A mansion is a large and stately dwelling house. The word itself derives (through Old French) from the Latin word mansus the past participle of manere "to dwell". The English word "manse" originally defined a property large enough for the parish priest to maintain himself, but a mansion is no longer self-sustaining in this way (compare a Roman or medieval villa). 'Manor' comes from the same root— territorial holdings granted to a lord who would remain there— hence it is easy to see how the word 'Mansion' came to have its meaning.
The very first 'mansions', as we understand the term, were probably the villas built for the ruling class of the Roman Empire. Within a Roman city, patrician dwellings might be very extensive, but they rarely identified their grandeur to the street, beyond the public amenity of a sheltered portico. Nero's Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill, Rome was organized as a series of glittering pavilions in gardens rather than a mansion.
Following the fall of Rome the practice of building unfortified villas ceased. Today, the oldest inhabited mansions around the world usually began their existence as fortified castles in the middle ages. As social conditions slowly changed and stabilised fortifications were able to be reduced, and over the centuries gave way to comfort. It became fashionable for one's castle to be beautiful rather than grim and forbidding. Hence the modern mansion began to evolve.
It was not to be until the 16th century that mansions really began to be often built from completely new. This was the era of Renaissance architecture, when large houses began to be erected without even a hint of fortification. Hatfield House is a superb example of a house built during the transition period in England. In Italy classic villas such as Villa Farnese and Villa Giulia were typical, but individually diverse forms, of the new style of mansion.
The reason for building and owning these often vast edifices, long after their original fortified use was negated, was often to provide the owner with an obvious status symbol. Until World War II it was not unusual for a moderately sized mansion in England such as Cliveden to have an indoor staff of 20 and an outside staff of the same size, while, in a ducal mansion such as Chatsworth House the numbers were far higher. In the great houses of Italy, the number of retainers employed to staff them was often even greater than in England, whole families plus extended relations would often inhabit warrens of rooms in basements and attics. It is doubtful that a 19th century Marchesa would even know the exact numbers who served her.
Most European mansions also were the hub of vast estates. A true estate always contains at least one complete village and its church. Large estates such as that of Woburn Abbey have several villages attached.
Defining a Mansion
In Europe mansions are often given various titles, hinting at their origins - castle, palace, manor, towers, and grange to name but a few. Some such as Castle Howard and Castle Drogo were built centuries after the last real castle was considered necessary. The term 'palace' in England is reserved to a mansion which is the London residence of a member of the Royal Family or an episcopal seat in a cathedral city. One exception is the great country house Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. In the rest of Europe a palace can be just a medium sized town mansion owned by anybody. In London, Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor .
There is no strict definition of how many rooms a house has to have before it can be termed a mansion. Until the mid 20th century the European mansion would often have a hall, two or three salons or drawing rooms, library, billiards room, ball room, dining room, breakfast room, morning room, study and numerous bedrooms. Until the middle of the last century European mansions were often short of bathrooms, often only two or three in a house of 20 plus bedrooms. In addition to the principal bedrooms would be far more for the staff usually on the uppermost or attic floors.
19th Century Development
The 19th century saw particularly in the U.S.A a new type of mansion being built, often smaller than the older European mansions, but in their own way just as beautiful, The Breakers on Rhode Island is a fine example, as is the nearby, but completely different, Watts Sherman House .
5th Avenue in New York at this time was lined with numerous mansions, designed by the leading architects of the day, many in European gothic styles, built by the many families who were making their fortunes, and thus achieving their social aspirations, in the mid 19th century. Sadly, nearly all of these have now been demolished, thus depriving New York of a boulevard to rival, in the architectural sense, any in Paris, London or Rome - where the many large mansions and palazzos built or remodelled during this era still survive.
Even in Europe some 19th century mansions were often built as replicas of older houses, the 'Chateau de Ferrières' in France was inspired by Mentmore Towers which in turn is a copy of Wollaton Hall. Other mansions were built in the new and innovative styles of the new era such as the arts and crafts style. The Breakers is a pastiche of an Italian Renaissance Palazzo, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is a faithful mixture of various French chateaux. One of the most enduring and often copied styles for a mansion is the palladian - particularly so in the 18th century. However, the gothic style was probably the most popular choice of design in the 19th century. This most bizarre example of this was probably Fonthill Abbey which actually set out to imitate the mansions which had truly evolved from medieval gothic abbeys following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.
Mansions built during and after the 19th century seldom were supported by the large estates of their predecessors. These new mansions were often built as the week-end retreats of businessmen who commuted to their offices by the new railways, which enabled them to leave the city more easily. Where as before this era most owners of mansions were the old aristocracy who would never have sullied their hands by, as they saw it, demeaning work.
The Modern Mansion
Mansions built during the last and present centuries usually have specially designed rooms meant to accommodate leisure activities of a particular kind. Many will have a conservatory or greenhouse, while others will have an indoor swimming pool or an Arts and crafts room with huge North oriented windows. Others will have all of these features. The relative importance of these specially designed rooms changes with the times: At the beginning of the 20th century no true mansion would have been built without a large room to house a private library, while at the beginning of the 21st century the presence of a big room designed for a home theatre or cinema is a must. Most recently, mansions have been built with integrated domotics, sometimes to excess.
A McMansion (1980s-2000s) is a speculatively-built, price-inflated suburban house meant to imitate a mansion. They are usually built from standard plans, with only some cosmetic detailing and a few design changes available to the buyer. In contrast a real mansion is normally built by an architect to the exact needs of the clients.
The costly time spent by an experienced architect is a better indicator of the lasting status of a mansion than the number of its rooms, its total size, or its special amenities. The homes and mansions designed by the late Richard Neutra and Quinlan Terry are good examples of modern designs which have been nearly perfectly tailored to fit a particular customer.
Well Known Mansions
Many of the most famous mansions are listed in the . Well known mansions are too numerous to mention, an incomplete list of the World's finest would include, perhaps, because of their beauty or art collections: The White House in Washington, Montacute House in England could possibly be one of the most beautiful houses built during the reign of Elizabeth I. Villa Capra "La Rotunda" in Italy is justifiably well known as a perfect example of Mannerism, the Petit Trianon in France could be described as 18th century perfection. It was widely copied by the nouveau riche of the 20th century. Other fine mansions include:-
- Ca' d'Oro
- Hearst Castle: William Randolph Hearst's expansive "ranch" near San Simeon
- The Playboy Mansion: Hugh Hefner's 22 bedroom playpen
- Stalbridge Manor
- Villa Montalvo
- Winchester Mystery House: Sarah Winchester rambling residence, continually built upon for 38 years