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What’s in a balcony?

From the balcony to the window in romantic media.

Art by Janina Osinsao

When I think about towers, I think about Rapunzel locked in one, surveying an alien landscape, driven half-mad by her desire to escape into the configuration of space before her. I envisage Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark tower in the House of Shaws, with stairs ending halfway to the top. I see black ivy creeping up the Tower of Flints, its sinister long shadow in daylight a bad omen. When I think about balconies, I think about Verona. Juliet Capulet standing on Thomas Otway’s balcony, moonlight illuminating her skin, Romeo Montague looking up at her with a yearning desire. I picture Florence, Prince Padema sitting desolated as he curses everything. I see the French Quarter, Stanley Kowalski calling for his wife with heaven-splitting violence. When I think about windows, I think about the lagoon outside Jean-Paul Sartre’s Venetian window. I hear In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, the song exploding from a boombox below Diane Court’s bedroom window. I see Ted Mosby triumphantly holding up the blue french horn, yelling about his love for Robin Scherbatsky. 

When I think about towers and balconies and windows, I think about love.

As architecture and human culture evolved, so did symbols of romance. With the process of adaptation, appropriation, and revision, the tower turned into the balcony, which turned into the open window. Essentially, all of them serve the same purpose and form the same narrative. 

The History and Fall of Caius Marius is a tragedy written by Thomas Otway, the man we are indebted to for Shakespeare’s infamous balcony scene. There was no balcony in Romeo and Juliet, and there was no balcony in Shakespeare’s England. How, then, does the balcony, the visual synecdochic for the play, tie in so tightly with a scene that existed for a century without it? 

Audiences are less concerned with specifics of the source text, and more with modern adaptations that evolve to place themselves in the current era. That being said, Otway borrowed so heavily from Romeo and Juliet that David Garrick used the way he staged the appropriated scene in the mid-eighteenth century for Shakespeare’s tragedy. He immortalised the visual iconography of the balcony scene with the sketch of actor Spranger Barry from his adaptation, suitably titled ‘Two Lovers Courting.’ And from there sprung forth the countless creations and recreations of it; from blurry pictures of cats to travellers visiting Casa di Giuletta in Verona, the pseudo-balcony built to appease tourists. 

It is interesting to note that audiences prefer Juliet on the balcony instead of by her bedroom window. Windows, unlike balconies, allow people to watch without participating. But balconies put people on display: they can be viewed during their act of viewing, they are accessible. Juliet believed she was alone and spoke of her true feelings into the night, not knowing that Romeo was in the garden below her, gazing at her delicate form, listening to every word she said. The balcony parallels the pedestal, elevating virtuous Juliet above Romeo, continuing the extended religious metaphor of her being a saint he worships. Juliet’s balcony is liminal yet open; a means for Romeo to enter it and start what they believe will be a long and loving life.

In comparison, Sartre’s Venetian balcony restricts him. In Venice from My Window, Sartre experiences a crisis of existence. He is sitting, looking out into the world, disoriented because Venice doesn’t seem to have a horizon. The view confines him, prevents him from projecting, condemning him to short-sightedness. He is captive to the thirty metres he can see before him. But Naples is different. In a letter to Olga Kosakiewicz, Sartre reflects on the balconies in Naples, calling them streets that simply existed in the air, little pieces of boulevards lifted to the second story. He believed them to be respiratory organs, not ornaments nor luxuries. Balconies allow people to live, in part, outdoors. They eat and sleep and vaguely watch the spectacle of people passing by. There is open communication between the balcony and the street; the need to go inside is almost redundant.

The first windows were small and dingy. They allowed limited light and were mainly used in sacral architecture, as daylight was perceived as divine presence. This religious vision of the art world was established by the Church in the Middle Ages, tying the symbol of the three windows in the Church to the Holy Trinity, as shown in paintings like Scenes from the life of St. Catherine by Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Holy Family by Lorenzo Costa. But this changed with the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance. Italian glass blowers began to produce large tripartite (or, “Venetian”) windows which were viewed as the frame of a completed landscape, ready for examination. Following this, windows in the background of portraits became very popular. The soft, domestic interior lit by natural light became a key motif for romantic artists; the person peering longingly outward awaiting a lover to appear below the best-loved character. Most times, the window was positioned as a light source, such as in Woman reading a letter by Pieter de Hooch. Still, at other times the window was the focus of the piece, as in The Return of Odysseus by Pinturicchio, all the action taking place through an open window.

The window itself is the sole motif. The romantic innovation of the pure window-view contrasts a vast landscape and domestic interior with each other. Together, this brings the confinement of the indoors with the incongruous limitlessness of the space outside. The aesthetic position of the window turns us into observers rather than passive watchers. In doing this, the window also exposes the character behind it to vulnerability. It is an insight into their home, their routine, a window into their soul, if you will. A person looking out the window may sometimes see themselves reflected in the glass, the unexpected image offering insight into their own self. While large windows are incredibly revealing, they are also a tool in the hand of the observer. They let light in from the heavens, and allow people on the inside to be active participants in interactions with the outside. A small window yields more privacy but restricts the view of the outside world.

The balcony and the open window remain prevalent motifs in literature and art,  because it is there where all the amorous peripeteia occurred: where grand gestures of love were made by lovers forsaking their names and blasting boomboxes, where people waited silently for a spared glance, where serenades were sung and hands asked for in marriage, where everything could change. 

The symbol is so well-embedded in romance that it is hard to attribute it to a particular source. Such movements tend to sprout from collective attitudes and forms of expression, rather than an individual’s cry of a eureka moment. It is a rare motif where art, literature, and film borrow from each other to create whole worlds of meaning.

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