Maltese Houses of Character

Most of these houses are now also being restored or refurbished in a way that the alterations being carried out are compatible with the original plan. I therefore would like to make some references to some of the most common features which gave these houses their true identity as a house of character. So let me go back to my childhood days. And the first thing that comes to memory is the general view from outside, the house façade.


The façade (Il-Faċċata)

This is not a one size fits all thing. One may encounter hundreds of different façades, however I am going to restrict myself only to the most common characteristics which one would encounter in houses of the Maltese upper middle-classes, such as those built to accommodate a lawyer, notary, priest or a business man.

The first thing that catches the eye on looking at a house, is the main door. This main door was always manufactured in two separate parts in a way that each part would open by turning towards the inside on its hinges, and is closed shut, by the right hand side overlapping a little on the left side on its rabbet (batten). The material used was always thick red-deal wood (injam tal-aħmar) and the door was artistically manufactured with panels (panewwijiet) and plinths (zokklatura) and more often than not with a weather board (parakkwa), at its lower part. On its reverse side one would note its solidity as it was always manufacturesd with crossed timbers (traverse). These doors were always seen painted in green, blue, brown etc.

On each part of the main door there would be a handle in the form of a knocker (ħabbata) or a rounded knob (pum). These handles were generally made of brass, iron, or when in the form of a knob, these would be earthenware (ċaqquf).

On the right hand side of the door one would find the key-hole (serratura) complete with its key-plate (skudett). This key-plate was made of either brass or iron. When made of iron it was always painted black. From the inside one would see the door lock. This lock was manually manufactured by local blacksmiths and therefore, it was quite large when compared with today’s modern locks. A glance at one of the keys used at the time would be enough to understand the size of the locks. These type of keys (in Maltese called muftieħ) nowadays are being used as a decoration on shelving or a side table, or as a paper-weight on desks.

The main doors when closed shut during the night, had two door bolts (firrolli) on each side. Those on top would be pushed further up and the bolts would pass through an iron ring fixed onto the door posts (ċaċċisa). While those below would be pushed down and go into a hole especially provided in the floor. Besides all this, behind each side of the door an iron bar (stanga) of about two centimetres in diamater was then placed forming a right angle at the corner, between the door-way side walls and the door itself. These iron bars were secured in iron rings (ħoloq) especially prepared on the door and on the side walls.

On the outside of the door jamb (koxxa tal-bieb) or right in the middle of the door lintel (blata tal-bieb) the house number was usually fixed. On the right hand side jamb, a chain leading to the door bell was also seen suspended. This when pulled from the outside would rock the bell, fixed on the inside of the house, causing it to ring and the caller at the door would soon be noticed. This type of manual door bells have almost vanished completely.



Main door jamb (Koxox tal-bieb) architecture

The main door jamb differed considerably between one and the other in their architectural and intrinsic work. Some are rather plain, a simple stone-frame jutting out from the rest of the façade by approximately two and a half centimetres, all around the door. Others are elaborately constructed and their architecture is delicate and often forms part of the above corbels (saljaturi) supporting the balcony. Other door jambs have side columns (kolonni) on plinths (zokklatura). One needs only go for a walk around the streets of Malta, with eyes wide open, to appreciate the wealth of these various types of artistic main doors.



Balconies (Gallariji)

Balconies are another of the artistic treasures which abounds in Malta. One has to see for himself to really understand the richness and artistry of the numerous balconies found in Malta. In fact I am not going to mention the intrinsic work found in the various types of balconies but, I will just mention the most common categories. So I start with the main central balcony built on top of the main door. This could be a stone open-balcony with balustrades or other artistic stone shapes. These open stone-balconies are the eldest type one could find. Of a later date one could find an open balcony but with iron railings. The door which leads to these balconies is always found in a recessed alcove. Most of these central balconies are of a rectangular or semi-circular base.

More common and of a more recent date, are the wooden enclosed balconies. These also have a recessed alcove around the door leading to the balcony. And if one takes a good look he would notice that the upper arched part of this alcove is never enclosed, but is left as a fanlight (rewwieħa) above the roof of the balcony. This could be opened or closed for fresh air, or it could be used to carry out maintenance work on the roof of the balcony. These closed wooden balconies were in their majority of a rectangular shape. Although one cannot exclude to mention that other rounded shapes exist. They have the upper part with framed panes that could open on its top hinges and held in an open slanting position on two hooks (ganġetti), one on each side of the pane. On top of these panes, other smaller ones are found but these are permanently fixed. The lower part of the balcony is always closed with panelled wood. On the top of the wooden-balcony-roof a layer of approximately seven centimetres thickness of sand and cement mixture was applied. On this balcony roof, a small water spout (miżieb) was formed from this cement mixture to enable the rain water to escape on to the street below. Later on, a corrugated metal plate (Pjanċa immewġa) was also fixed on top of all, for double protection from rain water. The timber used for balconies was the red-deal, and this afterwards was painted in a colour matching the main door and the other windows on the façade. Let me go back to the house façade. Here, it was very common to find two windows, one on each side of the main door. Sometimes one would find houses with two ore more windows on each side of the main door, but I would say that a window on each side is the most frequently seen. Other instances existed where instead of a window on each side one would find a secondary door on each side. No matter whether these were side windows or side doors they always had louvers (persjani), and these were always made to open on to the street. In fact, façades used to have a kind of an adjustable hook so that the louvers were secured on a windy day. From the inside of the window, on the inner side of the sill, one would also find another window with three or four framed panes on each side and a wooden shutter attached to it on side hinges (portelli). Both the louvers and the inside windows were secured by specially
made bolts. These bolts, in Maltese ‘spnajuletti’, are fast disappearing to make way for more modern fittings. So on each side of the main door, on the ground floor, one would usually find a window or a side-door. In like manner, on the first floor, one would find a similar window or door on each side of the central balcony. The side doors on the first floor, of course, were always made to open on to a small open balcony. In front of the main door one could also find an iron gate (grada), approximately a metre and a half high. This was generally always painted either white or black. The threshold (l-għatba) was, more often than not, made of local first class hard stone (ġebel tal-qawwi). However, sometimes it was also made of cement or mosaic or marble. Houses which were built elevated from street level, besides the threshold had two or three steps in front of the main door. Such houses usually had a basement (kantina) underneath the house.

I am referring to the most common characteristics found in Maltese houses, however, I must mention that quite a number of houses had a niche on the façade or if it were a corner house this niche would be found decorating the corner. These niches were always constructed approximately one storey high or sometimes even higher, above street level. These niches were embellished with a stone statue of a particular saint or of Our Lady, inside them.


The glazed door (antiporta)

Behind the main-door one would find a glazed door generally within a wooden frame, called an ‘antiporta’. This door was always fixed at a distance, enough to allow the main door to open on the inside of the house; unlike any other window or side door, as these were always made to open onto the outside.
Behind the panes of the ‘antiporta’ a lace curtain was always found hanging. This while decorating the inside glazed door also allowed the light to pass through it, however, it would prevent any passer-by from looking inside the house.

This glazed door (antiporta) was very popular, because at a time when the means of transport was almost inexistent, people were confined to stay at home and old people especially, used to spend most of their time behind these glass doors looking on to the street, in winter. While in summer, they would sit for hours between the opened main door and the glazed door to enjoy the evening breeze, when or if there was one.


The Entrance-hall (Intrata)

The first thing one would encounter, on entering the main door and passing through the antiporta, was the entrance hall. Here one would usually notice a door to either side of this hall. These inside doors would lead you to lateral or side rooms. These rooms always had a window overlooking the street, and it was also very common to find that instead of windows, these rooms, sometimes had doors on to the road as previously mentioned.
These windows or doors, used to embellish the house façade as these were found on each side of the main door and also ready mentioned. These side doors were also skilfully designed so as to have a dual function. Therefore, these were either used as a door or as a window, since these doors were divided width wise with the top part being always a louver. This enabled the owners of the house to open the top part only, and it would function as a window or they could open the whole thing, top and bottom parts held together by hooks, and use it as a door.


The second hall way (Anti-intrata)

After the first entrance hall one would usually also find a second hallway. These were generally separated by two columns on plinths, one on opposite side of the inner side dividing the first hallway from the second – ‘anti-intrata’. At its furthest end of the ‘anti-intrata’ one would note a door leading to the yard. This door not only served to allow light to enter the house but it also embellished the hallway as on entering the house one would notice the greenery provided by the potted plants which were always found in such yards. The most common plants were the aspidistra, the water lilies (galletti), the begonia and geranium.
In the second hallway (anti-intrata) one would also generally find the staircase leading to the first storey. As a rule most of these houses were always built with two storeys, the ground floor and the first storey. Large or medium sized houses which did not have a second hallway usually had the door to the yard in the first hallway and the staircase would then be found at the back of the house on the furthest end of the yard. Quite a number of these houses of character were often ruined by being divided into various small dwellings to accommodate more people, or so that part of the house could be used as a business outlet. This usually happened while inheritance was being divided.



The Yard (Il-Bitħa)

In the yard one would usually find the well which until just before the second World War was the main source of providing the necessary water to the household. The top part of a well was always found surrounded by a huge stone, in Maltese known as the ‘ħerża’. This was made from one large stone and had a hole in its middle so that the pail could pass through it. This stone was placed on the top of the well mouth to prevent people from falling in. The outside of this stone appeared in various forms, circular, rectangular or very often, in the form of a wide balustrade. When attached to a wall, this well-stone, was usually found with an arched recess behind it. Inside its arched top, a wrought-iron artistically designed hook was attached to the wall and protruded outwards. On to this hook a pulley was then suspended to that the pail could easily be raised and lowered down the well when drawing water. When the well was detached from the wall, the stone around it usually had two square pillars built one on each side, on which a lintel (blata) was then placed. In such cases the pulley was then suspended from an iron ring fixed to this lintel.


The well (Bir) or the underground cistern (ġiebja)

Underneath the yard and sometimes even under part of the house itself one would find the well or an undergrouns cistern. Both these two water reservoirs used to be dug out manually in the rocks. The well was always bell-shaped with its mouth in the top narrow part. The water cistern was usually bigger and although it was also manually dug out in the rocks, its roof was constructed with stone slabs resting on arches and not on wooden beams. Moreover, the sides and bottom of both well and cistern used to be plastered with a mixture of cement and sand in order to make them impermeable (ibbattmati).

Rain water and ground-pottery (deffun) roof surfaces. The rain water stored in these water reservoirs was the main source of drinking water at the time. The water catchment area originated from the roof of the house. These roofs were made of stone slabs resting on wooden beams, or in earlier built houses, on stone arches and then covered by about twenty centimetres of soft stone chippings mixed with fine material and lime (torba) and then on top of this, they used to lay a final surface to the roofs by using ground-pottery mixed with a little cement (deffun).

All this was manually laid and then pressed by beating with a wooden block, semi-circle above and flat below, (in Maltese marzebba). This roof-surface beating was always carried out by women. There were gangs of women who undertook this work and these were known as the beaters (in Maltese ‘il-ballata’). It is said that these used to folk sing on the roofs while carrying their daily toil.

While this surface was being done, special attention was given to bring a slant on to one side (pendil) leading to an earthen drainpipe (katusa) laid on the side of the yard. The bottom part of this pipe found in the yard below had at its end a hollowed square stone with three holes. The first two, one on top and the other one below it, were a continuation of the pipe which led straight into the well. The third hole was on one side so that when the well was full of water the bottom hole was capped and the water would turn out from the side hole and into the yard, from where, it would flow out into the street through the storm water pipe.


A structure for the conveyance of rain water (sieqja)

Cisterns found in gardens usually had a hole outside in the street underneath the garden wall which led into a water culvert and ran straight to the cistern. In fact, it was very common during the rainy season, some years back, to find a folded potato-sack or two held in place with small stone slabs used as weights and placed next to these holes to catch the rain water from the street and direct it into the well.


The staircase (It-taraġ)

There exist varous kinds of staircases. The oldest type found are those which were constructed between two walls and had two flights running in the opposite direction and meeting halfway in a common landing (pjan komuni). The inner wall dividing the flights of stps usually had a decorative opening, like a window, sometimes even with balustrades. The outer wall when common with the yard had large windows looking on to the yard.


The winding stairs (Taraġ tar-raġġ or Taraġ la Ingliża)

This geometrical stairs in Maltese is also known as an ‘English style staircase’. The name speaks for itself and it clearly shows that this type was introduced after 1800 when Malta passed under British rule. This is a very attractive staircase and each stone step (skaluna) is overlapping a little on each other lengthwise and is wedged in (ingulmati) on the side that touches the wall. Each of the steps are slightly wider on the side touching the wall and this enables it to wind up gracefully as it goes up at a right-angle corner. On the outside of the staircase an artistically wrought iron railing (ħadid tat-taraġ) is then fitted to serve as a hand rail (poġġaman) and to offer protection. Each of these steps was always hand chiselled (minġurin) out of Maltese limestone. When ready the staircase would be painted with linseed oil (żejt tal-kittien) to prevent it from absorbing dirt and for easy washing.


The stairs’ carpet (Tapit tat-Taraġ)

During my childhood days it was very much in fashion to lay a carpet along each flight of steps. This carpen ran down right in the middle along each step and covered only the middle, or one third of each step. The sides of each step, therefore, were always painted white. The carpen was held in place because, on every riser just were it meets the tread (mal-waqfa tal-iskaluna), a brass ring (annella tar-ramm) was fixed on each side of the carpen wherein a brass rod (virga tar-ramm) was then put through them so as to press the carpet down and hold it firm.

The spiral staircase (garigor)

Another common type of stairs was the ‘spiral staircase’. I do not remember ever seeing it as the main stairs in a house. It usually was a secondary flight at the back of the house. Houses with basements sometimes had such stairs starting from the basement and going straight up to the roof, with an exit on each floor.

The basement (kantina)

The basement used to be roofed by stone slabs (xorok) resting on arches (ħnejjiet) and not on wooden beams (travi tal-injam). The reason for this was because the basement was always very humid; even though an air passage from the basement and leading into the street was always found. This air passage, or ventilator, was then covered with thick iron grating (sprall). Houses with high roofed basements going up to half a metre above street level had these ventilators in the form of a small window very low to the ground and secured with iron gratings. Such houses would have two or three steps in front of their main door. The room at the end of the stairs leading to the roof (tromba tal-bejt) At times this was not even a room but the upper walls of the stairs adjoining or leading up to the roof and with a door at its end. In such cases its roof showed the same slant as that of the stairs underneath.
The height legally allowed four such structures was, not to exceed eight courses (filati).

The parapet wall on the roof (opramorta)
This parapet on the roof ran along the perimeter of the house. The outer part of it, which ran along the façade of the house, usually had a large stone (Il-ġebla tal-bandiera) in its middle so that a flagpole could be fixed on to it. This large stone used to be sculptured on the outside to show, either the date when the house completed its construction, or the family emblem, or both date and emblem.

Very high storeys (Sulari għoljin)
A look from up the roof (bejt) of one of these houses of character on to the street below will reveal that the storeys were very high, around twenty courses or more, when compared to our present 11 or 12 courses. The older the building the higher the storey. The rooms were roofed with stone slabs resting on wooden beams or in older houses one would find one-cane-stone-slabs (xorok tal-qasba) resting on corbels (kilep). One cane was a Maltese measurement equivalent to 2.096 metres in length and known as ‘qasba’ (meaning ‘cane’). The corbels embellished the room as it projected out just under the ceiling and therefore looked like a frame going around the room and supporting the roof structure.

Flagstones (Ċangatura)
The rooms were all paved with limestone (tal-franka) flagstones. These once laid were all painted with linseed oil so as to prevent them from easily getting dirty. Later on, coloured cement tiles were introduced and gradually everybody was changing to this modern and more practical way of paving. These standard, eight inches by eight inches tiles, were elegantly designed in a way that the room would look as if it were carpeted.

Thick Walls (ħitan tad-dobblu)
The walls were very thick, in Maltese these are called ‘ħitan tad-dobblu’ meaning, doubled walls, however these were much more than doubled. Today they still use the doubled wall especially when building the house façade, but this means that they build an inner wall and an other one, with nine inches wide stone slabs (ċnagen). However, at the time when tehse houses of characters were built, a dabouled wall meant a thickeness of about four feet (equivalent to approximately one hundred and twenty centimetres). This was so, as between the outer wall and an inner one, a gap of about seventy or eighty centimetres was left. The in between was then filled with a mixture of soil and fragments of stone (torba jew mramma). The thickness of these walls rendered the house as strong as a fortress and together with the height of the ceiling of each room these walls proved to be a very good insulation against the winter cold and summer heat.

White Washing (Tibjid)
At a time when plastic emulsions were unknown, white washing of rooms was the order of the various colours. The ceilings were always white washed with white lime, but the walls were washed in various colours. The colour was made by fist kneading a heap of lime into thick paste and then a small portion of it was separated and added coloured powder to it (in Maltese known as ‘terratombra’) which was available in various strong colours. This coloured portion was again kneaded until the colour was thoroughly mixed. This mixture would be of a deep colour as afterwards it had to be mixed again with the whole lime mixture. The white washer had enough experience to determine the right amounts of colour needed to obtain a certain delicate colour, as white washing always fades in colour when it totally dries.

The brush used for white washing (known then as il-broxk tat-tibjid) was also very different from these we know today. The wooden handle was very long, about thirty centimetres, and its bristles resembled more that of an ordinary broom than those of a paint-brush. All in all, it was very difficult to white wash a room unless you were indeed skillful, and this, not only because of these queer brushes but more so, as the rooms were almost artistically finished.

Whitewashing of rooms
The ceiling, as already mentioned above, was always painted (whitewashed) white. This white colour of the ceiling used to continue also as a border (burdura) on the top part of the walls, immediately below the ceiling to a height equivalent to the thickness of the hanging wooden beams. Further down this border by about seven centimetres, another border of approximately seven centimetres thickness, was again painted. And further down by yet another seven centimetres below this second border a third border was generally the same as the colour used for the dado (zukklatura). The dado was always the last four feet or so above the floor and this was always made of a deeper colour from the rest of the walls. If the walls were painted pale green the dado would be painted in a dark green shade, if the wall was painted pale yellow the dado would be of a brownish colour, etc. Above the dado, two other borders as those found under the white of the ceiling were again painted. The rest of the room would be the main colour and this, as already referred to, would be a rather pale colour.

One could easily understand that whitewashing a room needed a skilled hand and plenty of work, therefore the dado served a dual purpose; it embellished the room and, since the lower part of the wall was the more liable to be scratched, therefore, from time to time one had only to repaint the dado and save all the hassle to white wash the whole room.

Here I want to make a special reference to the house façade and mention that on the outside only the first storey of the house was to be found white washed. The top part of the house was always left unpainted, hence, the stone would by time be weathered and take either a red-brownish colour when facing the sun, or greyish black if the house is facing North.

Pictures, Pelmets and curtains (Inkwadri, sopraporti u purtieri)

It was also very much in fashion, until just after the Second World War, to hang lots of pictures/paintings on the walls around each room. Most of these were of a religious nature, however, they made the rooms look warm and elegant, more so, as the rooms used to have also pelmets (sopraporti) and curtains at every window and door; and since these were all very high, to accompany the high ceilings, the drapery looked even better.

Holes under every window sill
Underneath every window from inside the house, two, two cm. thick channels were cut in the wall, starting from each side of the window sill and running down at about 45 degrees to meet a hole right in the centre. This hole penetrated from the inside to the outside. The purpose for this was so that any rain water which could seep inside the window could find its way out through this hole.

Thick, wooden doors in between each room
The walls separating each room used to be also, double walls, and as if this were not enough, each room had a thick wooden door solidly manufactured with panels and crossed timber at the back of it. These doors used to be made in two parts, the right hand side, the left handside. When shut these were secured by door bolts and also locked by a lock and key. These locks had a latch and during the night when the door was locked it was the habit to insert a wooden wedge in between its spring. This wooden wedge (feles tal-injam) would be found, when not in use, hanging on a string nailed at the back of the door itself. These inside doors used to open on to the thickness of the walls and therefore would not be in the way.

The thickness of these inside walls was also ideal, to construct built in cupboards (armarju). In fact one would find a cupboard or two of these built-in cupboards almost in every room. Some were small others were as big as the size of a large door. In the thickness of the wall, in the doorway leading from one room to the other, it was very common to find a recess which served as a place where to put the earthen ware lamp or a paraffin lamp.

Very old houses

The oldest houses were those which, as I already explained, had their staircase built in between two walls, a basement and very often a spiral staircase at the back of the house. They also had open balconies made of stone and sometimes a niche with a statue on the façade of the house. Others even had, next to their main door, a stone jutting out of the façade with a hole that goes through it. This was intended so that the owners of the house could tie up their horses, while they go inside the house. Another feature, which today has become very rare to be seen, was a three-step stone structure constructed alongside the house façade. This was used to make it easy for a horse rider when climbing up on horseback, or to enable a lady or an elderly person to ride on a horse drawn carriage.

The servants quarters
Some of these old and rather big houses used to have also the servants’ quarters. These quarters were generally found on the first stairs landing between the two flights. Here one could find a door leading to a very low room or rooms where the servants used to live. These rooms were literally squeezed between the ground floor and the first floor. The first floor upstairs was always used by the owner of the house and his family. Some of these houses even had a coach house on the ground floor. These type of houses are usually found around the cities of Mdina, Vittoriosa and Valletta.

Large Stone-stove (Fuklar tal-ġebel)
Very old houses also had its large stone stove fixed to the walls in the corner of the kitchen. This looked like a rectangular working bench with a top area of approximately one metre long by seventy centimetres wide. It had holes on its side from where the logs and other timber were fed when building a fire. On its flat top there were other holes on which the pots were placed while cooking. On top of all this stood a hood connected to stone chimney which enabled the smoke to be extracted outside the house. This hood was also made of stone and it covered the whole stove area starting from just above head level and receding slowly until it met the ventilation opening in the ceiling and went up straight to the roof. I have my doubts whether any of these stone made stoves survived into this century.