Sunday, May 19, 2013

Building a House (Part I)

I'm building a house.  Three of them, actually - and they're just a few doors from each other, all along one street in Florence.  In the mid-13th century.

I'm working on my next historical novel, and I need to design, decorate, and furnish at least three houses:  one for the family of a well-to-do (but not noble) notary; one for a wealthy and powerful family with an ancient and honorable (and noble) surname and a knight in residence; and one humble house for the family of one of the servants of the people in the first house.  The time:  1260-ish.

And it's been much, much more difficult than I ever would have guessed.

What's the problem, you may say.  You want to know what medieval houses were like?  Just look it up.  I wish it were that easy, but alas, it is not.  Information is ambiguous as to date and place, missing altogether, or contradictory.

A city official's house in Macerata (1373)

When a historian flags a "first known mention" of something, is it brand new as of that date?  Or has it been around for years, and this is just the first mention of it that survived?  (Think inside shutters, wall fireplaces.)  We don't know.  We can't know. 

When a writer groups all of Italy together (or worse, all of Europe), you've got a problem:  Venice beat Florence to chimneys and wall fireplaces, probably by quite a bit, and it's likely that the places with a harsh climate that spurred them to cover their windows did so before the more temperate areas got around to it. 

When a writer groups the entire 13th century together, and possibly throws in the 14th for good measure, you've got another problem.  When you find a great reference in Boccaccio, who was writing a hundred years after my time period, you don't know whether he's writing about something that was innovative in his lifetime, or something that had been around forever.

As for the iconography, Villani, for example, is a chronicler who is only slightly later than our target time, but the surviving illustrations of his work are from even later - so do they reflect the reality of the times being written about, or the illustrator's contemporary reality?  

But at the end of the day (lots of days, actually) there are certain conclusions we can draw.  Unfortunately for those of us who like things definite and tidy, there are also certain things we will probably never know.

Florence is not lacking in Renaissance palaces, and they are lovely and interesting.  But medieval houses they are not - not even medieval houses for the upper crust - and they simply don't tell us much about those earlier dwellings.  In Florence one can still see streets that retain a medieval flavor, but not so many buildings that date from before the Renaissance.   (This is because of the ravages of time, of World War II, of floods and fire, of misguided modernization, and because of those very same Renaissance houses, which after all had to be built somewhere.)

Elsewhere in Tuscany

Even when medieval buildings survive, the insides have been gutted and rebuilt so many times that there is little left to go on, as we attempt to recreate how people lived in Florence in 1260.

But we do have some paintings, book illustrations, descriptions in literature, estate inventories, detailed legal documents concerning property and property division, and some archaeological evidence, so we do the best we can with what we've got.

I drew up a list of questions for myself, never dreaming that it would be such a mega-project to find the answers.  Here are the first ones, if you'd like to come along with me on this research journey:

First question:  How much living space did they have?  In the countryside, Tuscan farmhouses were considered spacious compared to those in Lombardy.  They (the Tuscan houses) ranged from 33 feet to 39 feet in length, and 16 to 20 feet in width (with a very high ceiling, which could accommodate a loft).  That's a maximum of 780 square feet.  Not a lot - and in the city, there was less space.  In the 13th century, the population was exploding - people were flocking in from the surrounding countryside, and everyone wanted to live within the walls, for safety and for convenience. 

So people built up when they could, creating the formidable defensive tower-houses that embodied the power of the nobles, or just creating more living space for more people above what had been there before:

When they couldn't build up, they built out.  That's how you get those jutting-out additions you see in the street scene above:  balconies, add-ons, sporti as the Italians called them - they blocked the light from the street below, and they had to be constructed of lightweight material and propped up, but they did give that precious little extra bit of living space.  Sometimes a balcony, or a sort of bridge, connected two nearby houses, far above street level (a way to seek safety in the home of a friend or family member if your own home was under assault, an all-too-common situation in those days).

How many floors?  It varied.  Typically the ground floor of any multi-storied building was devoted to storage and/or commercial space - a shop rented out (or belonging to the homeowner who lived above); storage for comestibles; perhaps a guest bedroom, or a space for invited guests to come inside - but not too far inside.  The staircase up to the family's living quarters began on the ground floor; access to it in some homes could be denied by a stout door with a bar and a lock.  (Outside staircases also existed; see next week's post for more about those.)  The main living area would be the piano nobile, or one floor up.  In a larger house, there might be additional chambers above that level.  But Florence was still full of single-story, ramshackle wooden shanties, housing those of the poor who at least had their own homes, instead of renting a room or two in a larger building. 

How many rooms, and how were they allocated?  Not very many rooms, not even in the grandest houses.  (And there were plenty of people who rented and lived in a single room.)  The one division you see, whenever division is possible at all, is that of sala and camera (living room/dining room, or the house's more public area; and the bedchamber or chambers, the house's more private area).  This illustration from Boccaccio's Decameron neatly illustrates the sala/camera distinction:

Rooms might be divided by wooden panels, or even by cloth hangings, rather than by actual walls.   At the wealthiest end, individuals (even husband and wife) might have their own bedrooms, and the man of the house might have a private study.  At the poorer end, there might have been one bedchamber for everyone to share. 

How were they heated?  In the case of the poorest houses, the question should be were they heated.  And the answer is, probably not.  While wealthier homes had at least one hearth, maybe two, and individual rooms could be heated with charcoal braziers (a sort of medieval space heater), the danger of fire in the city was substantial, and people who were renting a single room were likely going to have to make do without a source of warmth.  No heat, no kitchen, no laundry or bathing facilities.  Just that room.  Windows (see next question) were not glassed, and in fact at this early date they often would not even have been covered with cloth.

In the houses where heat was an option, it was still an imperfect system.  This date (1260) is too early for wall fireplaces with chimneys (this is a somewhat controversial point, but there really doesn't seem to be much evidence of an external chimney system in Florence at this time).  Smoke could be vented through louvred windows, though imperfectly.  A "central hearth" could be relocated to a spot next to a wall, with a fire-resistant reredos behind it, and the smoke channeled toward a window, or it could remain in the more primitive central position.  I suspect that the fireplace shown here, in an illustration nearly 200 years later than our time period, is not attached to a real chimney, but is using the cone to direct the smoke out through a vent in an external wall.  With older houses placed very close together, it must have been quite difficult to retrofit them with external chimneys; thus, there was a period of time when newer houses built by artisans were probably more comfortable and livable than the much older ancestral homes of the nobility, which were still cramped fortified towerhouses, no matter how carefully updated.

In this illustration, the woman cooking birds on a spit is cooking them near the hearth, but they are actually suspended over a portable brazier (note the handle):

What were the windows like?  Like holes in the wall, mostly.  Poor homes might have few small windows, possibly with no covering at all, though some sort of rough wooden shutter on the outside (which may or may not have fit the space well) would have been likely.  Wealthier homes might have had barred windows on the ground floor, to guard against uninvited guests; other windows would have had external shutters, but this is still a bit early for many homes to have the ingenious, intricately-designed hinged and modular inside shutters that came along a bit later and allowed people to control air flow and light much more precisely than the binary, open-shut method that was all they had before.  Certainly no glass in home windows at this time, and even the stretched- and treated-cloth coverings would not have been common.  (That doesn't mean that clever people didn't jury-rig solutions that would have made their lives easier and more pleasant.) 

The house shown below (which is in Friuli) may well be medieval, but had it been in Florence, it almost certainly would not have had such a big window at the ground level.  I suspect that the window is not original to the building, though the stonework around it suggests that it may have been.

What about the kitchen?  Those who rented a single room didn't have one, obviously.  Some families rented more than one room in a building (though they were lucky if the rooms were on the same floor and near each other), but they often didn't have kitchen access, either.  Due to the ever-present danger of fire, kitchens at this time were typically located outside the house, in an area behind the building in a little outbuilding, to contain the risk of fire.  But this is also during the time when many homes, particularly the wealthier ones, were adding a kitchen at the top of the house (again, to minimize the risk of fire).  Rudimentary cooking could be accomplished over any sort of hearth, of course, and very few private homes had an oven (bakeries provided bread, or baked the bread and pies that cooks prepared at home and brought to the bakery or cookshop to be baked). 

Where do things get stored?  Items in barrels (wine, vinegar) are usually stored on the ground floor, an area which may be divided into storage rooms.  As the contents are required elsewhere in the house, people bring containers down and take what they need.  Hauling barrels full of liquid up to a kitchen in the top of the house is not a job anyone wants to tackle.  Grain and other relatively nonperishable comestibles can be stored practically anywhere.  It's not unusual to note in inventories that such supplies are stored in bedrooms.  Wherever there's room...  Clothing, household linens, and other items of value can be found in storage chests, which typically surround the bed or line up against the wall of the camera.  The one place you won't find things stored is in those overhanging jetties, or sporti, because they might not tolerate the extra weight.

Where does everybody sleep (including servants, if applicable)?  Depends on how many rooms they have.  Bedrooms are shared; beds are shared.  Bedrooms often have pallets as well as real beds; servants and children may sleep there, or there may be a sort of dormitory for the children in another chamber.  All combinations are possible.  By the way, even the great families at this time had very few servants in residence - perhaps two or three.  That doesn't mean they didn't hire other people for specific tasks:  hauling water, delivering wood, doing the laundry.

What's the house made of?  In Florence, probably brick.  If it's a wealthy person's house, it may have a stone facade.  It may even be built entirely of stone.  It's not unusual to see the first story of a house in stone, and the upper story (or stories) in somewhat less expensive materials.  Poor homes in Florence at this time are still made of wood.

What's the flooring made of?  Again, probably brick for the ground floor.  Depending on the strength of construction, wood or another lighter material may be used for subsequent stories. A poor person's wooden house probably had a dirt floor. 

What about decor?  This only applies to the wealthier homes, of course.  Walls are usually whitewashed; painted decorations may be added, done either freehand or with stencils.  These are most typically geometric patterns and figures.  See the detail and overview below of the Sala dei Pappagalli at the Palazzo Davanzati, a late 14th century palace in Florence, now a museum.  This palace was state-of-the-art a hundred years after our time period, but this particular style of decoration may not have changed much:

Palazzo Davanzati

The wall painting is done in such a way as to suggest a fabric drapery, and indeed wall hangings were an important part of decor on special occasions, but evidence suggests that they were safely stored in chests most of the time.

Floors in these more elaborate dwellings were more likely to have reed mats than scattered rushes, which were more of a country phenomenon at this time in Tuscany (or so say my sources).  Carpets might adorn benches, hang from windowsills on feast days, or cover tables, but they weren't likely to be on the floor.


That's it for Part I.  Join me next week for a look at some of the features of medieval houses that affected not only those who dwelt in the house, but the whole neighborhood:  source of water, how much room does the house take up on the street, what are the fire hazards, how did the residents dispose of waste, how did they get supplies into the house, and where did they park their horses?

Images in this post are in the public domain with the exception of the Palazzo Davanzati pictures, which are licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, the picture of the house in Macerata, which is licensed to Abraham via the same license, and the street scene (second picture), to which my husband Tim Heath holds copyright.

No comments: