Balconies: streets on the air

Lima, february the 19th, 1564. A man is about to die.

It is a warm summer after midnight, and a masked man is getting down a stepladder from a balcony. Suddenly the stepladder breaks, and the man falls to the ground. Five neighbors come over and start beating the man. When a sixth neighbor arrives, the man is already dead. The man´s name: Diego Lopez de Zuñiga. This would have been another love affair story, but the man was the count of Nieva, fourth viceroy of Peru. The story appears in the “Tradiciones Peruanas”, written by the Peruvian author Ricardo Palma.

Balconies were silent witnesses of this kind of stories during much of the Spaniard colonial period in most of Peru, but especially in Lima.

It is almost midday, and the sun is shining. I walk around downtown Lima, and the clear shadow of a balcony over the street stops me, and I can´t help looking above my shoulders. I am standing in one of the corner of the main square just to the right of the government palace, and I see the large green balcony of the Casa del Oidor, the oldest one in Lima dating back the 17th century.

Balconies: streets on the air

Nonetheless, as the above story implies, downtown Lima was already embellished by quite a few balconies in the middle of the 16th century. “There were magnificent houses”, wrote the Spaniard chronicler Agustin de Zarate, who lived in Lima between 1543 and 1545. Pedro Cieza de León, another Spaniard chronicler, found “very good houses” while he stayed here from 1550 to 1553. During those years, balconies began to be trimmed with lattice. Might the unlucky viceroy be climbing down from a balcony with lattice? The answer is uncertain as there isn´t any more balconies from that time.

It is the 17th century and downtown grows just as quickly. Baroque style gives a new look to churches, palaces, mansions as well as balconies. Limeños meet at balconies to express love, to celebrate carnival, to gossip and to spy the streets without being noticed. The friar Antonio de la Calancha wrote at the beginning of the 18th century about the balconies: “They are so many and too large that they seem to be streets on the air”.

Lima was an everlasting feast full of elegance and wealth even though tragedy hit her time after time. Most buildings stumbled down after strong earthquakes in 1655 and 1687. But the worst was about to come when a violent earthquake in 1746 vanished most of the port of Callao and the city nearly collapsed.

To rebuild the city, walls were made of quincha which is still a mixture of mud and wood or caña brava (gynerium sagittatum). After those years, rich and wealthy families were proud to build an even more beautiful balcony than his neighbor so the face of the city changed again.

Walking down the third block of jiron ucayali, just three blocks away from main square, I try to figure out how much patience artists took to achieve such a beautiful balconies as the Torre Tagle palace and the Goyeneche or Rada House. Both have two balconies French and Moorish style, respectively.

The next century would endure a new change for balconies as casing, grid and glass substituted for lattice and openwork. However, during the middle of the 19th century balconies with lattice were still popular as a French traveler, Botmiliau, claimed that “a huge balcony with green lattice adorns the façade”. Flora Tristan (1803-1844) wrote in her book Peregrinaciones de una Paria: “this city encompasses very gorgeous monuments and a great array of churches and convents. Houses are built in order, and streets are large and wide”.
From this century it is the balcony of the Casa Aliaga just to the left of the government palace. This house is run by the travel agency Lima Tours (jr de la union 1040). Nevertheless, if you are interested in architecture you should not lose one of the finest balconies ever built. I am talking about the Palacio Osambela or Oquendo. Actually, this mansion, located on the second block of jiron Conde de Superunda, has five balconies and a viewpoint .

There are a few balconies all around downtown so pedestrians, foreigners and even local people, should not keep from the temptation to look up the sky to find and admire these “streets on the air”.

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