Medievalist in Madrid

I mentioned, and have been ordered to write about, being sent to Madrid by the Museum. I was conveying a medal to another museum, for an exhibition that Karen Larsdatter has since alerted us to, and this part of the trip was done with very quickly, leaving some free time for sight-seeing. Unfortunately, though I mentioned some time ago the serious drought in some parts of Spain, that’s all over now and the skies were joyfully pregnant with nourishing water for most of the trip, or, to put it another way, it was rainy. All the same, I did get some photoes and some of the things I photoed were indoors, and so can be reported on in the dry…

Firstly, Madrid is a busy and friendly city. I got on with it much better than I did with Barcelona despite being even more adrift in language terms, but I’ve been told I should give Barcelona another chance and was hardly going to ignore it. It is also a small city: one could walk across most of the centre in an hour, but despite this it has ten metro lines, some of which have only four or five stops, and which intersect very badly so that almost anywhere is two changes of train away. It is also a new city, compared to Barcelona at least: there was an Andalusi town here and presumably something before that but it is mainly a creation of the Spanish royal family, of which of course there wasn’t a single one until nearly the early modern period anyway. But because of that last, it is also an important town, so that a great deal of money has been poured into it and an awful lot of very splendid building resulted. For example, at one crossroads between the Prado and the hotel, two of the corners are like this:


So there’s no shortage of tourist eye-candy. All the same, fearing that it would hard to find things, before I went I’d contacted a Madrilena friend of mine for tourist hints, and she told me, in less than 160 characters bless her, “See statues in Plaza Royal, drink caña in bar nearby, Museo Arqueologico, sandwich in confiteria Mallorca”. I did my best to follow instructions, and therefore my first stop was the 1844-built royal palace:

Now that’s impressive enough, and the changing of the mounted guard that was happening as I arrived, overseen by a tiny but forceful female drill sergeant, was pretty good too, but I’d been sent there for the statues and I quickly saw why. In a long crescent around the palace’s front garden there stand, you see, Romantic visions of the earliest founders of Spain. No-one later than 1100 need apply! The first one I happened onto was the supposedly bookish but effective Alfonso III of Asturias, who is dear to my studies:

His son Ordoño I doesn’t look as if he cares what his father may have been dreaming about. In fact, Dad, if you open that bloody scroll one more time I swear me and the other two’ll depose you, you watch… Whoever was carving these was aware of the history I think.

He was also, it became clear, working to a carefully-balanced political agenda. I was expecting a steady progression of Castillo-Leonese monarchs as befits the traditional narrative of Spanish history, but it’s more subtle than that, as I realised when I came upon an old friend:

Who is this hairy fellow? Why it’s Guifré the Hairy that’s who, legendary founder of Catalonia. Catalunya no es Espanya, they’d tell you, as I’ve mentioned, but in revolutions-era Madrid, the king wanted you to think otherwise. Not just Catalonia either: here’s Iñigo Arista, first independent ruler of Basque Navarre, next to Alfonso I of Asturias, both looking quite Roman but not too bothered by their mutual proximity:

And, predictably, Don Pelayo is just down the row, the first man to raise the standard of revolt against the Muslims or so it is said. But who’s this pugilistic-looking bruiser with him?

You may be able to read: it’s King Wamba, Visigothic ruler of Spain, 672-680. So the Goths are here too. But, interestingly, not all of them. Roderick (710-711), who lost Spain to the Muslims, has no place here; nor does Witiza (687-710), whose sons are legendarily supposed to have given the invaders the battle rather than accept Roderick. A few others were lacking too, I don’t know what their problem for the planners were: but Reccared, the first Catholic king of Spain, was there twice, once in the garden and once proudly upon the palace roof. All the same, the Goths were all depicted like Wamba, big fleshy men with beetling brows, not like the slight and visionary Romantic kings of the Reconquest. I was very interested by all the spin that had gone into this statuary.

All the same! This isn’t really medieval, this is medievalism. I did have a brief hunt around, if only because as I’d approached the palace, I’d kept seeing this:

I don’t know what you think, but to me it looks like a mosque, or more relevantly perhaps, like the mixed-up cathedral in Palermo that kind of was a mosque only Christian. But actually working out what this dome is on top of was very hard on the ground because of the height of the buildings and the narrow streets; from ground level nearby, you can’t see it. I think that what was hiding it was a Carmelite convent, which was firmly locked, but if so the façade was much newer than this building at its core. But is that dome medieval? Well, I’m not sure.

I think this is, though:

The Museum had given me a map, and somewhere in this neck of the woods it had marked “muralla árabe”, ‘Arab wall’. Is this it? It’s set into the very very new walls of the Senate House, so someone has gone to some effort to preserve it, but at its ends there’s modern red-clay tile that suggested to me that before the Senate House enveloped it, it had already been preserved as part of some other newer structure. The actual work of the wall is much older than at least two layers of building around it, then. I think this lonely fragment might be most of what’s left of medieval Madrid…

But that doesn’t matter, because Madrid being the capital, it has been able to bring the Middle Ages to it! I braved the metro, and obeying instructions still made my way to the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. Now it was not perhaps the best time to do this, as about three-quarters of it was shut for refurbishment, but that meant that what they did have on display was the absolute best, and all very shiny. Rarely have I seen so much gold in so short a time, and I work amidst quite a lot you know… The prehistoric collections are especially rich, though less in gold and more in stone, but some of that is quite splendid too: this lady is kind of the face of the Museo.

La Dama de Elche

How old would you say she is? Correct answer, 2400 or so. It looks fresh and modern up close, amazing object. But, for the medievalist, there is a very clear win from a visit to this museum. Not the piles of Roman stuff, including a water pump so well preserved I initially didn’t believe it wasn’t a replica. Not the lots of Roman coins (a few silver, but mainly gold); not even the hoard of eighty tremisses of various Gothic and Frankish ancestries they have scattered in one cabinet. No, it’s definitely these:

These are the Visigothic hanging crowns. I’ve seen Roger Collins argue that they were converted from crowns for wear on ceremonial occasions like riding out on campaign, but orthodoxy is still currently that they were made like this as presentation pieces, symbolising royal favour, in much the same way as it has been argued the Visigothic kings struck gold coin, though the work of Philip Grierson and others has done a lot to suggest that those were in fact intended for circulation like English ones. Anyway. The middle one, and largest, was given by Reccesuinth, and his name is hung from it in letters like a child’s mobile, R E C C E S V I N T V S R E X. It’s amazing: such display, and such a childish-looking form of art. Maybe the sculptor was right to make the Visigothic kings so literally low-browed eh? But I rather like it all the same.

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