Starting from the fact that most Gipuzkoan farmhouses are works of great constructive virtue but of a marked plastic and ornamental sobriety, even when compared to other models of popular Basque house, it has to be admitted that wood is the material to have been used for carving adornments and decorative motives.
The most brillian period of popular Gipuzkoan capentry was that falling between the 16th and 17th centuries, in which it can be seen that, on top of their own repertory of figures, local craftsmen were perfectly informed about the most widespread ornamental tastes and bujects in neighbouring regions, from the south of France to the Duero.
Wood carving flourished during the central decades of the 16th century, in which farmhouses actively participated. During this period decoration was mainly concentrated on the parapets of the wooden or trellised façades and on the roof consoles and braces. Avast repertory of geometrical figures carved with an adze or firmer chisel was used, which favoured contrasting planes and marking the effects of chiaroscuro. The most common shapes were cords, peelings, nail heads, diamond point, palms, macles, fluting, and sometimes solar spirals and bevelled rosetons; a repertory which can be fully admired in the chancel of our lady of L Antigua in Zumarraga.
It is also normal in trellised houses from the firs half of the 16th century, and especially those with some kind of corbel, to find that one of the horizontal beams is carved with a row of small deep ogee arches, like those in Txulaene Goikoa in Oiartzun or Aritzeta Erdi in Alkiza, and which are of Basque-French origin.
Other parts of the house to receive special attention from renaissance carpenters were the pillar foot blocks and stair stringpieces. In both cases the most usual resource is that of softening the sharp edge of the wood with a sereies of peelings.
Popular 17th century Gipuzkoan carpenters endeavoured to highlight other points of interest. Their work therefore concentrated on carvin the heads of roof purlins, which were decorated with vegetable spiral, becoming increasingly more fleshy with the advance of Baroque aesthetics. The spiral normally had a small cord or string of pearls carved along its centre, as can be clearly seen in Otabardi in Asteasu. Also abundant in this period were wooden bars in the shape of glasses, often seen on balcony and stairway handrails.
The human figure was rarely represented, but there are some interesting exceptions, such as the carved masks of Arrillaga haundi in Usurbil and Zumitza in Alkiza.
Stone decoration was reserved for the richest Gipuzkoan farmhouses and was normally kept to small quantities. Each period showed that it had its own wlldefined preferences, almost always related to the artistic language of the moment. Therefore, during the fist half of the 16th century, the only adornments on those which the stone mason could show his talente as a carver were on the protective medals –with the anagram of Christ wirtten in Gothic characters- which were set over the main door, and on the moldings of the window frames. The streamlined anchors on the lintel of Makutso in Oiartzun can be considered as a case of absolutely exceptional expression.
In the 17th century the number of carved components rose slightly. They still decorated the most noble of window frames, now with classicist mortised moldings, such as those of the Elorrieta farmhouse in Asteasu, and heraldic carvings became more widespread with the appearance of ostentatious coats of arms which often had inscriptions identifying the arms of the family name and the year of the building’s construction. In some cases, such as in Iriarte Bekoa in Antzuola, graceful Tuscan columns help support the corbeling of the beam of the porch, but their number is almost insignifant in comparison with that normally found in the eastern ports of Biscay.
In the 18th century, arnomial bearings were still outstanding as the most cared for element in artistic stone carving, being over-decorated with adornments, large masks and incrusted pebbles. In this period many of the most noble farmhouses, such as the imposing Azpikoetxe in Berastegi, adopted the custom already used well into the previous century of resurrounding all the windows in the main façade with moldings of smooth plates which formed characteristical lugs in the vertexes, clearly identifiable with the sober northern baroque aesthetics. Farmhouses from the 19th century hardly had any decorative stonework, excpet for some new coats of arms, and some large plaques which gabe the date of inauguration of the builidng and the name of its promoter, as is the case in orbe haundi in Bergara.
In a land which has survived in great part thanks to the forging and exportation of iron it is surprising that such a small quantity of this metal has been used in the decoration of farmhouses.
In the 16th century, when the Basques had practically no European competitors with rescpect to iron production, the only iron elements of any decorative charm found in Gipuzkoan farmhouses are the heavy iron doors in the fire walls, which are decorated with large hanging rings and simple gemotetric incisions on the locking bolt.
In the 17th century ironwork moved outside and concetrated on the iron door fittings: nails with diamod – or star- shaped heads, sinously shaped keyholes and in some cases huge door-knockers. On the other hand, although the Gipuzkoans won fame as skilled bar makers both in this as well as in the next century, their products rarely ever reached the farmhouse, since their high price meant that only churches and palaces could afford them. When bars are found on the lower windows of farmhouses, they are normally simple squaresectioned iron bars fitted in the 19th century, and the attractive conical profiles or vegetabel shapes as found in previous periods are only rarely seen.
The panorama of accessories and artistic adornments in the farmhouse is discreet, as it fitting for a building which, throughout its history, has only ever endeavoured to alleviate the hard life of the farmer. However, it is not in the easy field of decoration that the farmhouse shows off its beauty. The fascination which it awakens is born on seeing its silhouette appear throuth the mist, with its great volume and its solid, ancient and everlasting outline. There is the farmhouse: the ancient lord of the valleys.