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Bertan > Tower houses and lineages of Gipuzkoa > The Towers in the Urban World
Bertan 11

The Towers in the Urban World


Against the rural world, we have the urban world, constituted by the 25 towns, the creation of which took place, step by step, between the burning in 1180 (Saint Sebastian) and 1383 (Zestoa and Urretxu) and in the urban structure of which Towers took on a role of prime importance. Like from the rural Tower the population was dominated and controlled, and certain social and economic interests were thus defended, from the urban Tower, usually strategically located, the family owners controlled the town and propped up their prestige directly upon their co-citizens.

Berastegi Manor (Berastegi).
Berastegi Manor (Berastegi). © Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa. Servicio de Patrimonio Histórico Artístico.
Isturitzaga Tower (Andoain).
Isturitzaga Tower (Andoain). © José Luis Galiana

Even today, the differences between some Towers and the others are palpable in some cases and you can even guess how diverse some of the elements that differentiated them had to be. And, as main element, the same regime of ownership of the Tower. Rural lineages, for whom the Tower was one of the pillars of their identity, did not even consider it entering the market under any circumstance: it could not be bought nor sold; it went to a single heir, by common law. While urban Towers were subject to repeated purchase-sales of estate especulation and to the prevailing market rules, as it constituted a coveted asset which represented the urban lineage. In the rural world, Tower and Manor ( as material sites of the lineage) were almost synonymous elements that preserved their meaning until mid XVI century, while in the urban world, the Tower, laden with other meanings besides, in some cases, the already mentioned one, constituted the representation of economic and social success and its survival in a same lineage throughout generations, was the best proof of its solidity.

Logically, with urban evolution, most urban Towers built in Gipuzkoa which were plenty disappeared by the end of the XV century. But it is also true that we still preserve quite a few reamins and, although deteriorated in many cases, even some extraordinary examples. Towns such as Segura and even Getaria and Mutriku represent a splendid range.

Luzea Tower (Zarautz)
Luzea Tower (Zarautz). © Archivos de la Fundación Social y Cultural Kutxa. Vascos y Trajes. Tomo I. María Elena de Arizmendi Amiel.

In 1996 it is very difficult to try and reconstruct how life evolved in Gipuzkoan towns in the centuries that occupy us and with reference to the type of construction and houses of their inhabitants (a subject to which, by the way, another issue of the present collection, "Bertan", is dedicated). In any case, it is clear that the summit of the social strata in the towns was linked to trading (the "mercaderos", their companies, and the people that conformed their enterprises and those that integrated the different guilds) and intellectual activities in the widest sense of the term (scribes and law experts) and that the ownership of a Tower, Palace or bigger and better house ("main houses", as they were called in the epoch) by those groups constituted the expression of social and economic success. Towns were divided into Manors and in some of those, the wealthiest families built their Palaces or Towers (they were called both terms, like in the rural world, until well into the XV century).

Some families, like the Lilis in Zestoa, the Rezabais or the Isasagas in Azkoitia, constructed impressive Towers near the fences or walls of the town. The availability of a greater space and the possibility to escape the control of the Council were key elements for those initiatives. Furthermore, in some cases, those Towers and their lineage owners identified that type of location on the outskirts of the town as another additional element which, without distancing them from the stratum whose economic interest they coincided with (and who lived inside the town) aimed at the proximity with the purely rural Manors. We should not forget that the Elder Relative Manors, like those of the Zarauzs', the Baldas', the Olasos', and others, had their site near the town and that in almost all of those cases, they had the Board of the town Parish.

In coastal towns, Towers were looked for in the pier or nearby, on the pier, on the vantage points (like the Tower of the Aldamars in Getaria, dating back from the second half of the XV century), near the doors of towns or near the river estuary when it was near the town itself. The most impressive example of a Tower located on a pier is constituted by the Tower built at the end of the XV century by the merchant of Mutriku, Otxoa Sebastian de Berriatua and split into two halves in 1517 by his two sons, Captain Juan Otxoa and Juan Ramos de Berriatua.

A powerful group of towers was formed in the basin of the lower Deba river, around the merchant lineages of Sasiola, Irarrazabal or Astigarribia. The Sasiolas held their main Towers in Deba, a secondary branch had a tower in which Juan Perez de Likona founded the Franciscan Convent of Sasiola in 1517 and other secondary branches of the lineage owned Towers in Deba and in Zumaia. The founder of the latter branch, Bachelor Jofre Ibañez de Sasiola, of the Royal Council and Ambassador in England to negotiate the terms of the wedding between Catalina of Aragón and the Prince of Wales, besides his towers in Zumaia, also built the Saint Anthony Chapel in the Parish, from which still remains itssplendid altarpiece. The Sasiolas also were the linking point of many other lineages in the Province during the XV and beginning of the XVI centuries; lineages that ranges from the Elder Relative Manors of Agirre in Gabiria, Zarautz or Laurgin in Aia to the lineages of merchants of Mutriku, Deba, Zumaia, Zumarraga or Azkoitia: the Ubillas, the Irarrazabals, Iribes, Legazpis, Mezetas, Berriatua, etc.

Scratch work detail of Jauregi Palace (Bergara)
Scratch work detail of Jauregi Palace (Bergara). © José Luis Galiana
Olaso Tower (Bergara), at the beginning of the XX century
Olaso Tower (Bergara), at the beginning of the XX century. © C. de Echegaray, Monumentos civiles de Guipuzcoa, 1921.

The Astigarribias built their Towers in front of the Sasiolas. At the mouth of the river, like the Beduas near the Urola, or the Murgias near the Urumea, they placed a toll barrier (related to the iron trade) on the entrance to their terrain for which they litigated numerous times against the Province, under the protection of the Royal authorisation granted to them at a given moment.

Coastline from Deba to Mutriku
Coastline from Deba to Mutriku. © José Luis Galiana
ua Tower and estate
ua Tower and estate. © José Luis Galiana
Sepulchre of D. Pedro Velez of Gebara, Lord of Oñati,
ar. 1450 (Oñati Parish).
Sepulchre of D. Pedro Velez of Gebara, Lord of Oñati, ar. 1450 (Oñati Parish). © José Luis Galiana

We know that until well into the XV century, the vast majority of the constructions inside the towns, like those of nearby rural areas, was of wood. The range of towns burnt down throughout the XVI and XV and even XVI centuries, due to fires that destroyed almost everything, reached nearly all of them. Only in the case of Saint Sebastian, it is known that it burnt down at least four times until the terrible fire in January 1489, in which the town burned almost completely, except for the Provost Houses, those of his son-in-law, Bachelor Elduain, and those of the Oianguren-La Torre´s, the three of them of stone.

"... and it happened that the house, it all, burned, the one called of the Migelkos, of Juan Agirre Blancaflor, in the street known as Santa Maria."

Berriatua Tower at the beginning of the XX century (Mutriku).
Berriatua Tower at the beginning of the XX century (Mutriku). © C. de Echegaray, Monumentos civiles de Guipuzcoa, 1921.
Isasaga Tower at the beginning of the XX century (Azkoitia)
Isasaga Tower at the beginning of the XX century (Azkoitia). © C. de Echegaray, Monumentos civiles de Guipuzcoa, 1921.

Obviusly, the only way to fight against the fire was to build in stone and, to do so, Saint Sebastian provided itself in August 1489 with some especific Ordinances with detailed regulations about it that the Catholic Kings even enhanced, resorting to grant tax benefits to those who constructed in stone.

The nature of the Urban Tower, compared to the ones in the rural environment, was defined an limited by several elements that should not be overlooked.

Pre-heraldic hallmark of Zizurkil (Vestry of the church).
Pre-heraldic hallmark of Zizurkil (Vestry of the church). © Gobierno Vasco. Irargi, Centro de Patrimonio Documental de Euskadi (Bergara)

1. The judicial regime of Manor ownership was open and the possession of a Tower in town was nothing but a distinction of prestige, also circumscribed to a more developed type of family structure, more related to the family than to the lineage-Manor referent that marked the tower in the rural environment.

Every family that could do so, built their Tower inside the town, and to do so, they made every necessary investment. There is a splendid example that proves up to what point the house and its capacity to represent power was efficient in a town: the family of the Saint Sebastian Provost, a post linked to the Engomezs until 1492, took all the house Manors that conformed the front part of the town - between the doorways of the Main and Narrica Streets - between the years 1380 and 1460, giving them to their daughters as dowry. The sons-in-law and the brothers-in-law of the Provosts, as well as they, themselves, dedicated many years and resources to build at least three new Towers to be added to the two inherited ones, on that front, Towers which still survived almost in ruins at the end of the XVIII century [Vid. explanation of diagram on pg. ].

Map of Donostia (1777).
Map of Donostia (1777). © Archivo General de Gipuzkoa. AGG-GAO, CO UCI 2137.

2. The social structure of the town somehow fostered the Tower type construction. In the rural environment real clans were formed through marriage, which identified themselves, among other things, with the possession of Towers, and in the urban environment arouse dynasties of merchants, scribes, lawyers, who built their Towers and continued mixing among themselves, thus creating in each town the governing core. Those groups were frequently confronted with the Council, and with those who wished to integrate themselves in the "caste", precisely through lawsuits that derived from the building of new Towers their borders with the pre-existing neighbouring ones, the shadow that they cast on the previous ones (in the widest and most plastic meaning of the term: the new buildings were of a better quality, higher and responded to the initiative of the "new rich", who therefore cast a shadow upon the preceding ones and their constructions, in many instances already obsolete). The Engomezs themselves somehow acted like that, taking through purchase of the already mentioned Manors, on the possessions of a family that was disappearing but the preceding importance of whom was great: the Zazaios.

Detail of the fa4ades of the Ondartza houses (Bergara)
Detail of the fa4ades of the Ondartza houses (Bergara). © José Luis Galiana
Isturitzaga Tower (Andoain)
Isturitzaga Tower (Andoain). © José Luis Galiana


Enparan Manor (Azpeitia), SW view.
Enparan Manor (Azpeitia), SW view. © Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa. Servicio de Patrimonio Histórico Artístico.

3. The morphology of the urban Tower somehow imitated an archetype taken from the rural tower, but with some space limitations and different characteristics. Except in isolated cases of difficult interpretation - like that of the famous Torre Luzea (Long Tower), in Zarautz - the defensive elements, except in the towers that reinforced the walls (the already mentioned ones in Saint Sebastian, or Azkue in Hondarribia, or Eizagirre in Bergara), could almost be ignored in favour of decorative and stylistic aspects. On the other hand, as the Tower was the guarantee of the prosperity of the urban lineage, because not only was it their home, but also a shop, granary, storehouse, scripture archives, etc., the internal structure depended on elements of a very practical nature. In this sense, the wills of merchants and jurists are very revealing, when describing their possessions and stipulating their distribution.

Azkue Towers, later Palencia Towers (Hondarribia), NE view.
Azkue Towers, later Palencia Towers (Hondarribia), NE view. © Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa. Servicio de Patrimonio Histórico Artístico.
Azkue Towers (Hondarribia). Lateral and back views.
Azkue Towers (Hondarribia). Lateral and back views. © José Luis Galiana

As already mentioned, troughout the last years of the XVI century and until the end of the XV century, stone buildings (masonry combined with ashlars) gradually replaced the structures in wood. By 1362, the mentioned Engomez family already had a "stone palace hostel", the oldest documented one in Saint Sebastian and another "half palace" very near the former one, both on the walls. In Hondarribia, Juan Martinez de Azkue, Provost of the town, and his wife, Tomasina del Pui owned several Towers "towns and Manors" (including another one in Saint Sebastian) that they distributed among their sons in 1432. Most of them were also on the walls and at the entrance of the town. And the list can be expanded at will.

Detail of the portrait of the Borgoña Chan-
cellor, Nicholas Rolin (Jan van Eyck, 1436)
Detail of the portrait of the Borgoña Chancellor, Nicholas Rolin (Jan van Eyck, 1436).© N. Schneider, L'art du portrait, 1994.
Azkue Towers, later Palencia Towers (Hondarribia) NW view
Azkue Towers, later Palencia Towers (Hondarribia) NW view. © Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa. Servicio de Patrimonio Histórico Artístico.

Embedded in an environment which was more open to the influence of economic and social factors, and therefore more subject to fashion, trends, etc., because they were the symbol of social prestige, the urban Towers or Palaces were subject to a faster evolution. It was easy for the medieval Towers to be destroyed between the end of the XV century and the beginning of the XVI, to lead to buildings more in keeping with the tastes of the epoch. Gipuzkoan merchants travelled, some of them around Europe, and imported tastes and customes back from Flanders, as well as from Italy, France or England. And the masses of solid stone gave way to structures which were more concerned with aesthetics and more adapted to criteria of different functionality and comfort, paying attention to every type of detail (ornamental, structural, etc.) and redistributing inner space. A splendid example of this evolution is constituted by the Elduain Towers in Hernani.

Luzea Tower (Zarautz). View of the South, East and North fagades.
Luzea Tower (Zarautz). View of the South, East and North fagades. © Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa. Servicio de Patrimonio Histórico Artístico.
Portrait of Count of Martinengo of Brescia (Moretto, ar. 1530, National Gallery, London)
Portrait of Count of Martinengo of Brescia (Moretto, ar. 1530, National Gallery, London). © N. Schneider, L'art du portrait, 1994.

Detail of the doors of the Eizagirre Tower (Bergara), XVI century
Detail of the doors of the Eizagirre Tower (Bergara), XVI century. © José Luis Galiana
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