The monumental heritage of a country is something that today is held as a precious asset, with intangible connotations. Castles, cathedrals, hermitages, fountains, sculptures… A set of elements that help to dive into local history. Of course, if these treasures have not been destroyed. Disasters that are not always the result of others, such as wars or fires. Laziness, the desire to reuse materials and other pilgrimage motives have led to invaluable losses, as we read below.
Although today recycling is synonymous with something positive; the concept was once somewhat more harmful. Many monuments have ended up being little more than a quarry. This has been one of the main reasons why first-class heritage elements have become more than just badly deteriorated. Going back in time, the Roman legacy was the target of continuous plundering.
Marble and ashlars from its buildings were already reused in medieval times. For example, in the Visigothic basilica of Santa Lucia del Trampal, which dates from the 7th/8th century, it has been found that the ploughs in honour of a local goddess ended up as part of its walls. Ironically, the same thing happened to its marbles later on. On the other hand, more curious is the case of the lower half of the Dama de Regina, a statue of the goddess Juno. During the 17th century, the back was used to carve a coat of arms at Llerena.
A disastrous cycle that lived a new life especially at the end of the Modern Age and during the 19th century. Although it was common in the meantime, the use of monuments to quarry had a new explosion. The confiscations meant the abandonment of hundred-year-old monasteries; many of which had already been in ruins for a century or so. Likewise, small temples also had a hard time. A cocktail that ended up with monasteries used for extracting stone, both for repairing hermitages and for civil works.
An attitude in which nobles and local institutions took part. The examples are very varied; but the one of Santa María de Moreruela, a charming Cistercian monastery whose stones were put up for sale by its own owner, is worth mentioning. It is true that the attitude of the monks throughout history towards the surrounding villages did not cause them any distress. On the contrary, the rocks became part of their buildings. Other examples in Zamora would be Nuestra Señora del Soto in Villanueva del Campeán or Nuestra Señora del Valle in San Román del Valle.
Castles have not been spared from this, even some that would be impossible to cut down today. The Templars’ castle in Ponferrada was used as a quarry and almost ended up as a sports ground at the end of the 19th century. At that time, two great monuments of Extremadura’s antiquity also suffered. The Lácara dolmen was literally blown up to take advantage of the huge slabs that covered it. Luckily, only its lid was removed. Likewise, in the Roman city of Cáparra on the Via de la Plata, a tower was dismantled to build a hermitage.
Although using the easiest material by hand was the reason for the destruction of many monuments in Spain; progress was another of its great enemies. In this case it was the walls that suffered the most. Many of them were vestiges of past centuries that only disturbed the 19th century expansions of various cities. The famous “Ensanches” (urban expansion areas), 150 years old at this point, made the defensive walls to be broken up.
There are several known cases in this regard. The result, it should be said, was equally valuable spaces. San Sebastián mutated so much in the 19th century that it ended up being a new city. The War of Independence was a first decisive factor, with the looting that followed the withdrawal of the French. It was carried out by the alliance that retaken the city, not the Gauls. Only 31 de Agosto Street was saved from the subsequent fire. To see its walls fall, we would have to wait a few more decades. Just as in Valencia, Barcelona or Seville, they were demolished to make room for the “Ensanches”. The result, as in Barcelona, was the contemporary soul of both cities.
Since during the first years of the 20th century there was no protection for the heritage, which would not arrive until its third decade, the monuments had nothing to free them from plundering and pillaging. Noblemen who had fallen into disrepute were selling their possessions to a society that was increasingly aware that they were sometimes national heritage. Litigation did not prevent the Patio de Honor of the castle of Vélez-Blanco, a jewel of the Renaissance, from falling into private hands. Today it is in New York. Nor did it prevent the discarding of elements such as the grille of the cathedral of Valladolid, which the prelates of the place almost gave to W.R. Hearst.
Architectural protection did not prevent unpleasant surprises later. One was Franco’s active plundering, reflected in the statue of the Portico de la Gloria that is still kept by the dictator’s family. The swamps were another. Everything that was not protected could be left under water. It didn’t matter if it was the ruins of an important Roman city and a 5,000-year-old dolmen. Both were submerged by the Valdecañas reservoir in Cáceres. Only a few arches were saved. Churches from medieval to baroque suffered the same fate. At the same time, the absence of pastures generated the abandonment of villages and considerable losses, as happened in Mont-Rebei with Canelles.
There was one more bullet left in the progress: the interventions in the works. Especially controversial are those concerning the Holy Week floats in places like Málaga and Seville. The arrangements have left unrecognizable works, as is the case of the Nazareno de los Pasos in the Malacitana capital. The Ecce Homo by Borja or the Inmaculada by Murillo are cases that show a terrible lack of control. Likewise, acts of protest or the passivity of authorities and society are agents in the dissolution of Spanish heritage.
Iconoclasm is a problem that has affected art since ancient times. In Byzantium, for example, it led to serious riots during the 8th century. This practice of destroying sacred symbolic elements in order to prevent idolatry from flourishing and the consequent heresy is reflected in modern and contemporary Spain. Although the forms in which they occurred were very different.
Thus, emparedadas cells were absolutely common elements in the Middle and Modern Ages. Women, religious or not, were mostly locked up in them to exacerbate their faith. Astorga keeps one, considered the only one in Spain. Places as varied as Madrid, Roncesvalles or Artajona had them, but in all cases they were destroyed. It was in the 18th century and part of the 19th century. It was not the love for human freedom that motivated it; but the church’s need to ensure that there were no living saints. The prohibition was followed by the demolition of these spaces.
More radical were the burning of churches and convents that marked part of the Second Republic and the first phases of the Civil War. The workers’ anger manifested itself as an unbridled iconoclasm that in 1934 took away part of the Oviedo cathedral. The Holy Chamber was badly affected by a blast that destroyed part of its extraordinary collection of relics. After the Nationalists’ coup d’état came a conflict marked by the extensive use of artillery and heavy ammunition, reflected in Belchite.
The annihilation policy that marked Franco’s strategy also caused destruction that had hardly been seen before. Previously, the patrimonial victims of the combat itself were usually infrastructures such as bridges. These were knocked down to avoid their use by the enemy, despite the loss they represented, since classical times. However, since late Francoism and essentially with the advent of democracy; heritage protection has taken a radical turn. Great advances that still have their flaws. Today, money is the main obstacle that prevents the preservation of monuments; either because of the lack of it to care for them or speculation to obtain it which destroys them. Something that is seen every day in the form of the demolition of historic buildings to make room for new ones.
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