Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

The phenomenon of old mansions becoming museums is not a new one. A rich sod builds an incredible mansion and at some point, subsequent generations cannot afford the massive maintenance required and taxes imposed, so they sell it to a foundation or to the government who -if it is good enough- turn it into a museum, or the family turns it into a private museum and on top of that rent it for events, etc. This is the case of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. What is rare in this case is that there are very few historic homes in Florida. Rich folks like to hang out together so they can talk about their toys, so Newport Rhode Island, or New York’s Upper East Side or the North Shore of Long Island, remember The Great Gatsby? has a higher concentration of mansions or palazzos, as the Italians call them- than all of Florida put together. There are a number of reasons for this: First, the so called “robber barons” built their fortunes -and consequently their extravagant homes- in the 19th Century, but Southern Florida did not get a railroad until the 1920s. So you could say Florida missed the train. Other factors are the terrible weather, hurricanes, and humidity which would discourage most people from building down here.

An adventurous visionary was James Deering, heir to the International Harvester fortune who purchased a massive plot in Coconut Grove, South of Miami. Together with his artist/designer friend Paul Chalfin they traveled through Europe and Egypt buying everything they liked, and then built Villa Vizcaya to house everything.

As you can see from the photos: the building is in the Renaissance style with a large patio and gorgeous rooms. The gardens are spectacular, with grottos, formal gardens with local flora, etc. While there is no one particular item that makes you say wow, the aggregate is beautifully integrated. Probably due to the disgusting humidity in Florida, you will not find any master level painting. But there are plenty of nice sculptures, tapestries, furniture, and other decorative arts.

So, all in all, a wonderful, highly recommended visit.

Summer excursion

The other day my dear friend and fine art restorer extraordinaire took me on a whirlwind excursion to see some of his recent work. We took the opportunity to enjoy a nice lunch and ended by visiting our friends at the Paular monastery and to check up on them with the whole pandemic to-do.

Our day started with our traditional morning coffee at our local village café/bar/restaurant/social center: Marcelino. From there we drove over the Guadarrama mountains (yes, the ones where Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is based) to the lovely village of Rascafría. We had a leisurely lunch at a cool garden restaurant “La Pradera” (the natural translation “prairie” has taken the American meaning and spirit, being much larger than a Spanish “pradera” which is more of a field, but enough etymologies, and translation theory!)

After lunch we drove to the small village of Canencia. The root Can from the Latin “canis” for dog (oh no, back to etymologies) is because this village is where the kings’ dogs where bred during the Middle Ages. Jaime restored the gorgeous Gothic pulpit at the church last year. A stone’s throw away from the village is a very elegant Medieval stone bridge.

A short drive away is the town of Lozoya. A manorial village as testified by the many coat of arms decorating entrances. The main door of the church is in a beautiful Plateresco style, which is unique to Spain because it keeps the Gothic style but incorporates Renaissance elements. Jaime is scheduled to restore the pulpit there, a delicate Renaissance piece.

A tiny hamlet nearby is Pinilla del Valle, again with a lovely old church and town square. Jaime is working to secure the restoration of the portico of the church, damaged through the centuries.

We ended our excursion visiting our dear friends the monks at the Paular monastery. They are all fine, including the oldest ones. We snuck in for a quick visit. You see, Jaime restored that monastery from scratch years ago, so he knows it well and I have gone on two retreats there -as you might know from previous posts, so I also know it a bit.

After that visit, it was time to head home over the mountains.

My happy place, El Escorial

 

Although I have talked about it in various posts, I have never dedicated a  post to my favorite building, my happy place, and arguably the most important building in Spain, El Escorial.

I am blessed in that my parents bought a house not far from this place when I was a boy. My restless dad would often take me here for quick excursions, to walk around the palace, the village or the surrounding countryside. As soon as I could drive (17 with my British license) I started going there on my own: to walk around, to read, to write.

Possibly the main reason El Escorial is so special is that it is a monastery that is a royal palace and a royal palace that is a monastery. So it is huge by monastery standards but it is austere and spartan by palace standards. But it is more than a palace and a monastery: it has one of the finest libraries in the world, a magnificent basilica, a pantheon with (most) Spanish kings (and reigning queens), a school, an art museum, etc.

It was built by my favorite Spanish king Philip II. He had such drive and desire to build it that he spent a fortune to have it built as fast as possible. It was built in 21 years from 1563 to 1584. The result is arguably the finest representation of Renaissance architecture in Spain (his dad Carlos V, built another great Renaissance palace in Granada, but that’s a different story). What happens with most huge old buildings is that they took so long to build that they were started in a certain style and finished in another style altogether -and oftentimes, other styles in between. This is most visible in cathedrals. Oh yes, Philip II is the one who sent out the Invincible Armada, in fact, you can see the desk where he worked -and where he received the news of his defeat.

The palace is built entirely of local granite, has 14 courtyards, and thousands of windows, doors, blah, blah, blah. As you can see from the photos, it is amazing, grandiose but sober. There are plenty of books and web sources about it, so I do not need to add to the mountains of information. There is also the village where the palace is. It is a beautiful little village with great food, little bookshops, and cafés. The combination of countryside, palace, and village is really magical. When a group of the king’s scouting committee where checking out where to build the palace they were caught in a fierce storm that they interpreted as a signal. So they figured that is where they should build. There was a semi-abandoned mine there (Escoria means slag, mining residue, thus Escorial). Plus there is evidence of pre-roman, Celtic settlements in the area, adding to the mysticism and aura of the place. I could go on for hours and hours, but a. I will spare you and b. you can hire me to give you a tour!

Many years ago, chatting with a work colleague and friend we discovered that we were both fans of El Escorial, so we soon founded the Asociación A. de Amantes de El Escorial. (The A. stands for apocryphal, but don’t tell anyone), it is a bit of a joke, but we now go at least twice a year for Asociación “meetings” that involve dinner and a walkabout!

Why is this my happy place? Maybe its the radiation from all the granite, maybe the fond memories of walking around, maybe the relaxing qualities of the beautiful renaissance lines, I really couldn’t tell you.

 

Sigüenza

A bit over an hour north-east of Madrid lies the town of Sigüenza. I remember going there for an excursion for lunch once with my father when I was a teenager, and again with my family in my twenties, but I had not gone back since. In early January I went with my girlfriend. What a great town it is for a quick week-end getaway!

There are two main highlights to the town but many interesting bits to fill in between those two bookends. And bookends they are as they are situated on each side of town: The castle sits at the top of the hill, and the cathedral at the bottom. They are connected by the medieval wall. Within those walls are a handful of old churches, from Romanesque like Santiago and San Vicente to 19th C Santa Maria. There is a Renaissance town square, monasteries and convents, and like any good Spanish town a bunch of bars and restaurants!

The medieval castle, where queen Blanca de Borbón was kept prisoner for a few years since her dad King Jean II le Bon did not pay the dowry, became the bishops’ palace and eventually was turned into a gorgeous Parador hotel in the 70s. Imagine staying in a medieval castle but with awesome water pressure, great food and Wi-Fi!! We got a great deal, so we stayed there!

The town is perfect for walking around. Although we went in early January and it was freezing, there are plenty of places to check out and warm up!

The highlight is the Cathedral, originally Romanesque and then modified in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and eventually Neo-Classic styles. The main attraction in the cathedral is the tomb of “El doncel”. This fellow, Martín Vázquez de Arce was a local nobleman who was killed fighting for Ferdinand and Isabelle against the Moors in Granada in 1482. What is extraordinary is his tomb: he is not lying down like every other bishop and nobleman in every other cathedral… he is reclining, reading a book in his suit of armour, waiting for his eternal rest. The detail in the carving of the alabaster is exquisite to the point of whimsical: his page carefully holding his foot, his eyes open, etc. it is a gorgeous sculpture –funerary art at its best!

The rest of the cathedral is no slouch: a Greco painting, an outstanding collection of tapestries, amazing architecture, two pulpits: a Romanesque and a Renaissance one, etc., etc.

The Clarisas convent just happens to have an ancient burying ground outside their doors which is simply covered with a glass for you to appreciate the architecture and human bones! The nuns make the best chocolate truffles you can imagine. Since these nuns do not allow you to see them you have to buy the sweets via a rotating door. As a certified chocaholic, I can attest to the quality of the truffles! I did not bother tasting anything else.

As in any good Spanish town, food is the soul of the place. Sigüenza lies pretty much along the dividing line between Old and New Castille  – so called as Castille progressed on the expulsion of the aforementioned Moors… So you get both cuisines, North and South.

The surrounding villages are obviously much smaller than Sigüenza,but are very rich in history and culture. Make sure you check out Atienza and Medinacelli.

The 18th Century as literary hinge

When I “discovered” 18th Century Spanish literature, something that really struck me was what a critical element it was in the history of literature and how little credit it gets. The 18th Century is a literary hinge in the evolution of literature. While it can be argued that every century, or era, is a “hinge” era, a time between times, the 18th Century exercises as a flexing point in what has been called the pendulum of literary movements. Being the philistine that I am, I can only use Spanish literature for my example:

The ilustrados (18th C educated Spaniards), whether they liked it or not, were actually building on the shoulders of the Baroque, with its chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil, which they hated. This, in turn, was a reaction to the Renaissance which was short lived in Spain in favor of the more mysterious and why not, fun, Baroque, more suited to the Spanish temperament (perpetuating stereotypes, the Spanish are a Baroque people. Disagree? Go watch an Almodovar film). For the Spanish literati, the solution to what they considered centuries of muddle was to build a one way bridge to the classic ancient Greeks and Romans as Luzán proposed in his Poética (1737). As much as the Enlightened writers wanted to, they could not get there without the rich legacy of medieval letters and art and everything that followed. For example, my man, Padre Isla (1703-1781), a precursor to the ilustrados, indeed goes back to the ancients, but he also relies heavily on St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Cervantes and Quevedo, creating his narrative from a blend of centuries of letters. Consciously or not these are the foundations the 18th Century had to build on.

On the other hand the Enlightenment’s obsession with societal good which even led to the elimination of the novel in Spain due to its reliance on the first person singular, is the launching pad for the Romantic movement where that “I” is all important. Equally, the Enlightened enthusiasm for scientific enumeration led to the naturalists. The reaction to those developments will be realism, modernism and postmodernism.

In big bold brushstrokes there are the Classics, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras leading up to the Enlightenment, and the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist, Modernist and Postmodernism after it. How do I then explain the fact that my sides, arms or rays of my angle are lopsided? Well it must be taken into account that both the Classical and Medieval periods encompass centuries, while the last big three movements occurred within the 20th C. due to the advances in communications and technology, so just counting movements is not the same as considering the influence and repercussion of  those movements. This of course is taking into account all the differences in labeling periods and movements. No style is 100% unique, as one genre blends into another.

Thus, a solid grasp of 18th Century literature opens up an understanding to what happened before and after on the literary continuum. From a teaching standpoint, understanding the enlightenment offers the key to the past as well as to the future of literary history.

P.S.: When I explained this idea to my thesis director during one of our coffees, she liked it so much she took a picture!