Article published in The Funambulist 16 (March-April 2018) Proletarian Forteresses. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
Much of the Basque Country’s history can be explained through the fronton. The fronton plaza space has been described by notable Basque architect Iñaki Uriarte as the Basque agora. Used as more than just a playing field for pelota, the fronton has been the witness to innumerable urban transformations, from being used as a gathering space for political forums to evolving into a place for economic trade.
The fronton originated in the Basque Country primarily as a space to play pelota — in Basque, pilotaleku literally means “the place where pelota is practiced.” While the sport has been played throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, pelota’s significance in the Basque Country is inextricably linked to its cultural values. At its essence, an integral part of the Basque identity is its division into ancestral and territorial bands and pelota was played as a symbolic form of conflict resolution between adversaries (González Abrisketa, 2005).
The 16th century marked the peak of Basque pelota, a period characterized by rival factions defined by family lineages — Martínez de Oña and Gamboa were the most well-known families — ever driven by honor and the quest for recognition throughout the land. While violent clashes between bands of peers could lead to devastating results, pelota was a way for Basques to address confrontation in a physical, yet less destructive way, on the fronton. Representing their bands, opponents — dressed in all-white with red/blue or red/white sashes, which displayed the primary colors of their families’ coats of arms — took to the fronton to play these matches; the result of these contentious bouts being a collective catharsis among once-divided factions.
The existence of the pilotaleku meant much more to villages than being simply a place for sport; its significance extended to make it a social, political, and cultural hub. Centrally located, its proximity to economic, administrative, and religious institutions allowed it to integrate into the community’s neural network — giving the locals a place for festivals, political rallies, and artistic events. As a public space, the fronton’s social significance granted opportunities for collective emancipation.