In 1925, John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided to make the great offering of his life. The heir to the oil empire bought from George Gray Barnard the remains of several Romanesque and Gothic cloisters that the American sculptor had repeatedly offered to the Metropolitan Museum for two decades. With the archaeological remains imported from the French Pyrenees, Rockefeller would build in New York a building in which to “evoke” the European Middle Ages. His gift to the United States opened the doors in 1938, but the fictional Neolombard monastery that perched on the Hudson River always missed a piece.
The paintings of Soria looted in 1920 that today have several museums in the United States
It was not until 1958, when the director of the Metropolitan, James J. Rorimer, brought her on a boat from Spain. They were the 3,300 stones of the apse of a Romanesque temple abandoned to its fate on the hill of a small Segovian town. Today, six decades later, The Cloisters museum, a sub-headquarters of the Metropolitan dedicated to medieval European art, holds an exhibition on Hispanic art with the dramatic chapel of San Martín as the star setting. On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the town of Fuentidueña impotently notes the continuous landslides of the last ruins of its church, sacrificed by the Spanish Government to fulfill the American dream of a tycoon.
“It was a decision that was made in the Council of Ministers, the mayor at that time had nothing to do with it,” laments Fernando Pérez, Fuentidueña councilor for 18 years. Because the shipment of the apse of San Martín to the United States came to close the list of the most flagrant cases of the “self-expoly” of Spanish heritage, well into the twentieth century. In this case, the Franco regime not only consented to the departure of a church that had been protected in 1931, but also led the exchange of the head with the American Government. “Today there is nothing to claim. If I sell you a home, I cannot tell you later to return it to me,” Pérez Díez admits resignedly. Spain only received from the Metropolitan an indefinite deposit of six panels with wall paintings that had been torn from another Spanish temple, the Soria hermitage of San Baudelio.
The current mayor of Fuentidueña was 12 years old when the apse was dismantled: ‘We escaped from the school at recess to see the works’
A lesson well learned in Fuentidueña. It was neither a robbery, nor a looting. And that’s how the neighbors lived it. The current mayor was only 12 years old when the disassembly of the apse was carried out. “We would escape from the school at recess to see the works, but they would not let us get close. We would see the methods they used, which were not yet known in the area, such as the falsework with which they carefully dismantled the stones.” They also observed how the operators packed the pieces of this capital puzzle and loaded them onto the trucks, which at the beginning of 1958 took the merchandise to the port of Bilbao, and from there to New York aboard the ship Monte Navajo, without a return ticket.
On the trail of Ferrant
A chance finding turned the professional concerns of one of the people who has been most involved in valuing the story of San Martín and “closing the wound” of Fuentidueña. When the architect Julián Esteban Chapapría bought the personal archive of the restorer Alejandro Ferrant, his colleague Luis Cortés got to work on the cataloging. “I came across a series of very beautiful plans that Ferrant had drawn to document the dismantling of the apse of a church in Segovia.” Such was the impression of that discovery that Cortés decided to make a stay at the New York University of Columbia to get to know The Cloisters museum, where the headboard was exhibited, and ended up working as an intern at the Metropolitan, “a real luxury.”
The young architect began to investigate the transfer of the apse and came up with a first-rate documentation. Everything was there: the original drawings, the photographs of the works, and even the fifteen-minute film that the Americans had commissioned to shoot about the process. Too valuable a material to put in a drawer. So Cortés digitized it and presented it to the then Spanish ambassador to the United States, Ramón Gil Casares, who pulled the strings with the Cervantes Institute to mount an exhibition at the New York headquarters. The exhibition was held successfully in 2016, and even included the visit of the Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
Back in Spain, Luis Cortés brought in his suitcase the moral obligation to try to repeat New York’s achievement in the land where the original monument languished. “The first idea was to bring the Cervantes Institute exhibition to Fuentidueña, with the intention of even creating an interpretation center there,” recalls the professor from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. But Cortés’s ambition went further. Together with his team he had volumetrically recreated each stone of the San Martín head in three dimensions and, as an architect, he could not give up opening the debate on a hypothetical reconstruction of the apse with the help of 21st century technologies.
In Fuentidueña, Beatriz de Frutos was one of the first people to learn about the work of the Valencian architect and his plans to recover the memory of the church. “That someone had done this research work on the ruins of Fuentidueña from the point of view of architecture seemed extraordinary to me,” he acknowledges. A natural entrepreneur from Barcelona and with a family in Segovia, Beatriz had moved to the town with her partner to open a store that, finally, ended up becoming a meeting point and dissemination of the town’s values. “I told them that I promised to give them a hand,” he explains, still unable to hide the illusion of the moment. And the project started. At least the anteroom.
From the hand of the Amigos de Fuentidueña association, various initiatives arose to take the first step and celebrate the exhibition. Through the Hispania Nostra organization, they channeled a crowdfunding To raise the necessary 3,500 euros, they held cultural activities with the selfless help of artists and even sold badges with the text “I love my apse” (“I love my apse”). And both the City Council and the local development association had given up their facilities for the exhibition… But all the effort was in borage water. Only half of the necessary funds were raised. “It gave the feeling that there was not much interest in carrying out the project”, recognizes Luis Cortés, who laments: “It seemed that, in addition to giving my work for free, I had to put the money out of my pocket to pay for the exhibition” .
A separate issue was institutional support. The empathy of the administrations with the project was not very different from that expressed in the 1950s with the people. Then, the academies of Fine Arts and History gave the placet to the sending of the header, with some honorable voice against it, such as that of the architect Torres Balbás. The Monuments Commission of Segovia was silenced and the town consented in exchange for the arrangement of the church of San Miguel. Six decades later, no institution has wanted to make up for the injury to date, a missed opportunity that has not attracted the attention of the university environment either.
But not all the work was wasted. “It made me very angry, although perhaps the project did not go ahead because it did not have to go out,” says Beatriz de Frutos, who nevertheless defends the “important step” carried out. In fact, there are the achievements. “We wanted to demand that the apse be returned to us, not as a real claim, but as a way of attracting attention and asking for compensation, a collaboration from the United States.” Through various neighbors, they came into contact with the American embassy and managed to get the cultural attaché to visit the ruins of San Martín. “They did not refuse to collaborate, they only asked us to start an association or a foundation that would channel future activities,” Beatriz explains. The possibility of an exchange of experts, or even students, was on the horizon.
A ‘fake’ in New York
Until next January, the Fuentidueña chapel will host the exhibition at The Cloisters –the only sub-headquarters of the Metropolitan– Spain, 1000-1200: art on the frontiers of faith. It is a set of forty pieces on an aspect of the history of Spain that fascinates Americans: the coexistence between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle Ages and how that complicated mixture of religious confessions gave birth to an exceptional art.
It is not the only activity that has turned the Romanesque headboard into the center of attention. Because in addition to the stones, the Americans took other added elements as gifts. How the acoustics generated by the space inaugurated in 1961, which has allowed us to celebrate medieval music concerts and theatrical reenactments to bring to the United States that piece of the Spanish past that still today – a century after the “American fever” for our heritage – continues fascinating Americans.
Although not even in New York all that glitters is gold.
—To you, as an architect, how do you like the recreation of Fuentidueña in The Cloisters?
“What do I think …?” A fake –says Cortés.
The current difference in the conception of heritage between Spain and the United States is a fact. “To a certain extent it is logical, they do not have the culture of the stones while I, for example, have played as a child among the Guisando Bulls”, compares the specialist Luis Cortés, who is currently preparing a catalog of proposals to improve the setting. in scene of that “false” San Martín in The Cloisters. “There are several issues to be resolved: the old stones cannot touch the new ones, the lighting is from the sixties and it has not been renewed …”, he exemplifies. Although perhaps the cover is the element that is most out of tune. “In my opinion, they should replace it with a pair-and-row structure, like the one in the Tránsito synagogue in Toledo, which fits much better with medieval Spanish construction,” he argues.
At risk of collapse
The month of October begins in Fuentidueña and the first colds of autumn hit the hill where the ruins of San Martín stand, just a couple of canvases blurred by erosion and the tired silhouette of the old belfry. Exactly 64 years ago, the architect Alejandro Ferrant and his crew of workers brought from Galicia found the same panorama, together with an exceptional headboard to be dismantled, which miraculously preserved the Romanesque sculptures inside the presbytery. Then, the local population received the operation with some reluctance, which even had to listen to the threats broadcast by a clandestine station.
The initial suspicion eventually dissipated. With no hotels within a radius of many kilometers, the workers stayed that winter in the homes of their own neighbors. Even some of them – now deceased – collaborated in basic tasks, such as supplying water to the workers. When the last box had been loaded into the truck, hosts and strangers celebrated the special relationship that had been forged over the months with a party where, they say, there was no lack of jukebox music. Today those distant melodies have become a silence up there only broken by new detachments. “What is standing will end up falling completely,” the experts predict. There is still time to find a new motive, a spark that drives the acts of homage and helps to heal San Martín’s wound.