessive glorification of the Knights by the Maltese. While most slaves toiled in the Order’s galleys, others were employed in constructing a new fortified city, Valletta. Some of these slaves even obtained a level of status, working for the Knights as master craftsmen.
One of the buildings that these craftsmen may have worked on is the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta, constructed in the 1570s. From here, the order of St. John ruled Malta. Originally, the palazz was built with traditional open stone balconies. However, sometime in the 1670s, the balconies were covered allowing the Grand Master to traverse the length of the palace and spy incognito on his subjects below. This became the first recorded evidence of a covered wooden balcony in Malta.
There is good reason to believe that the Grandmaster’s Palace is the origin of this Maltese obsession. Throughout the Western speaking world, the word for balcony is, well, balcony or, at the very least, a derivative of the root “balk,” itself coming from the Proto-Indo-European word for beam. Even the Turkish language uses the word balkon. Only Arabic uses a different word, shurifa. So why did the Maltese, who speak a Semitic language heavily influenced by Italian, decide to call their balconies gallariji?
If that word looks familiar to you, it’s perhaps because you recognize its other meaning in Maltese, gallery. And that is precisely what we have hanging from the side of the Grandmaster’s Palace, a covered wooden gallery.
The idea for such an architectural adornment almost certainly came from the mashrabiya, a covered balcony used in the Arabic world. Although there is some debate on the origins of the mashrabiya, it likely began as a shelf for water storage (shariba means to drink in Arabic). A competing supposition is that the word is a corruption of the Arabic verb to overlook or observe. Regardless, both theories capture the changing nature of the mashrabiya from a small space to keep water cool to an overhanging room where one could inconspicuously contemplate the streets below.
The Maltese were certainly aware of the mashrabiya (known as muxrabija on the island) of which a few examples still exist. More of a screen than a balcony, these stone protrusions or wooden cages were placed over windows for security purposes. The muxrabija, therefore, represented a prototype of what was to come. But it was still a far cry from the grand covered balconies that arose in the 18th century.
The Knights of St. John would have also been somewhat cognizant of the mashrabiya. After all, the Order had begun its life in the Holy Land. But there thinking was purely military. This can be seen in the design of the machicolation widely disseminated throughout Europe after the start of the crusades. These “drop boxes” allowed soldiers to hurl rocks and other elements onto the enemy below from the safety of a covered overhanging balcony.
Who came up with the idea to cover the open balconies of the Grandmaster’s Palace, though, remains a mystery. In all likelihood, it probably involves the amalgamation of “traditional” muxrabija design with newer mashrabiya architectural elements brought by North African slaves. The Knights growing internal security concerns would have acted as a catalyst for the design.
From here, the rest of the story becomes a bit clearer. Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery, and who better to flatter if you are living on the island of Malta than the Grand Master himself. But there was still a problem: wood. The island simply didn’t have any.
For many years, only the aristocracy could afford to import the lumber necessary to cover their balconies. During the late baroque, the covered wooden balcony became a prominent feature of Maltese architecture as wealthy neighbors competed to outdo one another in sheer opulence. Il-gallarija Maltija had become a status symbol.
However, with the island’s occupation by the British in 1800, these covered wooden balconies became ubiquitous, thanks largely to the increased prosperity of Malta as a trading port and a subsequent reduction in the cost of imported timber. Now, il-gallarija Maltija became accessible to even the middle-class.
Over time, the style of il-gallarija Maltija would change depending on the island’s economic circumstances and whatever art movement happened to be in vogue, but its popularity never died. Today, these beautiful balconies still stand in brightly painted colors, a testament to both the aesthetic contribution of the Maltese and the autocracy of the Order.