The manor houses
By Mª Luisa Freire Lodeiro
Getting to know the Galician manor houses is to know the history of the Ancient Regime in Galicia, especially the 18th century. In a time when the land ownership was essential, being able to access to the property suppossed a social and economic improvement. This change would begin to feel weakly from the 16th century because until this moment the land belonged exclusively to the Church and the nobles. But gradually, some lower social classes, like the squires of the high nobility, notaries, clergymen, among others, would accumulate power until the 18th century. In this way they had access to the land ownership, due to socio-economic transformations and even to the payment for political favors. These new owners, in turn, rented the land to other farmers (subforums), which gave them high incomes that facilitated their social and economic advancement. To demonstrate this new power, these new lords built manor houses or rehabilitated medieval fortresses and in this way Galician manor houses were born.
A Galician manor house is actually a big house built especially in rural areas, by the small nobility. The choice of the site for construction was not left to chance. For example they were built in strategic places, specially high places, to have a better view and control of their possessions. The new owners preferred sometimes to build in the middle of the countryside, in valleys with microclimates and more fertile lands. Since they had an autarkic agrarian regime, the manor was not only a residence but also a farm, thanks to which they could live.
The Galician country houses have been the subject of interest not only for their history or architecture, but also in Spanish and Galician literature. Important writers like Emilia Pardo Bazan, Valle Inclán and Otero Pedrayo, among others, were inspired by manor houses for their novels, and reflected, in some way, how Galician society was at that time.
The etymology of the word “pazo (manor house)” is the Latin "palatium". The palatium or Roman villas of the Roman Empire had some resemblance with the construction of manor houses, especially in the plant, and the two floors. But the Galician manor houses also received modern architectural influences such as the ones from the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Neoclassical. At the same time, its construction was also determined by the needs and circumstances of use and time. For example, during the Middle Age they were built taking into account the needs of defense, due to the frequent wars or rebellions and they presented high walls and towers. But as the wars ended, these fortifications were adapted to the new needs, specially to farming works. We have an example of this in the manor-fortress of San Pedro de Bembibre in Taboada (Lugo). Their new objective would be a calm and peaceful place of residence where it was easier to work the lands and due to this many fortifications were abandoned or rebuilt like manor houses. Some of the fortifications and towers remained only as decorative elements, and as a symbol of the power that the family had owned.
But we shouldn’t forget the great influence that the monastic architecture had in these new buildings. Galicia is also a land of monasteries, and some manor houses remind us clearly these constructs. For example, the manor of Abraira in Vilabade (Castroverde), from the 17th century, whose construction was done on the site where once there was a Franciscan monastery, from which it is still preserved the Church from the 14th century.
But the style that mostly has defined the manor houses was undoubtedly the Baroque one. So many of the Galician manor houses have sawed plaques, big chimneys or outdoor wide staircases, typical Galician Baroque elements. It would be during the 18th century when the manor houses would be at the peak, with more sumptuous buildings like the manor of Sistallo in Cospeito, the manor of Tor in Monforte or the manor of Batán in Monterroso (all of them in the province of Lugo). The economic boom these constructions reflected coincided with the introduction of maize in agriculture, which was very important for the economy of the noblemen.
The inside of the manor houses
The manor houses have two floors: the ground floor, where the barn, stables and servants' quarters were placed and the first floor used by the nobility where the kichen, the living rooms, bedrooms, and so forth were situated.
The nerve centre of the house was the kitchen because it was not only the place where food for people was prepared but also for animals. It was a big wide space and in some way it symbolized the power of the owners because the more chattels it had the richer the house was. There were cupboards called “chineros” where they kept the crockery and tablecloth. In the middle it was the hearth of stone called “lareira”, where they cooked and that served them to heat the home. This place was where both servants and nobility spent most of their time.
The living rooms were interconnected between them. In this area of the house the wealth of the owners was displayed and because of this they decorated it carefully, so we can find there big pictures and crafts with a certain value, though not as flashy as in the palaces placed in the cities. An important part of these rooms is the chimney, a meeting point where they received visitors. The living room was only used occasionally to receive both ecclesiastical or other kind of authorities and it was also common to be used to celebrate the wedding of their children.
Another important room was the library because it was not only used to keep books, but also to protect the family documents such as contracts, wills and so on. Unfortunately most of these libraries have disappeared.
A popular construction of these houses were some stone projections, used as seats, called “conversadoiros”. It was the place where women sat to share their secrets.
A popular saying states "chapel, dovecote and cypress, manor is." These words show to us that the manor is not the only building of the 18th century noblemen home but there were also gardens, oak forests, vineyards and so forth.
The chapel used to be an independent building of the manor, but sometimes it was integrated into it. It was attached to the wall of the property and had two entrances, one inside, for the lords, and one outside to be used by other people.
They used to be sober constructions, without any ornamentation, built with a single nave, simple and rectangular plan. Inside the chapel there were usually some polychrome wooden altarpieces, images and a gallery. It was used for weddings, baptisms and even funerals.
In the lands of the manor houses there usually was a dovecot, a cylindrical structure with a conical roof. Here pigeons, considered a delicacy for special occasions, were suckled.
The Galician barn is one of the most representative buildings in our landscape. Its great importance, even today, is due to its role in agricultural activities, specially to store cereals like maize and other agricultural products that were placed inside it to dry and keep throughout the year.
The barn has a rectangular plan (different from the Asturian barns with a square plan) and it’s supported by strong pillars of stone. It also has a curious component called “tornarratos”: a circular stone in the shape of a capital, which prevented the mice would eat the goods stored there. The walls of the barns had holes that were suitable for ventilation.
In the areas of wine production, as the Ribeira Sacra or Ribeiro, the manor houses also have cellars, placed on the ground floor so as to look for a suitable temperature and humidity for wine storage.
The courtyards, that have some resemblance to the public squares, were generally placed in front of the facades. Its structure was polygonal. It was an important point because it had two functions: an aesthetic one (to serve as outward lobby and even as a stage) and a practical one (to do some farming works).
We can also find a cloister-like courtyard formed by several pillars covered by arcades to be used by the servants.
Wall and monumental gate
The wall, built of stone, delimited the land property. Here we can find the monumental gate that gives access to the inside. This gate shows great ornamental wealth with arch moldings, and in the horizontal cornice there are the pinnacles, crosses, coats of arms and, to a lesser extent, some sculptures. The gate could also have one or two side towers as a reminder of its noble past.
The gardens usually copied the French style, well structured and with geometric shapes. In many of these gardens water played an important part and it's easy to find ponds, fountains or other structures associated with this element of nature. The fountains can be found not only inside the manor, as a sculptural piece for the use and enjoyment of the residents, but also outside for a public use (people from the village could use them for themselves or for the animals). There were also English-style gardens, wilder, but they had less influence.
The most common trees were cypress trees and palm trees in the manors of coastline. In the oak woods we can find oaks, chestnuts and walnuts, which were used for firewood or wood. This was the place where the festivals of the parish were celebrated.
Architectural and ornamental elements
The first thing that strikes us when we see a manor house is the sobriety of this building, in marked contrast with the baroque style of the time. This surely is due to two reasons: first of all, the material they use to build. Galicia is very rich in the granite stone worked as masonry, but this material is very hard and difficult to mold. On the other hand, it probably was very difficult to find professionals with sufficient artistic training because aesthetic culture in this area was very limited. Another type of stone we can find, mainly in the area of Lugo, is the flagstone. Then the manor houses roofs can be made, depending on the area, from red tile or flagstone, but all of them have in common a sloping construction to facilitate the fall of rain. Two other important decorative elements in the roofs are the chimneys that, apart from their practical value, served as a symbol of power. Inside them, we can find the second decorative element: the pinnacles.
We can find four types of plans in manor houses. The most common one is the square or rectangular one, as the Roman villas. An example of a square plan is found in the manor of Carraltravesa from the 18th century, placed in Nosa Señora de Sabadelle (Chantada); and an example of a rectangular one in San Martiño de Bóveda, in the manor house of the marquesses of this village, a building with Neoclassical influence that had in the façade some Pompeian-style paintings, unfortunately almost lost.
Other buildings were constructed at right angles like the manor house called Pazo de Vilar in San Martiño (Pantón) or the one of Perrelos in the comarca of Taboada. This last one, with Baroque façade, has a series of arches, that make arcades, built with granite stone, and also has a beautiful fountain in the garden.
We can also find manor houses with an u-shaped courtyard. An example of this is found again in the region of Panton: the Pazo de Ferreiroá, built in the 18th century and surrounded by a balcony overlooking a beautiful garden. It also has a laundry and a patio at its rear facade.
Finally, we can find a minority group of manor houses with irregular plan. This is due to the different buildings, or additions made throughout the centuries.
Pillars and columns
It’s normal the use of pillars and columns due to the construction of balconies and porches. The pillars, usually square, are used to support heavy weights, and slender columns are reserved for lighter weights. Both consist of simple base, shaft bevel and Tuscan or Doric capital.
In the main façade, oriented to the north, we find the stairs or steps that had a double function: the practicalone (to gain access to the noble parts) and the monumental one (they were a kind of stage). The construction materials are granite stone and iron. The stairs were placed in such a way so as to give to an open gallery forming a kind of vestibule. They are often decorated with balustrades, typical Galician Baroque decorations.
The façades oriented to midday were the place where galleries, balconies or sunrooms were placed. These corridors were often large and were also surrounded by balustrades. The materials used for construction are stone, iron, and wood. As it was the area where more light was received, it was the one used to rest, to spend the afternoon sunbathing while doing manual labor, or as a balcony. It was also used to dry the corn, fruit or other products from the land.
Another important element we can find in balconies are the corbels. These big pieces were used as supports. They were made of granite, in a simple but robust way, and presents geometric shapes.
The coats, an essential element of the manor decoration, were placed mainly in the main facade, but also on the facade of the chapel or the monumental gate. They used to have oval shape, and less frequently square or rectangular shape. They had an aesthetic function because they were decorated with engravings of plants and geometric figures, but their most important function was the social one: to show the identity of the owners. Inside them the arms and surname of the noble family were represented and, sometimes, they had in the upper part a crown, the symbol of a duchy or a county.
Some of these openings are in doors, windows or air doors. All of them have rectangular shape and are
framed with simple masonry moldings. Their profile may be curved or flat. Some of the windows have a mullion, a very common element in Baroque architecture to give more light to the inside of the building. In the openings we can find an architectural element called “sobrepenas” used to protect them from the rain.
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