Sunday, July 3

The chronicles of Josep Renau: this is how the Republic saved the artistic treasure from Franco’s bombs

“The Civil War did not catch us off guard. But we had to learn many old things and some new things as we went along. It is not the same to argue heatedly with a friend, than to see him bleed to death next to one; neither is contemplating masterpieces of painting or reading Golden Age books (and whether or not you agree with them), than seeing prince editions and old paintings in the throes of physical destruction… So, when the materiality of the works of the past merges with combat fever, the relationship between this physical presence and its historical character enters a new register of significant connotations. And this happens even in the simplest people, as we had occasion to verify on many occasions. And in a war like ours, above all. Thus, the preservation and defense of our cultural heritage was spontaneously assumed by the Spanish people”.

Josep Renau (Valencia, 1907 – East Berlin, 1982) was not only an exceptional artist. He also became one of the greatest architects of saving the Spanish art treasure from Franco’s bombardments. “It was an avant-garde and pioneering action for the rest of Europe in the Second World War,” says Isabel Argerich, until her retirement responsible for the photo library of the Spanish Historical Heritage Institute and curator, together with Judith Ara, of the exposition protected art of the Prado Museum.

Despite the resounding success of the evacuation of the Spanish heritage, “in 40 years practically nothing has been done to value the figure and work of Renau, only in a timely and anecdotal way to cover the file”, denounces Javier Parra, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Valencian Country and political and artistic disciple of the brilliant author. “There is much to be done,” adds Parra.

Renau’s testimony, published in 1980 by the Valencia City Council and the now-defunct publishing house Fernando Torres, has been republished in a facsimile reproduction by the consistory. Endangered Art, 1936-39 narrates “the efforts for the conservation and defense of the artistic heritage” during the Civil War, explains the mayor Glòria Tello. While there are many epic legends of the Civil War, Josep Renau’s chronicle is not.

Before the first bombardments of the Francoist aviation on Madrid —from November 14 to 25, 1936— the first order works of the Prado Museum had already been withdrawn and protected. Renau, general director of Fine Arts of the Government of Francisco Largo Caballero, began the evacuation work together with collaborators such as Antonio del Toro, his secretary; Timoteo Pérez Rubio, president of the Central Board of the National Artistic Treasure, or the architects José Lino Vaamonde and Roberto Fernández Balbuena, among many others. All of them —despite their extraordinary work— ended up in exile: Josep Renau, Antonio del Toro and Roberto Fernández Balbuena, in Mexico; José Lino Vaamonde, in Venezuela, and Timoteo Pérez Rubio in Brazil.

On November 10, 1936, the first shipment departed for Valencia —the Renau’s biographer, Fernando Bellón, points out the date of November 8, “at the successful completion of the containment of the first Francoist offensive on Madrid”—. Only four days later, the air force of the rebel side bombed the Prado Museum, the Liria Palace, the National Library and the San Fernando Academy. “Priority” was given, says Josep Renau, “to first-class works, with preference to those of national authors.” “Then the selection of the tapestries, historical objects and books was made according to the same criteria, until all the objects of our historical artistic treasure of fundamental value were safe”, he adds in Endangered Art, 1936-39 .

The protection of the works was precise and meticulous: “Only waterproof papers were used, special crossbars in the boxes to avoid warping of the panels, studying in each particular case the convenience of keeping or removing the frames that, sometimes, these produce. warping or, on the contrary, they avoid them, depending on their construction, their state of conservation or their dimensions”. In addition, the outer shell was “fully waterproofed against the risks of moisture, rain, snow.”

The team of artists, in charge of a mission that transcended the war situation, used “the best military trucks”. On 32-hour trips, due to the minimum speed at which the convoys advanced, the Spanish art treasure was “monitored by government technicians and delegates” and “protected by motorized elements of the Army.”

The 22 expeditions traveled the route between Madrid and Valencia with the masterpieces of the Prado Museum, including 381 paintings and 181 drawings by Goya. “We must not forget that these transports had to be carried out in the middle of the war and under the constant threat of planes: it was necessary to take advantage of the darkest nights, stop the engines and turn off the headlights at the slightest warning. The arduous task imposed by a group of artists, teachers, technicians, officers and simple soldiers to help save the Artistic Treasure of Spain will be better understood”.

An amazing moment in the history of Spain was staged on the Jarama bridge. “The most important expedition, which only consisted of two large and historic canvases —Las Meninas of Velazquez, and the Portrait of Charles the Fifth, by Titian—, had to stop when he reached the Jarama suspension bridge, because the considerable height of the boxes bumped into the upper part of its metal frame. The load had to be dismantled, lowered from the truck and the boxes slid on rollers to the other end of the bridge. To secure the precious cargo again and continue the journey: all in all, four hours of hard work in the dark and cold.”

The cataloging work, including the “consignment of the slightest incidents of each work in a special file”, was no less arduous. “Nearly two thousand first-class canvases, not counting the precious books and famous tapestries, went through these procedures before accessing a safe place,” says Renau.

In Valencia, the initial idea of ​​locating the artistic treasure in underground shelters was completely discarded due to the suffocating humidity and subsoil water. “Two buildings were chosen: the Puerta de Serranos, an old Gothic fortress —which in the 15th century closed access to the city from the north—, and the old Colegio del Patriarca, built in the 17th century,” says Josep Renau.

With “carved stone, walls of an extraordinary thickness —three meters— and interior vaults one meter thick in their keystones”, the outstanding monument of the city became the ideal refuge for the artistic treasure. “The bases of the arches are six to eight meters long, and the construction is founded on a slope, surrounded by a ditch five meters deep and six meters wide. It consists of three overlapping floors of thirty meters in total. In addition, thanks to its extremely thick walls, the quality of the stone – granite – and the age of its construction and good conservation, the interior climate can be considered as almost invariable”.

The Torres de Serranos, according to the detailed plans of the architect José Lino Vaamonde, were reinforced with six layers of protection, including sandbags and monolithic stone and reinforced concrete vaults. In the Colegio del Patriarca, in another amazing scene, some of the works from the artistic treasure were exhibited (in one of the photographs included in Renau’s book, three militiamen, rifles on their shoulders, observe the evacuated works showing in a single image the communist conception that the intellectuals of the party advocated in the magazine new culture).

The success of the evacuation of the art treasure was such that Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, former director of the British Museum, and Sir James Gow Mann, curator of the Wallace Collection, were amazed and amazed after their visit to Valencia. In a memorable new scene, Las Meninas They were briefly exhibited at the Colegio del Patriarca for the delegation, which verified the good work of the Second Republic with the artistic treasure threatened by Franco’s aviation.

Between the Torres de Serranos and the Colegio del Patriarca church, the two English art experts were able to verify the good condition of works such as “Las Meninasthe Aesop and the portraits of Margarita de Austria and Don Baltasar Carlos, by Velázquez; the Maja dressed and the Naked Maja, by Goya; the Trinity of the Greco; the sacred Family with the lamb and the portrait of Cardinal Alidosio, by Rafael; Salome of Titian; Maria de’ Mediciby Rubens”, according to Sir Frederic G. Kenyon’s travel chronicle published in The Times.

Sir Frederic G. Kenyon also noted the more than 300 tapestries from the National Palace “spread, unrolled, on a platform raised on purpose” in one of the Torres de Serranos as well as three tapestries from the Duke of Alba “rolled and packed in a large box” from the Liria Palace, which had suffered Francoist bombing.

Kenyon praised “the amazing efforts to protect the nation’s art treasures from the dangers of war, for which those entrusted with the work deserve the highest praise.”

The feat of Josep Renau and his team is so indisputable that even the Marquis of Lozoya, general director of Fine Arts between 1939 and 1959, recognized after the Civil War that “fortunately nothing has been lost and the State collections are today integrated as before 1936”. A herculean task that the artist combined with the preparation of the Spanish pavilion for the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, where the Guernica Pablo Picasso would denounce to the world the terror that occurred after the Franco uprising against republican democracy. Renau, highlights his disciple Javier Parra, “as a good communist militant, he exceptionally fulfills the task and contributes his own knowledge of the treatment of works of art”.

“He is credited with teamwork,” adds Isabel Argerich, who claims the role of Roberto Fernández Balbuena —the Ministry of Culture just edited two of his lectures under the title Artistic treasure and Prado Museum in the civil war and postwar period—and the architect José Lino Vaamonde, whose book Salvage and protection of the National Artistic Treasure (published in 1973 during his exile in Caracas), remains out of print.

“Vahamonde had made plans of where the bombs had fallen, if they were explosive or incendiary or the load they had; he studied the weaponry in great detail, he had been a mathematician and an architect and had an impressive background”, explains Argerich.

The collective work, under the baton of Renau, was “something amazing in such a short time and with such scarce means”, adds Isabel Argerich. The rescue of the Spanish art treasure was a sort of prelude to the Second World War. “Art is a military objective to erase cultural identity or the signs that can identify a country,” she recalls.

“Some don’t remember and others don’t know. Somehow I had to tell it publicly so that it doesn’t happen again.” Josep Renau said during the presentation of the book at the Valencia City Hall on May 6, 1980. Endangered Art, 1936-39, the extraordinary chronicle of the feat of rescuing the Spanish artistic treasure, is finally available again more than four decades after its first edition.

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