In the year 1633, the Sevillian carpenter Diego López de Arenas bequeathed in writing the keys to a knowledge that, a century later, would cease to be practiced completely in our country: Spanish roof carpentry. The new taste for plaster vaults relegated wooden roofs —maligned and out of fashion— to a back seat, until in the 1980s a Valencian architect managed to decipher the keys to the López de Arenas treaty. Enrique Nuere recovered a purely Spanish tradition that in the last two decades has revived, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. A century after the massive sale of Spanish coffered ceilings to North American potentates, Nuere’s disciples dust off medieval tools and techniques to dispose of the orders that never stop arriving, especially from states like California.
The remains of the medieval church that Franco gave to the United States are falling apart
But now, like a century ago, the so-called Spanish carpentry grows old without finishing being a prophet in its land. Everything has its explanation. This ingenious technique —emerged in the peninsula almost a millennium ago— has been clouded by the topic of “Mudejar coffered ceilings”. “Enrique Nuere is very combative on this point: the term implies that the carpentry of the roofs was imported, and it is true that the layouts came from the East, but their application on a roof is something that was invented in Spain,” he explains. one of the disciples of the Valencian, the architect specialized in historical carpentry Javier de Mingo.
Curious how convoluted the historical future becomes. When Nuere deciphered the system with which medieval carpenters made roofs, he had no doubt that the technique had come from within. Actually, behind the roofs that closed Romanesque and Gothic buildings was the use of a simple bevel, in essence, a right triangle —with an angle of 90 degrees— and scalene (all its different sides). The rediscoverer of coffered ceilings tirelessly searched for this technique in Eastern countries, until he reached a definitive conclusion: the Muslims did not know the use of the bevel. The covers could only be made in Spain.
Neither Mudejar nor coffered
Destiny wanted to tarnish the Spanish achievement. Javier de Mingo, especially sensitive to the dissemination of this magical technique, blames the ambivalence of the Mudejar term for it. “It is an adjective that designates the Muslim population that remained in recently reconquered Christian territory, but also the art that derives from the connection between the Christian and the Muslim.” The architect specifies that “when someone mentions the Mudejar coffered ceilings, he connects them with the first meaning and attributes their manufacture to the Muslims who stayed behind; then the confusion is absolute.
In reality, as Javier de Mingo points out, lazo carpentry —which is usually connected with Mudejar— “was mostly made by Christian carpenters”. If there were artisans of Muslim origin, they were a minority. But there is one more paradox: there is a special concentration of this type of roof in some areas, such as the province of León, where “there is no evidence that there was a Mudejar population”.
Towards a new splendor
In spite of everything, the Mudejar ballast has not discouraged in the last two decades an increasing number of architects and craftsmen who, after discovering the keys to carpentry, have decided to dedicate themselves entirely to this medieval trade. Along with the work of Enrique Nuere, the common tutor for all of them, there was another circumstance that marked a turning point. Spanish crafts began to be distinguished from abroad. In particular, by the American multimillionaire Richard Driehaus, whose foundation regularly awards a prize for the best traditional architecture projects. When Driehaus learned about the work of the Cadiz architect Rafael Manzano, he was so impressed that he not only decided to give him one of his awards, but also created an exclusive distinction for Spain, which would later also include neighboring Portugal.
Among those who have won the Driehaus award is the prestigious craftsman from Jaén, Paco Luis Martos, whose coffered ceilings today decorate some of the mansions of the most distinguished Hollywood movie stars. Before opening an office in Los Angeles, Martos had to carve out a career that took its first steps in the year 2000, with a first commission of novelistic overtones that he will never forget. “One day an antique dealer showed up at my restoration workshop with a truck full of old sticks. He told me: ‘Look, this is a coffered ceiling, we have to restore it and place it in a shopping center in Seville,’” he recalls.
Martos’ response was to immerse himself in the universe of Spanish roofs. “I investigated, I went to Enrique Nuere’s books to learn about the technique and, above all, I used the knowledge he had acquired during the restoration work.” The result was that the Úbeda carpenter passed that exam and began a high-profile career that has just brought him new recognition for the recovery of this traditional knowledge, this time, from the Junta de Andalucía.
21st century customers
It is taken for granted that, among the thousands of historic coffered ceilings that support the structures of so many other Spanish buildings, many need restoration, when they do not finish receiving it. What does not stop drawing attention is the reborn fashion of ordering a newly manufactured roof. Who are the customers of the 21st century? “In general, they are people who have money and a lot of taste for the past. They are people who do not come from nowhere, they have studied, they have careers related to art and they know how to value Spanish carpentry”, answers Javier de Mingo. For his part, Paco Luis Martos has perfectly defined who makes up his client portfolio. “On the one hand, we manufacture coffered ceilings for historic buildings for commercial purposes, such as somewhat special hotels and restaurants. On the other, for individuals who have their mansion or small palace that they want to decorate with a Mudejar coffered ceiling, an artistic element from the past that I think is universal and timeless”, details the specialist, currently immersed in the recreation of twelve historic ceilings burned during the Civil War, within the project “The dream of Sijena”.
Precisely, De Mingo and Martos coincided in one of those special projects that can be seen from a magical place, such as the San Nicolás viewpoint, from where the most iconic image of the Alhambra in Granada can be seen. “An architect called us to put the roofs on a historic house, el carmen [casa de recreo tradicional de Granada] Apperley, and thus help to recover the splendor it had had in the past”, relates DeMingo. Specifically, the designer from Madrid had to draw three different armors. “We had three carpenters to manufacture three different structures: Paco Luis Martos made a flat circular roof, the craftsmen of El Paular made the elongated ceiling of the living room and Ángel Martín made a bow dome over the master bedroom,” he says. The result could not be more evocative: the villa has become a luxurious private viewpoint of the Alhambra, a tourist accommodation whose enjoyment is only available to those who can spend a whopping thousand euros or more to sleep one night “under cover” .
Three examples of Spanish armor, among the countless different covers that can be created, combining the geometry of the structure with a spectacular decorative catalogue. But, among all, there was a type of armor only suitable for the most experienced carpenters. “The lacería (ornamentation based on interlocking pieces) is the jewel in the crown within the assembly carpentry and, within it, the most complex are the domes”, Javier de Mingo asserts. In fact, the craftsmen invented a magic trick to defy physics: they managed to translate flat geometry into spherical geometry. An achievement as exclusive as the only six examples of domes that survive on the planet today: two in the Alhambra, as many in Seville, one in Madrid and another in Lima, Peru.
In Carmen Apperley, the craftsman Ángel María Martín was in charge of “crowning” the bedroom of the historic residence with a suggestive dome. The carpenter from Avila —who is currently working on his first project for California— has a two-decade career, in which he has devoted his efforts, not only to creating roofs, but also to disseminating this centuries-old knowledge. The opportunity of his life appeared to him during the works that were being carried out in the cilla (grain warehouse) of a historic building in Narros del Castillo, a town in the Moraña of Avila. “There was a room 25 meters long with four or five meters of light that lent itself to the placement of a coffered ceiling and I proposed it to the mayor,” he recalls. And he convinced him. Immediately afterwards, Martín “locked himself in” with the computer for a month and a half to create his first work in white carpentry, a term that alludes to the color of the wood of the trees that are usually used for this task.
The result of the project and his personal conviction led the carpenter to promote the Abulense Mudéjar Carpentry Interpretation Center, of which he is now its technical director. “Ávila has 248 towns and some 500 examples of historic carpentry; There are armors throughout the province, but most of them, the most expensive, are located in the Moraña region,” says Ángel María Martín to justify the location of a dissemination center whose training courses are attended by professionals from different autonomies in the country.
An “invisible” reality
There are specialists who calculate that more than half of the newly manufactured coffered ceilings travel to the United States and, specifically, to California, where they highly value Spanish historical art and its “Mediterranean ceilings”. A different question is the assessment that this purely Spanish reality has within its borders, where the old Spanish ceilings are not considered to be other arts. “Not even today there is a catalog of Spanish coffered ceilings. Being objective, I have to admit that our ceilings are much more valued abroad, since the American patrons dedicated themselves to buying them. Perhaps the explanation lies in the little attachment that we Spaniards have for what is ours”, reflects Paco Luis Martos.
Faced with such a situation, Javier de Mingo proposes to “give visibility” to this legacy. “I appeal to historians not only to look at the masonry walls, but when describing the buildings, they look up and see the amount of things that are on the ceilings,” he asserts. They are not empty words. De Mingo, Martos and Martín are among the enthusiasts who, together with Enrique Nuere, lead by example: they offer training, manufacture roofs and work to bring this discipline to the faculties of Architecture. Today, as centuries ago, rather than compete with each other, they collaborate in the transmission of ancient knowledge, as the ancient medieval guilds did.