The architecture of the islands, excluding the many archaeological finds, the churches, the castle complex and the characteristic town houses, is made up mainly of rural buildings, designed for agricultural activity, which was once the primary economic activity of the islands.
Very few examples still exist of buildings designed for uses other than dwelling, such as sheds for working or storing pumice stone, some mills, a former hospital, and the spa complex of San Calogero, now completely rebuilt. In the period in which the islands were still subject to incursions by the Berber pirates, and until the early 1600s, small defensive watchtowers were built, of which a notable example still stands, almost intact, at Mendolita, along the road which leads to Capistello, standing alone in defence of the store houses and mill, side by side. However, the most widespread architecture, with particular characteristics regarding the architectural dimensions and functional and decorative elements, which is recognised as ‘Eolian architecture,’ is represented by rural buildings, grouped in small hamlets or isolated in the countryside, mainly used for personal management of agricultural smallholdings.
They are buildings developed according to cellular models, with the placing side by side, or on top of one another, of cube-shaped elements completed with flat roofing in order to better collect rainwater.
Over time other architectural influences, especially from Campania, have become part of the building methods.
Rural houses with vertical development are generally made up of two cellular rooms, not inter-communicating inside, but connected by an exterior stairway built on a rampant arch.
On the ground floor there was the kitchen, next to which the smaller sheds and services were placed.
It was not unusual to have more than one room per floor, and in this case the rooms of the upper floor were connected by a terrace, which was repeated, covered and closed in by large arches, on the floor below.
Horizontal development, however, was more frequent, with a diamond shape, obtained through the placing of successive cellular rooms, not inter-communicating and giving onto a wide terrace, the ‘bagghiu,’ generally covered by a pergola on wooden supports, resting on cylindrical pillars, the typical ‘pulera’.
Also in this case small outhouses were built alongside the dwelling, and often a wine-vat and stables.
The terrace was surrounded by a low wall, in which stone seats called ‘bisuoli’ were made between the ‘pulera’.
The floor was covered with tiles of multi-coloured majolica and there was a rustic washtub with stone surfaces and, often, the neck of the tank, placed under the ‘bagghiu,’ which was designed to collect rainwater.
The ‘bagghiu,’ as well as serving to connect the various rooms and storehouses, was the area in which the day to day life of the family took place, under the pergola, which sheltered them from the rays of the sun.
Agricultural produce was dried and processed, the family met together in the evening by the light of lanterns (often placed in nooks in the ‘pulera’ to protect the flame from the wind), in short, all the household activities happened there. Just over the wall of the ‘bagghiu,’ there was a small vegetable garden with everyday vegetables which struggled to grow, watered very little with waste water from the house; in a few rare cases there was a flower bed, full of colours, a luxury considering the scarcity of water.
Next to the house there was an open space, called the ‘littiera,’ on which raisins and figs were laid out to dry on characteristic cane mats. These were then put away in the evening, in an open storehouse with a depressed ogive arch, called a ‘pinnata.’
To complete the building, there was sometimes a wine-vat, where grapes were pressed and a threshing yard made of gravel and wrought pozzolanic.
In some larger buildings, a second much larger wood-burning oven was built on the ‘bagghiu’ (one was certainly in the kitchen, next to the hearth, also in stonework covered with tiles), almost exclusively for the cooking of bread, which, once toasted, kept for a long time.
The economy of the islands was poor, so each farm building had to contain everything necessary for day to day survival.
The structure of these dwellings was also based on poverty and the need for self-sufficiency.
They were made of local stone, of irregular size, cemented with pozzolanic mortar mixed with lime, and the blocks of the roofing were also made of pozzolanic mortar and gravel. It was beaten for a long time with mallets to make it waterproof and was supported with beams made of chestnut and trellis-work.
The doors and windows had rustic wooden frames and were almost always without glass.
They all faced in one direction, towards the ‘bagghiu,’ which was on the southern or eastern side of the house, to capture the most sun and the more moderate winds, while the other three sides were rigorously closed.
In some rooms, such as the kitchen, some small holes were made for ventilation; very often old bottomless earthenware pans were used to line them precisely.
With agricultural development and the advance of sea transport, the living conditions of the islanders improved and, thanks to more frequent contact with big cities like Naples and Palermo, new influences on the way of life affected even Eolian buildings.
Dwellings became larger, doors and windows were often framed with local stone, the facades were finished off and decorated more carefully, even with curvilinear elements, the crowning walls of the flat roofs were decorated with ‘lace’.
Another decorative element, used above all in the last few centuries, is the finishing off of the house fronts with deep-set patterns in the plaster and bright colours, sometimes in two-colour patterns, with a notable and audacious decorative effect.
This characteristic, which is very evident in these photos of old country houses, has provoked and still provokes a lively debate about the typicality of colouring in Eolian architecture: many local writers, referring to the ‘white Eolian houses’ described in the works of many illustrious visitors (Luigi Salvatore of Austria, Houel, Vuillier), have maintained that whitewashed houses are typical of Eolian architecture.
It is certain that, in periods of serious trouble and fear, because of incursions of Berber pirates, Eolian houses were finished off with local earth mixtures, as camouflage against the background, according to the principle still used in Maghreb countries.
Once this danger had passed and living conditions had improved, there was certainly a greater care taken in building houses, the painting of which was carried out with lively pigments or natural earth colours, mixed with whitewash, a sign of new wealth and joy shown in the liveliness of the coloured house fronts.
Giuseppe Lo Cascio