The authenticity of a ruin

I am just leaving for a well deserved vacation and digital blackout (during which I will hopefully visit the excavations at Empúries),  but before I wanted to finish this quite long post I’ve been working on. One of the purposes of this blog is to reflect on what makes a ruin: who decides what constitutes a ruin? Which is the discursive terrain that surrounds a few old stones and permeate them with meaning, creating a privileged cultural artifact? In particular, here I want to examine the different agents that participate in a socially-bounded definition of authenticity, as well as their respective agendas and interests.

A recent case, which has occupied a lot of newspapers and TV space, is perfect to address many of these issues. A medieval cloister in Romanesque style was discovered in a private state in the coastal town of Palamós, close to my hometown Barcelona. (You can find a good narrative of the events in English at The History Blog). The media rapidly took a vivid interest on it, which made the government demand access to the owners in order to inspect the cloister and assess its value.

Photograph of Vincent Leroux of the cloister in the pages of Architectural Digest France that prompted Prof. Boto’s research and announcement

Authenticity and market value

After a presentation by Gerardo Boto, Professor of Medieval Art at University of Girona and reputed specialist in Iberian Romanesque, focused the attention on the  Mas del Vent villa and the cloister hosted in its garden, Spanish newspaper El País started an investigation. As in a serialized novel, it seemed that the thread of the story was getting more and more complex as days went on. The cloister was traced to pre-war Madrid and the antiquarian Ignacio Martínez, who allegedly would have bought it from an unknown source. Martinez then hired Julián Ortiz Fernández to assemble the cloister with the objective “to sell it to some American millionaire”. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) interrupted the works and the search for a buyer, and it was not until the late 50s that the present owner, the German millionaire family Engelhorn, heir of a fortune based on pharmaceutical companies such as Boehringer Mannheim, bought it (for 1 million pesetas, euros) and reassambled it in their recently acquired Catalan villa.

The Engelhorn family has stated these days that back in 1966 they asked Carmen Gómez-Moreno, then curator at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, to study the cloister. The examination of Gómez-Moreno, based on photographs, declared it false. However, witnesses have pointed out that for many years there has been, inside the Engelhorn villa, a sign reading “Romanesque cloister, Segovia, XII century”. Also,  in 2000 restorer Lucrecia Ruiz-Villar was asked to intervene on the cloister. As she has commented these days,  she was never left alone during her examination and was forbidden to take pictures.

The Madrid thread seems to point to fortunes like the Rothschilds, who bought a lot of European heritage at sale prices during the chaotic years of war and postwar. One of the theories examined these days points to William Randolph (“Kane”) Hearst, who did acquire a lot of valuable pieces, like the cloister of Sacramenia (Segovia), for his private states (the “Xanadu” in San Simeon, Ca.), or for the failed alternative to the Rothschild’s Cloisters he planned to build in Berkeley.

The cloister in Madrid. The man is probably Ignacio Martínez, the antiquarian-cum-seller of the cloister. Note how the wall has been rapidly raised to obstruct the view.

Authenticity and academic prestige

Since the moment Prof. Boto amazed the audience of the “Fugitive art” conference, the academic prestige of different academics has been at stake. Boto’s pronouncement in favor of the authenticity was based in indirect observation (the photographs by Leroux published at Architectural Digest France magazine, and the photographs he found at the Palamós archives documenting the construction of the cloister in 1959), which made his a bold statement, and only later, after the news broke and he  finally gained access to the garden, when he obtained a direct examination of the stones. After his visit, Boto was reaffirmed on the idea that it was an original from the XII century, mostly based in the fact that the monastery had great similarities with the cloisters of Silos and Las Huelgas.

Images of the construction of the cloister in its present location in 1959
Palamós Municipal Archive

Authenticity and politics

Well, and then came the government, bringing together a committee of multidisciplinary experts (which for some weird reason did not include an expert in medieval architecture) and asked everybody to wait for a definitive, scientific assessment. The Catalan government thus issued a report on 31 July (fittingly right before August vacations arrived) which for some was a unnecessarily rush move. In its report, the expert group described it as a “historicist creation of Romanesque style” and located its at the beginning of the XX century or shortly before, pointing to the national and international interest on Romanesque at the time, with Le-Duc theories and practices on the air and perhaps also hinting at the economic incentives to erect a medieval cloister for the big dollar.

But the report also talked of “reliable indications that a number of stones, yet to determine, might be from the XII century. In particular, General Director of Architecture of Catalonia’s government, Eduard Riu, mentioned species of lichen on the stones that could only appear after very long periods of time (i.e. centuries).

Finally, the group of experts made clear the limits of their report, when they said that”it was not our aim to determine the precise authorship of the Romanesque pieces and their possible origin. With the present knowledge we can only express such possibility and point out the need for further research in this direction”. Indeed, it was a rush, very limited analysis that merely served political interests, like offering an answer to the non-specialist population and circumscribe the political responsibilities by asking the Palamós municipality to declare the cloister a Good of Local Interest.

Click here for the Official statement, Generalitat of Catalonia

Authenticity and meaning

So, what it means for the cloister to be authentic? At a first level, it means original, that is, dating from the XII century. But then, even if it were that old, it could be more or less authentic, whether it was an original cloister from a monastery (one, among many, hypothesis, link it to the disappeared San Pedro monastery at Gumiel de Izán), or a XII century copy.

The Santa María la Real Foundation, dedicated to research and popularization of Romanesque art, has been major participant in the whole process, although so far at an unofficial level. After being invited to join the group of experts and journalists who visited the cloister last June, the Foundation director, José María Pérez González Peridis posted his impressions, in what constitutes, in my view, perhaps the most sober and interesting intervention on the debate. Pérez noted the importance of location: as he pointed out, it makes a great difference to you buy a Rolex in a jewelery shop, or in a Moroccan market, in the sense that one would question the authenticity of the watch depending on the place he/she buys it. The same goes with the cloister: it is different to find a cloister inside a private state, next to a swimming pool, and scenario of parties and receptions, or integrated in a medieval church or monastery.

Capital of the cloister (via)

Pérez also emphasized how good the alleged forger would have been. If the cloister was done in the XXth century, before 1950 (the time when the cloister is already documented in Madrid, and with visible signs of erosion), a moment when the academic knowledge about Romanesque was not quite encyclopedic, the esculptor and architect should had been “one of the major experts in Spanish Romanesque and an sculptor extremely skilled in the interpretation of original forms”. Moreover, he would had done “a remarkable job aging the pieces, with very calsulated cracks and erosions to achieve the proverbial longevity the gallery would have had. In short, if we bet on the fraudulent version, we would be talking of a extremely, and perversively skilled team, with a knack for deception worthy of admiration.”

Authenticity and the media

Pérez also underscored the influence of the media, particularly in loading discussion, which was academic and therefore needed times and calmness, with urgency. This urgency, which spread to the general readership and the government, was expressed via black-or-white, eye-catching headlines: “Is the cloister a fake?” (La Vanguardia, 07/06/2012), “A cloister surrounded by silence” (El País,6/6/2012), “The Palamós cloister is real” (Rtve, 8/6/2012). Moreover, when a very limited group of specialist was allowed to visit the cloister, journalist surrounded Prof. Boto, the one who first revealed its existence, and demanded a clear, irrefutable answer about its authenticity, barely minutes after he had  seen first-hand the cloister for the first time. However, Pérez goes on, historical research demands another tempo, and necessarily included doubt: “doubt is not only reasonable but mandatory, because it is the best and most honest working method” (link).

Professor Gerardo Boto surrounded by the media during the visit to the cloister.
SMLR Foundation / Jaime Nuño González

Authenticity and art history

Ok, so let’s take his clue and let’s slow down. In this sense, it is interesting the brief note Prof. Boto published in El País right after the official report was published (you can find it here).

“However, it is Romanesque, at least in part”. Eppur si muove. Reading between the lines, this whole text is a fascinating textual exercise that want to put everybody in its place. So to begin with, I wa (at least partially) right.

“As it is claimed to be a neo-Romanesque group,  it follows that the percentage of modern elements is higher than that of the medieval elements”: and then he goes on to mention a number of examples (the church at Santa Maria de Ripoll, the Olite castle, the Royal Pantheon at Poblet monastery, the church at Fromista) where the same happens, that is, when destruction or erosion made necessary a full-fledged restoration with the effect that modem elements ended up being more than the old ones. Having said that, Boto makes a necessary point: “Palamós galleries differ from these illustrious monuments in a moral, rather than technological or material sense: presumably it would have been made in Ciudad Lineal [neighborhood of Madrid] clandestinely and hidden from view. History and morality are independent.” Here’s when Boto claims the cloister for medievalists and art historians, for the scientific rigor and away from the inquisitors. (Similarities with Galileo are too many to obviate:  he’ll say later that “From now begins the advancement of knowledge by the academy, by the doctors of the universities which are not those of the Church”). After acknowledging that the group of experts convened by the Government disagreed on some aspects, but nonetheless agreed to preserve it, Boto defend the task of art historians,”who strive to spread a rigorous discourse, open to debate and analytical refutal , and opposed to shallow and rush opinions”. In your face.

Finally, Boto accepts that there is room to reflect on the regularity of the cloister and the homogeneity of the materials, two arguments against its authenticity, and yet, he cannot but mention that cloisters at Aguilar de Campo, Matallana and Moreruela are equally regular, and that the whole of the old city of Salamanca is build on the same type of stone.

Final notes

After having examined the case of the Palamós cloister, we might remain as ignorant as when we started. But the question is, does it matter? To whom it matters? Might it be, a la Wittgenstein, that the problem with the answer is that the question is wrong?

Authenticity is a double, or triple, edged notion. Specially with material heritage, of which ruins are an emblematic example, authenticity is the result of a cultural negotiation involving many agents.

I cannot resit bringing up the case of the city of Barcelona, now packed with tourist in this sultry August. Many of them stroll the streets of its Gothic Quartier unaware that they are stepping on a XXth century construction. They are not to blame; actually, most of Barcelonians ignore the fact as well: the Gothic area is defined as such by signs, maps, touristic agents and guides, officially-published documents, etc.

Heritage, as it moves through the centuries, is affected by time: the notion of its authenticy has necessarily to include changes, modifications, interventions. Otherwise, we remain anchored in an idealized vision of heritage, that encourages historical  reconstruction as the only modality of social relationship, and which is connivent with industries of simulation and consumption like tourism and world fairs, and with political discourses of national exceptionality. And surely, all these issues have come to play a very interesting role in the contemporary negotiation of architectural heritage in China, which is the central focus on my thesis, and which I hope I would address in forthcoming posts.

False Roman aqueduct next to the Cathedral, at the entrance of Barcelona’s ‘Gothic’ Quartier (via)

Let me finish this post, and start my vacations, with a musical piece which takes historicist reconstruction to a sublime degree: Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 im alten Style (in old style).

Extra reading

On the city of Barcelona, its Gothic quartier and the politics of historical branding, Agustín Cócola Gant’s thesis (in Spanish) “El Barrio Gótico de Barcelona. Planificación del pasado e imagen de marca” (link), now also published as a book.

On the cloister, the most interesting reflections have arrived from blogs, for example (in Spanish) Sol y Moscas and Maestro de Covarrubias. I havan’t found many in English yet, but you can check The History Blog if you haven’t done so.

Update (November 18, 2012)

I’ve just visited the Monastery of Santa Maria, in Ripoll, Catalonia. Remember it is one of the examples Prof. Boto put in his defense: what is the amount of original stones we need to call something Romanesque? After the events of 1835, in which many churches and monasteries were ramsacked, razed and burned, the old medieval monastery presented this look:

View of the monastery from a destroyed cloister, north section standing

Interior of the church

Then, at the end of the century, architect Elies Rogent was commissioned a restoration that not only rebuilt but also added elements, like a previously unexistent lantern tower.

Interior of the church, present state (via)

The cloister, S-W corner, pointing towards the other photograph’s pov.


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