If one comes to our region for the very first time, especially from the north or south of the Adriatic coast, the first thing that catches one’s eyes will be the sweet and green slopes that descend towards the sea. On further inspection, after being diverted from the main driving route or from the car that is driving too close, or from an architectural monstrosity that can be found mainly in urban places, one can see the geometry of these sweet hills. One can see squares and rectangles that go up and down and are marked, or interrupted, by lines of oak trees or vineyards, cane ditches and olive groves.
This geometry is represented by the different cultivations on the land.
In the film “London Smoke”, Alberto Sordi plays the part of an antique dealer who, when he sees the English country-side for the first time, says: “this is not like in Italy, here the country is all green and calm, you can see everywhere sheep and cows grazing quietly and you have the idea that everything is falling from the sky. In our country instead, there is not a single field that is not ploughed, cultivated and worked. You see: here our fields are synonymous with hard work whilst in England it is with relaxation.
Well, we can say that the Marche country-side is part of that image that our famous actor so well described: the image of hard work and effort that the farmer constantly carries out in present times and also did in the past. This geometry represents that kind of hard work which shows a co-ordinated and practical trait that is the main characteristic of the Marchigiani.
It is primarily this rural landscape and these fields that give us that sense of the attachment of the people to their land.
If one goes off the main roads and enters a little country road, one of those white, narrow and dusty roads, it seems as though one is entering a time machine where time has stood still: the big olive trees give shade and peace to some sleeping dogs and dozing sheep; old and broken fences act as dividing lines between the ploughed fields and some almost yellowed pastures and here, on one side or in the background, you can see the country house, strong and worn like and old country woman who, notwithstanding her old age, is always there, inspecting with determination her land.
In fact, if we follow with our eyes the ploughed furrows of the fields starting from the valley, then rising to the mountain skyline, we find that the rural house (casa colonica) is always on the top and from there it reigns over its farm. Hilltop rural houses are evenly distributed and it is rare to find a farm without its rural house.
The rural house (nowadays in need of restoration) primarily gives us a sense, unchanged by time, of belonging to this land, maybe the only miraculously living testimony to our culture, our history and deep identity.
The rural house, more than anything else in fact, represents our regional culture, it tells us how we lived through the years with our values and faults, it tells us about interconnecting family affairs; the family as the main economical and social pivot in everyday life; of lifestyle; rules and hierarchies for good and bad, that reflected the rules and hierarchies of Le Marche society and, more generally, that of central Italy.
I believe we get very close to our real history (which is the history of most of us) when we enter these rural houses – more so than by entering castles or noble houses – as the rural house represents the real, true symbol of Le Marche region and the way man had contact with nature around him, how he ruled it but did not bend it, how he respected it but restrained it.
I wanted to write a little summary of the history of the rural house which I always find interesting and intriguing. I think it is right to restore these houses in order to keep them whole and to meet modern day needs but always respecting the exterior look. But I think it is also only proper to point out how they used to be in the old days.
Everybody knows that the old stables are transformed into dining rooms and the bedrooms are built on the top floor, but how was the rural house before?
It almost looked like all the houses that you have seen before restoration: the stable was placed to the West, the cellars to the East, the pigsty under the staircase, the kitchen on the first floor in the middle of the house, the farmer’s rooms above the stable to be able to monitor and check, even at night time, the biggest assets of the farm: the animals.
But notwithstanding this general rule, I have to say that I rarely find one house similar to another one and even though they look similar, they have some details that differentiate them.
The rural house represents the most living expression of the farmer’s culture over the centuries in Le Marche. The farmer has been using it with his family as his main house since the 17th century and his family helped him to work on the surrounding land. The land was not actually his – he was just a person who was bound to the landowner by a contract. This crop-sharing system contract (called here ‘mezzadria’) stated that the farmer must work the land, look after the animals and give half of the profit to the owner. That share of the profit consisted of wheat or flour according to what they decided in the terms of the contract. This also stated that the farmer must live in the house, maintain its upkeep and give shelter to the animals, machinery and stock. The landowner built the rural house and the farmer looked after its ongoing maintenance.
The crop was shared equally between the two. Usually it was not the landowner who came to count his share of the profit but he sent his collector who was his trustworthy employee.
One can experience a lot of the functions of the rural house; functions that derive from several needs and it is because of these varied necessities that the rural house has attained through the years a multi-linked and complex aspect. All this has submitted the rural house to several changes to adapt to the needs of a particular time in the past and this was reflected by adding more rooms either internally or externally, building new annexes or, as it happened in the 19th century, destroying completely the old houses to rebuild new ones.
I found very big houses (especially here in the Jesino valley) inhabited in the past by even more than 40 people and sometimes I asked myself how they could all live together and where was their privacy, that today is so essential, and what kind of psychological attitudes and behaviours sprang up in a family so enlarged and forced to live all
It wasn’t a so-called commune which was so popular in the 60’s and 70’s where everyone was free to do and think as they wished (for example, there was the painter or the person who improvised in the work of ceramics which is what people also do nowadays, now that we are free from that primary need called hunger). People lived under the strict hierarchy and supervision of their male and female leader. They used to work on the land from dawn to dusk and this work was very hard. Women also worked on the land or they were at home to spin, they milked the cows, they sewed, they used to make lunch (for all those people!), they looked after the little ones. All those houses used to come to life, whether it was good or bad but they came to life. Now instead they are left there, like abandoned dogs waiting for a new master.
Then I began to think that the rural houses represent much more than is generally thought. Notwithstanding their modest architecture, if we can call it architecture, they have a vast presence on our territory, considering that many of these houses where destroyed in the past. They are a testimony to a cultural heritage that is written nowhere – made of gestures, words, thoughts and fears – but it has been handed down from generation to generation and, this might sound funny, also engraved in those people and generations who had no relatives in farming. These county people had a strong sense of money saving, for example, and also to be undemonstrative. They were modest, very religious and had very strong control over themselves and others too. They had a certain coldness at demonstrating their true feelings, especially the parents towards their children. However, they had a strong attachment to family and their own roots with all the advantages and disadvantages that followed. Finally, they had a tendency towards rationality (land is a concrete reality) instead of dreams and illusions. All this comes from the farmer’s culture and not from the middle class. In fact, here in Le Marche, we have very little or no middle class.
From all this also derived the inclination to produce their own vegetables, as today many small industries produce their own products, their own activities, through their noted individuality. This is a mentality that, today, people are trying to change through strong education, globalization, and with the opening up to the outside world that has happened particularly in the last few years with the opening of the airport, but this trait remains deeply rooted. Therefore, even though I think it is correct that times and needs change, I sometimes look with affection at our past and at the modern fashions and trends that are changing this house from a ‘hard working’ house into a – finally! – relaxing house. Also because these buildings are almost always in very good locations.
Our ancestor farmer wasn’t stupid at all then! He was not looking for a temporary job in town, in those unhealthy and overpopulated cities, and therefore he was better off than other people. Even though he had to fight with debt and with his landowner, who was financially suffocating him, he always had a place where to hide his eggs or a chicken or a bowl of milk, a pleasant place to live, full of sun, trees, water and plenty of good air. To sum up, yes he was poor but not stupid!
In all the books I read, I always found this sentence: “we cannot talk about architecture when we look at these houses mainly because they used to be built by country labourers and only after the middle of 1800’s, with the investigation on the situation of the Marche country-side, dealt with by the engineer Paolo Guerrieri of Macerata, that it was found necessary to improve the living condition of the farmer, therefore outlining what the layout of the ideal farmhouse should be. Something that was not always taken into consideration”.
Therefore it was in that period of time that many farmhouses were rebuilt….and we can see that. Many farmhouses have a more “modern” look compared to others and they were also more solid, this was a sign that the way of building houses had improved in the meantime.
“The boost of commercial exchanges towards the end of the 1800’s encourages the rebuilding of the old farmhouses into large houses with exposed external bricks, outside dividing floor marks, inclined rain gutters with small openings and dentils and the use of framed arches in the entrance halls. Houses made of stones or bricks, with other annexes placed around the courtyard, are still in use on the high hills and mountains. The main characteristic of the houses on flat land or low hills is the house built with bricks and tiles, a rectangular plan, two floors and no extra lower annexes, expect the ones built only to store machinery, fertilizers or chickens.
The habitable rooms are generally on the top floor whilst the stables and the cellar are on the ground floor with an internal connecting staircase”.
The rural house has come all the way to today and therefore we can list its main types as follow:
1) – we can list 2 types of farm houses among the more popular ones, which are the houses with external staircase and the ones with the internal staircase.
- a) – the houses with internal staircase, also called ‘solaro’ room, are mainly on flat land towards the sea. Internally they have an asymmetric aspect compared with the main front and flat roof.
The kitchen and bedrooms are on the first floor as is the storage room. The kitchen is the central place of the house with the fireplace called ‘arola’ or ‘rola’. The stable is on the east side of the ground floor just underneath the bedrooms so the farmer or ‘vergaro’ (the term ‘verga’ is applied to the person who holds the control) can hear even the faintest noise at night time when animals can be stolen. The cellar and the sheep pen are at the west side, the pigsty and the chicken coup are under the staircase. Then there is the courtyard, which is in part paved and in part just soiled, and here is where the wine harvest takes place with its wine making but it is also the place where people organise their meetings and parties in relation to what they harvested from the fields.
- b) – the second type of house is the one with the external staircase which is mainly found on the hills. The outside staircase connects directly to the first floor and the kitchen. The staircase can be uncovered or covered only on the upper landing. The inside of the house is similar to the one with the internal staircase: same position of the rooms and same functions.
2) Another type of farmhouse, which is mainly found on high hills, is the slope house. This one has neither internal nor external staircase. The first floor is habitable while the lower ground floor holds both the stables and the cellar.
The lower floor is built on the slope of the valley and therefore holds the stables while the habitable rooms are above it with the kitchen and bedrooms. Its entrance is on the upper road level looking like a ground floor in relation to the road.
This house is mainly built with local grey or light rose stones depending on the area where it is positioned, but can be found always on more mountainous areas.
3)We also have to mention the square house with very large rooms placed on two floors.
They are very pretty and their origin goes back to ancient farmhouses and master houses (case padronali). They have a more detailed architectural feature and they don’t hold the stables on the ground floor. On the other hand, sometimes we can see the kitchen on the ground floor whilst the bedrooms are on the first floor.
The main characteristic is represented by an arched entrance door with a written date when the house was built and framed with bricks or terracotta tiles.
Every time I visited them I always had a feeling of magnificence and realism. They are placed on the top of small hills or on flat land and they have a perspective view with the same number of windows on each side. They are undoubtedly charming and I would recommend to leave the courtyard as it used to be a long time ago as, in most cases, the front courtyard was built with terracotta tiles.
4) The tower house or palombara, as it was called in later years, has also ancient origins which go back to the 1500’s and 1600’s, initially built in its primitive form in the 1200’s and 1300’s with a military type structure. At first these houses where built mainly in inner areas or woodland because of fear of constant attacks and raids. The tower house rose over the high vegetation around and this allowed a view of the surroundings hills. The internal rooms had the same characteristics of the other houses: stables and cellar on the ground floor, bedrooms and storage room on the upper floors. It is after the 1600’s that this type of house becomes ‘colombaia’ or ‘palombara’ (pigeon-house), the tower is completely closed and used to breed pigeons.
This type of house represents the most ambitious model among the country houses and therefore the most expensive to build but its persistence through the years is due to the fact that pigeon breeding is appreciated not only for its meat but also for the production of compost which is considered to be a very good fertilizer.
5) Another chapter is the house ‘bigattiera’ which multiplied at the beginning of 1800’s. Also because a lot of silk factories were built around the town of Jesi and therefore there were a lot of these houses in this area.
(A particular folk music was born thanks to these factories, also called ‘filande’ where a lot of women were employed, and today this kind music has been reborn thanks to the study and research of Gastone Petrucci and the music band called “La Macina”.
People who know this type of folk music know what I am talking about, this band is famous all over Italy).
There are many sizes and shapes to these houses. I have attached one photo here – otherwise there is not enough room.
The breeding of the bigatto (silkworm) during the crop-sharing system years allowed the reinvestment of funds during the low agricultural activity of the year.
Here they started to build houses with silkworm rooms built in the middle or on the side of the floor, even though the most usual one is the one in the middle of the floor usually above the kitchen. These silkworm houses have tympanum vaulted roofs and a characteristic French door in a central position with an arched lintel and railing. The windows are very large to allow more air and they have shutters, closed during the hot hours of the day otherwise the silkworm could have been damaged.
6) I also have to mention the so called ‘case di terra’ (earth houses). This kind of house is build with very poor material such as earth and straw. This technique was very famous in the old days but then these houses suffered constant destruction, either due to people abandoning the country-side or because they were considered to be a symbol of poverty.
Also here I have to point out two differences: the earth house of the small proprietor and the one of the country labourer. In the first instance, the house is independent.
There is much to say on the earth houses. There was a unique way of building these houses and, because of it, they would really deserve an entire chapter of their own. There are a lot of books related to this type of houses.
A mixture of earth and straw was used and the construction of these houses was done mainly in Springtime or Autumn otherwise the dry Summer heat or the excessive Winter coldness would have ruined them. Usually, this mixture of earth and straw was placed in provisional wooden boxes to get the shape of a brick. Then, the builders manually made square blocks with this mixture and placed them on top of each other just like stones put together without any cement. The roof was made with a layer of canes placed on wooden beams, a layer of earth and straw on top of it and finally the terracotta tiles to cover the roof.
The only earth and straw houses left here are in Serra dè Conti and San Paoli di Jesi and this is due to the National Building Heritage. They have all been restored and can be admired in all their structural simplicity.
In conclusion, I have tried to summarise the different types of houses to enlighten the visitor who comes here looking for a farmhouse to inhabit or in which to spend part of the year. I deliberately did not want to carry out a deep research on this subject because I think this is not the right place, but I hope that I have aroused in you some kind of interest and I am sure that, in future, when you stand in front of a rural house, you will try to give it a more accurate definition, you will also ask yourself a few questions, as I did, looking for some kind of hint or proof of a past that will never come back. A past that, thanks to all of us, will continue to live into the future regaining a different, but certainly calmer, habitable purpose.
from Lorenza Cappanera and Sergio Marinelli – www.marchecountryhomes.com ; www.sergiomarinelli.com – experts in farmhouses and restoration project