...or how we had to 'rob' our own art in order to conserve it.
2019 marked a hundred years since the first Catalan Romanesque frescos were removed. A story that resembles a film script, and one that marks a turning point for the conservation and protection of art in Catalonia.
The starting point
One of the most exciting but unheard of journeys in the history of Catalonia started on 30 August 1907. It was called the 'Archaeological-legal expedition to the Catalan-speaking territories of eastern Aragon bordering Catalonia', or the Aragonese Strip. An uninspiring name for an adventure without precedent, perhaps, but the one with which the Institut d’Estudis Catalans opened up new horizons for the rediscovery of Pyrenean art.
The expedition was a great success. After a two-week trek through the Vall de Luishon, the Vall d’Aran, the Vall de Boí, La Noguera and the Vall d’Isàvena, the architects Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Josep Goday; the historian Guillem Maria de Brocà; the conservator of the Episcopal Museum of Vic, Father Josep Gudiol, and the photographer Adolf Mas, returned home with their notebooks full and with some irrefutable evidence: the first photographic images of some of the jewels of Romanesque art that had been forgotten about until that time, including the sculptural group of figures in Erill la Vall and the Christ in Majesty mural painting in Sant Climent de Taüll.
1920, juny. A la porta de Sant Climent de Taüll. D'esquerra a dreta: Joaquim Folch i Torres, Sra. Steffanoni, Sr. Franco Steffanoni (pioner en l'extracció de frescos del seu emplaçament original), Sra. Vidal, Sr. Joan Vidal i Ventosa i fill, i J. F. Ràfols (Fundació Folch i Torres)
The impact of these discoveries was so great that it changed the history of Catalan art for ever. Firstly because it became the cornerstone of the project undertaken by the Commonwealth of Catalonia to create a sense of nationhood through culture and bolster it through art. And secondly, because the impact it had was similar to that caused by the theft of the Mona Lisa, such that it started to make the Romanesque visible and to resound both within the country, and beyond its borders. Within the country because it was held as a perfect example of a Catalan identity that had now been recovered, and outside the country because the success it had with the scientific community was comparable to that amongst antiquarians and art dealers. So started a period in which the struggle to preserve our collective memory was no longer confined to text books, but had an entry in account books too.
Santa Maria de Taüll. Emili Gandia, al mig, supervisa les tasques executades pels “Arturos”, 1922 (Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art d'Hispànic)
The journey of the frescos
Some years after the expedition to the Pyrenees, two of its members, Josep Goday and Adolf Mas, wrote an article for the Institut d'Estudis Catalans entitled, "Catalan wall paintings", in which they documented some newly discovered frescos in excellent condition in the former Monastery of Castell de Mur, in Pallars Jussà. After its publication a new and significant character enters the story, an antiquarian and art dealer from the United States called Ignasi Pollack, who managed to negotiate its purchase for 7,500 pesetas, paid in cash to the rector of the church at the time, Father Farràs. The farce of the frescos had begun.
In the summer of 1919 Pollack brought Franco Steffanoni to Catalonia together with his team of assistants, the art restorers Arturo Dalmatti and Arturo Cividini, who were almost certainly the best experts at removing frescos using a technique known as strappo, an almost unbelievable method, knowledge of which was an ancient guild secret, passed down from generation to generation, that made the apparently impossible possible: the detachment of the painted layer covering the wall as if it were the building's skin. Arrencament d’una pintura mural de l’església de Santa María de Taüll (Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art d'Hispànic)
The arrival of these Italians set off all the alarms and the Museums Board of the Commonwealth of Catalonia, consisting of its director, Joaquim Folch i Torres, the painter Joan Vallonrat and the expert on medieval art, Jaume Bofill, attempted by every means to prevent the plunder. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do to prevent it because everything was being done in a strictly legal way, in the most literal sense of the word because, given that there was no law to the contrary, it was legal.
Given there was no alternative, the paintings ended up in the hands of another of the characters in this story, and a crucial one for an understanding of the twisted route taken by Catalan art during the first half of the 20th century. His name is Lluís Plandiura, an art collector and antiquarian dealer to whom Pollack had previously sold the paintings for an amount reported to be in the region of 100,000 pesetas of the day. It takes no great skill at arithmetic to appreciate the extraordinary profit this bizarre episode produced. Santa Maria de Taüll. Arturo Cividini col·loca un fragment de pintura mural arrencada dins una de les caixes per a transportar-la fins a Barcelona, 1922 (Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art d'Hispànic)
The frescos remain, to this day, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, unsurprisingly so. However, the journey they have taken helps to explain the paradox in the title of this article because, apart from the stain left on the historical records of our country, the reaction to what happened to the paintings proved to be what ignited the calls for a crusade to protect our heritage.
Understandably, given the extreme national urgency, the Museums Board lost no time in drawing up an ambitious plan to put a halt to any threatened increase in these sorts of activities. The defining phrase was, "If you can't beat them, join them", and that is precisely what they did. They decided to make a proposal to Pollack that he couldn't refuse, an offer that meant that Franco Steffanoni and his assistants would remain in Catalonia for three years more to detach the frescos from the Romanesque churches and chapels of the Pyrenees. In fact, to do what they had been doing before, but this time not for private clients, but for the benefit of Catalan cultural heritage. With this strategy they ensured that, not only would the Italians not be working for anyone else, but that they would not need to look for other experts in the strappo technique because they already knew who the real maestros were. So, the Italians spent another three years devoted to this necessary 'theft', thanks to which the MNAC today has one of the best collections of Romanesque and medieval art in Europe. Santa Maria de Taüll. Arturo Cividini (amb camisa blanca) enrotlla amb l’ajut d’Arturo Dalmati (amb barret) un dels fragments de pintura mural arrencada, 1922 (Arxiu Spal Diputació de Barcelona)
The ambitious plan to conserve and protect Catalan cultural heritage was a positive move in many ways. It assured the survival of the paintings and created a great museum. But there was a downside to all this too. The frescos themselves underwent a process that threatened their integrity, the churches were stripped of their paintings, and the villagers around lost part of their heritage.
In fact, as a result of all this, there is now another paradox. To appreciate the original Romanesque paintings, you have to visit an artificial apse, but when you visit the original apse you can only appreciate the copies put there in their place. It is probably not the best solution, but given the vicissitudes in the story of the frescos, it is probably the next best.
Imatge del davallament i de la Verge (Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art d'Hispànic)