IX. HOUSE DECORATION
“Decoration” is a rather relative term as what we now consider to be an ornament had to fulfil a rather different function in the past.
This was the case, for example, with the items used to provide protection. Many beliefs, which were widespread until recent times, have now disappeared. There are symbols that are no longer connected with their previous meaning and which at times only have a purely ornamental role or are merely an expression of the strong attachment to a tradition that people do not want to or cannot break.
On the other hand, items or objects that were highly practically in past decades have become ornaments. Thus, certain parts of the house such as the trusses, particularly wooden ones, now have a notable value as period features.
Objects from yesteryear, even if they had a very practical function, currently have an added decorative value as they were crafted compared to the mass produced ones. In fact some industrial items are designed to look like the ones from the past.
The role of the ornaments per se has been to show the greater social status of a family compared to the other neighbours. The house has been crucial to highlight the economic and social position. One example can be found in the many communities where emigrants left to make their fortune in the Americas. Once they had been successful, they endeavoured to have a spacious home for holidays and their retirement built in their home towns. This also allowed them to show off their fortunes to their neighbours. The houses of those “Indianos”, as those emigrants were known, are spacious buildings, in general, with outbuildings, landscaped gardens and railings around the property.
Even earlier than this phenomenon of the returning emigrants, rural nobility also lived in notable buildings; the expression “to come from a good home" is an indicator of the standing of that social class.
There was a clear differentiation between the buildings where the families who worked in the fields or crafts lived and those homes of the old nobility or of the nouveau riche. The homes of the workers had hardly any decoration and if there was an ornament, it was usually simple.
Some houses, those with the greatest social or economic standing, were heavily decorated. In Allo (N), for example, the frontages of the nobles’ houses were decorated with coats-of-arms, arched gateways, stone cornices, oak eaves with carved modillions, etc. Some ended in a tower topped by an ironwork weather vane or cross.
With the passing of time and as people have turned their backs on agricultural work and the standard of living has risen, a growing concern to "do up” the houses has been seen, even though the outcome may be disputable from the perspective of respecting the building traditions of each zone.
Outside walls and frontages
Exposed stone and plastered frontages
The frontages are a good reflection of how tastes changed over time. Rendering and whitewashing the walls were considered to be more suitable in some areas of the territory studied. However, the current trend is to “expose the stone”, in other words, to chip away the plaster and reveal the bare stone underneath. This practice is not only used for outside walls, but also the inside ones, and for public buildings such as churches as well as residential ones.
In those places where the hours have timber trusses on their frontages, they are usually exposed to highlight the beauty of the buildings.
The custom of placing crosses on the highest part of the roof could be seen in several communities of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.
There was a time when it was fashionable to add a weathervane, often with a cockerel, particularly on new-builds in rural areas. Some of them were traditionally crafted by a blacksmith.
The eave is the part of the roof that is most visible to passer-bys, which was the reason that it was the most likely part to be decorated.
The houses in most of the territory had more or less broad eaves. Eaves are an essential part of the roof, but as there are many elements needed to form this overhang, only the eaves of the most noteworthy buildings were extensively carved.
Doors and windows
Ironwork was the most common way to decorate the doors. Some of the iron pieces are essential, such as the nails that hold the different parts together and the hinges; even so, there are notable differences between those whose function is exclusively structural and those that are also for decoration purposes. Handles, keyholes and knockers are features of more luxurious doors. Cross and, above all, plaques with the Sacred Heart were added to protect the household.
Houses with a coat-of-arms on their frontage could be found in practically all the communities surveyed. There was a general belief that those houses are or were important, and the most notable of each location.
The coats-of-arms were more frequent in the towns than in the rural areas of each location, as this type of properties were more usually built in the former. Furthermore, the coats-of-arms in built-up areas are earlier to those in rural areas.
Inscriptions are usually on the lintels of the front doors. The most important ones have the name of the house, the year it was built and the name of the person who built or restored it.