Love and Revolutionary Greetings – Remembering Sam Levinger

P1040541A marble plaque just inside the entrance of the cemetery of la Puebla de Hijar in Aragon informs visitors that Francisco Zapater y Gómez, a grandnephew of one of Francisco Goya’s closest friends and the artist’s first biographer, is buried there. A stone just a few feet farther along marks the grave of six local residents who were assassinated by a roving band of anarchists during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. No monument would be placed here to commemorate the men and women who had lost their lives in this place for defending the Second Spanish Republic until almost forty years later, when the town council voted to place a marker to acknowledge them in 1981. La Puebla de Hijar was one of the first towns in Spain to make this gesture of recognition and reconciliation. The simple, elegant monument placed in the town cemetery bears no individual names, only the inscription “In memory of all those who fell for the Republic.” Nor does it mark the precise site of the graves of those died in the prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to put down a military rebellion against a democratically elected government. Due to the intense fighting along the Ebro Valley, many soldiers and civilian victims were buried in hastily dug common graves, and in the aftermath of the conflict, local political and religious authorities often barred Republican families from burying their dead in municipal graveyards.

Amor y Saludos RevolucionariosDuring the war, the International Brigades fighting on the Ebro Front set up a field hospital in the town. It was there that a young American volunteer named Sam Levinger died from wounds suffered during a siege on a nearby town called Belchite. Sam’s story, his commitment to democracy, and the presence of his remains in the municipal cemetery of la Puebla de Hijar would have been forgotten forever were it not for the efforts of his niece Laurie Levinger, who has written a marvelous book about him titled Love and Revolutionary Greetings: An Ohio Boy in the Spanish Civil War. I first learned about the book from the author, who contacted me after reading a post I had written about the battle of Belchite. La Puebla de HijarThis year, the Associación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales has published Augustín Lozano de la Cruz‘s able translation of the book under the title Amor y saludos revolucionarios: Un chico de Ohio en la guerra civil española. The Spanish edition has been very warmly received. On September 29, a few days after the seventy-fifth anniversary of Sam’s death, a group of Spaniards moved by his sacrifice gathered in the municipal cemetery of la Puebla de Hijar to pay their belated respects. The president of the Associación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales and the mayor of la Puebla were both on hand and a number of local cultural figures read excerpts of Sam’s poems and letters home. It was a moving experience.

Love and Revolutionary Greetings falls into the category of social history, a subgenre that focuses on the experiences of ordinary people. Like David Kertzer’s Amalia’s Tale and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Love and Revolutionary Greetings is a painstaking reconstruction of events on the basis of existing documents. However, unlike Kertzer, Levinger has sought to tell the tale of someone very close to home: an idealistic uncle who went off to war before she was born and never came back. Sam Levinger’s mother had forged a career as a writer, and her son had plans to follow in her footsteps once the war was over. Laurie Levinger’s book draws upon the manuscripts and correspondence of both, a treasure trove of material that includes articles, letters, and poems written by her uncle in Spain as well as the unfinished manuscript of a biographical novel about him penned by his bereaved mother.

noteLove and Revolutionary Greetings is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the International Brigades, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into socialist activism in the United States during the same time period. Laurie Levinger is author of two other books: What War? Testimonies of Maya Survivors and Just a Dropped Stitch. 

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Allied Spy and Victim of ETA: The Curious Story of Roger Tur

Forty years ago today, a man who had served as an Allied spy in Saragossa, Spain during the Second World War died of wounds sustained in a bizarre terrorist attack perpetrated several days before.  The tragic story of Roger Tur first came to my attention via an anecdote contained in the book Canfranc El oro y los nazis, written by journalist Ramón J. Campo and published by Mira Editores.  In a chapter devoted to a network of spies that relayed information about the transport of Nazi gold from bank vaults in Bern, Switzerland to Spain and beyond during the war through a railway station situated on the French-Spanish border, Campo mentions that Roger Tur Pallier, a French resident of Saragossa who served as honorary French consul there and who daily put his life on the line as a spy for the Allies, met an untimely death in that city years later “in an unfortunate incident in which he was rolled up in a carpet by several youths who subsequently set it alight.” This macabre anecdote pricked my curiosity enough to do a little research about Roger Tur and the grisly death that awaited him decades after the war in the city I call home.

Roger Tur was a successful businessman who served as Honorary French Consul in Saragossa, where he owned a licorice factory. Working on his own initiative, he infiltrated Nazi circles that met weekly in that city during the war to share news about the front and plan military and diplomatic activities that promoted the Nazi war effort.  The topics addressed in these meetings ranged from the refueling of German submarines in Spanish ports to the convoys of tungsten and iron that the Spanish government secretly shipped to German munitions plants via an international rail point located in Canfranc, a small village in the mountains of Aragon situated a mere eight kilometers from the French-Spanish border.  Unbeknownst to the other members of this group, which met from October 1944 until early February 1946, Roger Tur prepared weekly summaries of what they discussed and plotted that he passed along under the codename “Ric” to an agent working for the Office of Strategic Services, an organization created by the American government to gather wartime intelligence.  As most Spanish government files related to Spain’s collaboration with the Nazis have since vanished, the information contained in these reports has provided historians with invaluable information about Nazi activity in Spain, the secret complicity of Franco’s regime with the Third Reich, and the Spanish government’s assistance to fleeing Nazis at the war’s end.  Roger Tur was subsequently inducted into the French Legion of Honor for his valor, but apparently never divulged details of his wartime activities to anyone, an understandable decision given the political situation in Spain and his desire to remain in Saragossa.

Although Spain remained in the tyrannical grip of Francisco Franco until the dictator died of natural causes in late 1975, various underground networks seeking to prepare Spanish society for an inevitable future transition to democracy began to form during the 1960s and 1970s. Underground labor movements sprang up, and a new generation of socialists operating clandestinely in Spain began to challenge the party structure that had been maintained in exile since the fall of the Second Republic.  Most were non-violent, but regional separatist movements such as ETA believed that the only way to put an end to the dictatorship and realize nationalist aspirations was by force.   In 1968 ETA assassinated Melitón Manzanas, the police chief of San Sebastian. This act marked the first of a long series of terrorist attacks throughout Spain that would not come to an end until a permanent ceasefire was officially declared in early 2011. During this period, Spanish university students became more politicized and rebellious. In 1972, a handful of students at the University of Zaragoza with anarchist leanings formed a clandestine group they named “el Colectivo Hoz y Martillo” (the Hammer and Sickle).  Members of the Hoz y Martillo organization made several trips to Bayonne, France to make contact with ETA operatives active there. To gain ETA’s approval and convince the terrorist organization to provide them with weapons and explosives, they agreed to kidnap the French consul in Saragossa as a symbolic reprisal for pressures the French government was bringing to bear against ETA cells located in France, a mission that would prove to have fatal consequences for Roger Tur.

Roger Tur, seated third from the right.

On the morning of November 2, 1972, only a few months after the socialist party met in Toulouse and voted for a change of leadership that would pave the way for the emergence of a new generation of liberal Spanish politicians such as Felipe Gonzalez, José Antonio Mellado Romero, Alvaro Noguera Calvet, and Javier Sagarra de Moor burst into the French Consulate in Saragossa. The carpet mentioned in Campos’s book is missing from reports of the crime that I found during an Internet search, all of which stated that the attackers bound the Consul and several aides to chairs and then set off a incendiary devices – most likely handmade Molotov cocktails. At that point, the kidnapping attempt went seriously awry.  Sparks from the explosive devices set the consul’s clothing alight and amid the ensuing chaos, the would-be kidnappers fled the scene.  Roger Turo Pallier died five days later. For more than thirty of his sixty-eight years he had served as French consul in Saragossa. Mellado Romero, Noguero Calvet, and Sagarra de Moor were soon captured and brought to trial. All three were given lengthy prison sentences that were later commuted after the death of Franco.  What they may have later thought of their 1972 escapade in the French Consulate of Saragossa in the light of declassified OSS information about Turo’s clandestine wartime activities against fascism made available to the Spanish public through a series of articles published in La Vanguardia in 2005 and 2006 and further explored in the 2007 book La guerra ignorada: los espías españoles que combatieron a los nazis, one will never know.

References consulted:

Canfranc, el oro y los nazis by Ramón J. Campo; Zaragoza: Mira Editores 2012

La guerra ignorada: los espías españoles que combatieron a los nazis by Eduardo Martín de Pozuelo and Iñaki Ellakuría, Barcelona: Random House Mondadori 2008

“En las cárcles, cincuenta presos no vascos”, el Pais April 30, 1977 http://elpais.com/diario/1977/04/30/espana/231199223_850215.html access date: 21/09/2012

“El consul francés de Zaragoza y los nazis” blog Antón Castro http://antoncastro.blogia.com/2007/051601-el-consul-frances-de-zaragoza-y-los-nazis-.php access date: 21/09/2012

“ETA timeline: Key events in the separatist movement’s deadly campaign for a Basque sovereign state” the Guardian January 10, 2010http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/10/eta-timeline-baqsque-separatist-campaign access date: 21/09/2012

“España bajo la dictadura franquista 7. conflictividad social galopante y fin del desarrollismo en los primeras años 70”  Historia y Presente (blog) http://histocliop.blogspot.com.es/2009/11/espana-bajo-la-dictadura-franquista-7.html access date: 21/09/2012

Images:

“Zaragoza: Ha fallecido el cónsul de Francia, señor Roger Tur” La Vanguardia November 8, 1972 http://hemeroteca.lavanguardia.com/preview/1972/11/08/pagina-3/33607621/pdf.html access date: 21/09/2012

“El asesinato del consul frances se fraguo en Bayona” ABC November 11, 1972 http://hemeroteca.abc.es/nav/Navigate.exe/hemeroteca/madrid/abc/1972/11/04/001.html access date: 21/09/2012

“Regaliz aragonés para el tobaco rubio americano” Mariano García  el Heraldo (blog section) June 3, 2009 http://blogs.heraldo.es/tinta/?p=60

“El consul francés de Zaragoza y los nazis” blog Antón Castro http://antoncastro.blogia.com/2007/051601-el-consul-frances-de-zaragoza-y-los-nazis-.php access date: 21/09/2012

Tungsten vs. Wolfram

Some English-language texts about the Spanish convoys of tungsten to Nazi Germany refer to it as wolfram. According to a letter supporting the use of wolfram over tungsten submitted to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry by Pilar Goya, research professor at the Instituto de Química Médica, CSIC, Madrid, and Pascual Román, professor at the Universidad del País Vasco, “If we turn to historical facts, it is well documented and generally accepted, that the true discoverers of element 74 were J.J. Delhuyar and F. Delhuyar who were the first to isolate the pure metal from wolframite (Fe,Mn)WO4 in Spain in 1783. t is also a fact that C.W. Scheele and T.O. Bergman were the first to obtain the trioxide (WO3) from scheelite (CaWO4) two years before, but they did not isolate the pure element.

The word wolfram derives from the German wolf’s rahm, literally meaning wolf´s foam or spuma lupi, which is how wolframite was traditionally known by the saxon miners. The pure element was isolated from wolframite. Tungsten is derived from the Swedish tung (heavy) and sten (stone) meaning heavy stone in reference to the mineral scheelite from which the trioxide was isolated.n page 88 of the original scientific paper published in 1783 by the Delhuyar brothers they claim the name volfram as follows: ‘We will call this new metal volfram, taking the name from the matter of which it has been extracted…. This name is more suitable than tungust or tungsten which could be used as a tribute to tungstene or heavy stone from which its lime was extracted, because volfram is a mineral which was known long before the heavy stone, at least among the mineralogists, and also because the name volfram is accepted in almost all European languages, including Swedish.’ (Note that at that time, the letter “w” did not exist in the Spanish alphabet, but appeared for the first time in 1914 and is now included).

On the basis of all the above, we cannot understand why the name wolfram has been definitely removed from the table, and we claim that the name proposed by its discoverers, which had been accepted since the beginning by the scientific community, should be kept following the Delhuyar brothers’ wishes.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised. Many Spanish chemists have defended the name wolfram for years. In reference textbooks it can be read: ‘The name wolfram, from which the symbol of the element is derived, is still widely used in the German literature and is recommended by IUPAC, but the allowed alternative tungsten is used in the English-speaking world.

In short, many voices have been raised in favor of wolfram. According to R. Hoffmann and O. Sacks, ‘future generations of chemists will be bewildered at the symbol.’ On the basis of all this, we propose that in the table of the elements the name wolfram appear together with tungsten.”

Despite the tradition of adopting discoverers’ names for new elements, IUPAC supports the use of tungsten on the basis of its long-standing acceptation in the English-speaking world, although it admits, “It is correct that if the name wolfram is not used in nomenclature, students will have to learn some history of chemistry to know why the element symbol is W. Tungsten shares this, of course, with a number of other elements, such as potassium, mercury, and silver. There are other reasons in those other cases, but it will remain the privilege of teachers and textbooks, not IUPAC nomenclature recommendations, to tell future students the details of how that came about in each case.”

Remembering Belchite, the Anarchist Movement, and the International Brigades

In the early summer of 1936 Belchite was a prosperous Aragonese farming community with a population of 3,516. Although initiatives pushed forward by the Republican government such as agrarian reform had angered local landowners and the Church, the mayor of the town was a socialist and member of the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores). However, local republican authorities often pushed reforms to extremes: members of the clergy were often banned from teaching in areas that had no alternative school system and in some towns the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter was prohibited. As one writer put it, “To one half of the population, Spain was on the threshold of a brave new world. To the other, it was teetering on the brink of the abyss.”(1) When news of the July military uprising reached Belchite, the fragile atmosphere of tolerance that had existed among the town’s opposing factions deteriorated. Local Falangist sympathizers and disaffected police officers went on a rampage, detaining the socialist mayor Mariano Castillo Carrasco, who committed suicide on July 31 after writing a lengthy letter expressing his fervent desire that his blood be the last to be shed,(2) and assassinating members of his family and various other townspeople. Similar incidents occurred in other towns throughout the zone. The new mayors imposed by these groups were expected to unfailingly toe the nationalist political line: in a maneuver reminiscent of the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, Victorián Lafoz y Benedí, the new mayor of the nearby town La Puebla de Albortón, was accused of being a mason and later assassinated simply for refusing to condone the shooting of citizens considered by the anti-Republican faction to be “Reds.”(3)

The Republican government relied on armed anarchist unions to suppress the anti-government rebellion in rural Aragon. These organizations subsequently filled the political and administrative vacuum left by the bloodletting, although their efforts to “revolutionize” the local economy only served to further polarize factions within rural communities and raise the level of tensions between neighbors even higher. The most powerful of these groups in 1936 was the CNT (Confederación de Trabajo). Its affiliates served on sixty-six of the eighty-three new municipal councils created in the region and the mayors of twenty-three municipalities in Aragon were members of the CNT. Its closest political rival was the UGT, with representatives in forty-three councils and sixteen mayors. These union-based parties were followed by Izquierda Republicana, which had representatives in eighteen municipal councils, the Socialist party with representatives in five, the Communist Party with representatives in three, and Unión Republicana with representation in only one. (4)

Representatives of the CNT and the FAI (Federación Anarchista Ibérica) formed an administrative council, the Consejo de Aragón, which quickly set about reorganizing rural Aragonese society, establishing farming collectives and a barter system, negotiating commercial agreements to meet local needs with industries in other provinces of Spain and abroad, and creating a regional bus service that connected towns throughout the province; in short, attempting to create a regional agrarian utopia that undermined private commerce and was to a great extent incongruous with the central government’s efforts to put down the military uprising. This video (with English voiceover and subtitles), which includes an interview with two former CNT militants now in their 90s, provides a general picture of the issues at stake and documents the CNT’s tendency to devote more energy to its rearguard peasant revolution than the frontline battle against the well-trained and disciplined insurgents. The Consejo, which was often at odds with other political parties and factions in the region, broadly overstepped its authority to carry out regional government functions related to information, propaganda, commerce, transport, public order and justice, and labor and began to staunchly defend its “indisputable right . . . to direct its own affairs in conformity with its characteristics, political temperament and the economic field (sic).”(5) a posture that clearly signaled its pretensions to serve as a permanent, independent authority in the province. In the summer of 1937, President Nerin dispatched several battalions of the International Brigades under the command of Enrique Lister to Aragon to disband the Council and bring some order to the region in preparation for a major offensive on the Ebro. The government in Madrid hoped to divert some of the Nationalist forces that were closing in on Santander and eventually capture the city of Saragossa, the communications hub for the greater part of northern Spain. The anarchist Council of Aragon, which had uncharacteristically imposed a collective social model, meekly turned authority over to the Communist General Enrique Lister, who uncharacteristically returned all collectivized property back to its original owners and went on with preparations to secure positions along the Ebro front. One of the towns that lay in this new area of operations along the Ebro was Belchite, strategically situated on a high plain 50 kilometers from the provincial capital and defended by a corps of 2,000 Nationalist troops.(6)

The battle for Belchite began on August 24. Both sides had orders not to retreat and the fighting was fierce. The town’s food and water supplies were quickly exhausted, but the Nationalist defenders held out for thirteen days in the unrelenting August heat. The soldiers of the International Brigades were forced to open small breaches in the defensive walls and storm the town building by building. The human suffering was dreadful. The town’s newly elected mayor, Ramon Trallero, died during a mortar attack on September 2, but the exhausted and dwindling defensive force did not surrender until September 7. (7) The Republican victory would be fleeting. Santander fell to the Nationalist army and the offensive against Saragossa ground to a halt. By mid-March 1938, Belchite was once again under Nationalist control and the Republic forces were in full retreat. Determined to make the town a national symbol, General Francisco Franco decreed that the Belchite would forever remain in ruins as a monument to the horrors of war and forced Republican prisoners of war to build a new town only meters away. Various families continued to live in the old town surrounded by the shells of abandoned buildings until the mid-1960s, when the last resisters finally relocated to “Nuevo Belchite.” The rain and the fierce winds of Aragon slowly reduced the heavily damaged clay brick rubble that one sees today. Following the general trend throughout rural Spain, many Belchitans gradually moved away to larger urban areas in search better employment opportunities. The population of the present Belchite stands at fewer than 1,700, a far cry from the 3,516 recorded in the original town in 1936.

The vanquished could not begin to tell their side of the story until the death of Franco in November 1975, but even then a national “pact of forgetting” greatly inhibited public discussion of the events that altered the lives of the people of Belchite forever. As most local people prefer to avoid discussion of a period so fraught with human miscalculation, vengeance, and suffering, the history of the Battle of Belchite has more or less become the property of the aging veterans of the International Brigades who fought there and foreigners interested in the Republican cause. In spite of their failure to save the Spanish Republic, the volunteers of the International Brigade never lost their sense of having done something unique and heroic. In her farewell speech to the departing foreign troops in November 1938, Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria” envisaged their historical importance, “You can go proudly,” she assured them. “You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.” (8)

It was, indeed, a period in which other nations calculated the risks of engagement and speculated about the outcome. While political leaders in the free world prevaricated, bowed to the short-term interests of bankers and industrialists, nervously turned a blind eye to fascist aggression, and hoped for the best, the men and women of the International Brigades clearly understood that what they fought was not the “proxy war” the Non-Invention Pact made it out to be, but rather the first military confrontation in a long war between supporters of two diametrically opposed social paradigms that would be fought until only one prevailed.

The Axis powers gained expertise and confidence in Spain. However, fearful of the Republic’s left-wing political complexion, one country after another refused to provide civil and military supplies to a legitimately elected government and many surreptitiously backed the military insurgents who sought to bring it down. Historian Anthony Beevor estimated that Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors provided as many as 12,000 trucks to the Nationalist forces, noting that José Maria Doussinague, Spanish Foreign Ministry undersecretary under Franco, once remarked, “without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the Civil War.”(9) Franco’s decision to crush all vestiges of the Republic, its institutions, and the social change it brought about methodically, rather than bring the civil war to a rapid conclusion, gave these countries time to reconsider their policies, but the idea of a leftist state on the map of Europe was unthinkable to them. Ironically, only a few years after the fall of the Second Spanish Republic, these same countries would accept the Soviet Union as a full ally in their own war against the Axis powers and even eventually concede it hegemony over the whole of Eastern Europe. By means of its alliance with the leaders of the military insurgence, Germany gained privileged access to the Spanish wolfram it needed for its arms production, a factor that significantly prolonged the war in Europe and cost millions of lives. One will never know how many lives sacrificed on the beaches of Normandy or lost in the Mediterranean theater might have been spared if the Allied forces could have operated from friendly Spanish ports and bases along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, its outlying islands, and its possessions in North Africa. For Spanish society, the price of this prevarication would be decades of economic, social, and political stultification under the curious autarchical regime of Francisco Franco Bahamonde.

Lost or previously suppressed documents concerning the Spanish Republic, the civil war that brought it to an end, and the thirty-six year totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco are continually coming to light. The work of historians and sociologists devoted to this period of Spanish history is far from complete. So is the process of healing in towns like Belchite, where a fairly new reproduction of the Falangist yoke and arrows symbol decorates the facade of a house in the new town, and an old message scrawled on a sheet of metal propped up at the entrance of one of the churches in the old town mourns that “no one now hears the voices of fathers singing jotas.”(10)

The mother of Catalan songwriter-singer Joan Manuel Serrat was born and raised in Belchite. A number of Serrat’s songs are homages to family members who were persecuted or assassinated for their Republican beliefs. In “La Abuelita de Kundera“, he compares his grandmother’s life in Belchite to the life of Milos Kundera’s grandmother in another village far away in Czechoslovakia:

La abuelita de Kundera y también la mía
conocían cada yerba y sus aplicaciones,
sabían lo que tenían dentro los colchones,
sabían leer el cielo y cocer el pan.
La abuelita de Kundera en su pueblo checo
y la mía en su Belchite y las dos sabían
que el cura era el confidente de la policía.
Nada tenía secretos a su alrededor.
 
Kundera’s granny and mine as well
knew every wild herb and how to use it,
knew what was tucked into their mattresses,
knew how to read the sky and make bread.
Kundera’s granny in her Czech village
and mine in Belchite: both of them knew
the town priest was a police informer.
Nothing was secret in those places.(11)

_______________________________________________________________

Notes:

1 “Band of Brothers” The Sunday Times Oct. 21, 2007 Chris Haslam
2 http://www.fpabloiglesias.es/archivo-y-biblioteca/diccionario-biografico/biografias/3958_castillo-carrasco-mariano
3 “La Comarca de Campo de Belchite en la Época Contemporánea” De la Historia Ángel Alcalde Fernández http://www.aragon.es/estaticos/GobiernoAragon/Departamentos/PoliticaTerritorialJusticiaInterior/Documentos/docs/Areas/Informaci%C3%B3n%20territorial/Publicaciones/Coleccion_Territorio/Comarca%20Belchite/BelchiteII_EpocaContemporanea.pdf
4 The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War vol. II Robert J. Alexander pp. 806 London: Janus Publishing Co Ltd 1998
5 The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War vol. II Robert J. Alexander pp. 807 London: Janus Publishing Co Ltd 1998
6 Gran Enciclopedía Aragonesa http://www.enciclopedia-aragonesa.com/voz.asp?voz_id=2078
7 Ibid The official webpage of the town of Belchite states that the city fell on September 6. http://www.belchite.es/index.php/belchite/belchite-antiguo
8 http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/scw/farewell.htm
9 The Spanish Civil War Anthony Beevor Penguin Books 2006
10 http://www.cronicadearagon.es/wordpress/?p=2737

11 “La Abuelita de Kundera” from the CD Nadie es Perfecto 1994, Ariola (my translation)

The circa 1940 photograph to the left of the lyrics of “La Abuelita de Kundera” illustrating the street in Belchite where J.M. Serrat’s grandparents lived before the Spanish Civil War is reproduced from “En el corazón del viejo Belchite” written by Gregorio Fernández Castañon. The photograph of the road signs pointing the way to Belchite and Vinaceite is reproduced from brigadas internacionals.org.  The image of the fascist symbol still decorating the facade of a building in Belchite is reproduced from an article in Dioariocrítico.com. All other photographs illustrating this post were taken during a personal visit to Belchite in the spring of 2012.

For Spanish-speaking readers, I suggest a look at this recent article published in El País about volunteers from British Palestine who fought in the International Brigades.

Gone Missing: The Leading Lights of the Spanish Golden Age

As a 2007 Reuters article on William Shakespeare’s grave noted, “Digging up bones of the dead was common in Shakespeare’s time, either for religious or research purposes. Often human remains were removed to make way for more graves, dumped in landfill sites, or even used as fertilizer.” The same article quotes Dr. Philip Schwyzer, senior lecturer at Exeter University, and author of Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature as saying the bard of Avon “had an unusual obsession with burial and a fear of exhumation.” This may explain the curse inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon that reads:

Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

As fate, or the curse, would have it, the bard’s grave has remained untouched since April 25, 1616, the burial date recorded in the Stratford parish register, and has become one of the most visited literary grave sites in the world. Many more of Britain’s famous writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Johnson, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling, are buried in the Poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey. Jane Austen rests in peace in Winchester Cathedral. The undisturbed tombs of distinguished artists also dot the British landscape; one may pay homage to Hans Holbein in St. Katherine Cree Church of London, or William Hogarth in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in Chiswick. Writers and painters in Spain have not enjoyed the same enduring respect and undisturbed sleep. If you have ever thought of visiting the final resting places of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, or Diego Velásquez, make other plans: although their spirits live on in the works they created, their mortal remains have all gone missing.

Apparently the Cortes Generales were blissfully unaware of this situation in November 1837 when they approved the conversion of the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grand, a property that had been confiscated from the Franciscan order by the State a year earlier, into a national “Pantheon of Illustrious Men.” They soon discovered that the earthly remains of many of the illustrious men they had hoped to enshrine in Madrid were nowhere to be found. They eventually determined that the mortal remains of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Velásquez, Luis Vives, Juan de Herrera, Tirso de Molina, and Juan de Mariana, among others, were impossible to locate and most likely gone forever. However, in 1869, after decades of delays, the remains of other distinguished Spaniards, including writers Calderón de la Barca, Garcilaso de la Vega, and Juan de Mena, were carried to the pantheon in a grand procession to the thunder of a resounding cannon salute. The Pantheon of Illustrious Men met the same fate as so many other grandiose projects launched throughout Spanish history: by 1847, the late distinguished gentlemen who had entered its doors with great fanfare had all been discretely returned to their points of origin or interred elsewhere. In a gesture not devoid of a certain irony, King Alphonse III returned the property to the Franciscan Order in 1926. A more recent version of the pantheon constructed in the 1890s houses the remains of various Spanish politicians and statesmen. As in the case of the first, most of illustrious corpses that have entered have later been returned to the autonomous regions that could lay the strongest claims to them.

The body of Calderón de la Barca, which had been disinterred four times before its short stay in the pantheon, was reinterred in a Madrid convent that was sacked by members of a leftist militia and later bombed by nationalist forces before the end of the Spanish Civil War. Although there are claims that it may be still be sealed up somewhere in the walls of the building or was secreted away by a rescuer prior to the disturbances in 1936, no trace of it has never been found.

Cervantes disappeared long before the Cortes Generales dreamed up the idea of a pantheon. His burial in the Convent of the Trinitarias Descalzas on April 24, 1616, is well documented. Nevertheless, both the stone that marked his grave and his remains were regrettably lost during a succession of alterations to the convent begun in 1639. It is now considered likely that the bones of one of the best-loved authors in the history of world literature were unceremoniously tossed on the rubble heap by workmen during this renovation.

Cervantes’ contemporary and arch-rival Lope de Vega came up against the time-honored Spanish practice of renting out burial niches. To this day in Spain, if the survivors or descendants of the deceased fail to pony up when the rent of a cemetery niche comes due, this or her bones are pulled out and thrown into a common grave and the space is subsequently let out to a new tenant. The Duke of Sessa, whom Lope had served as a secretary, had promised to keep up the payments for his niche in the church of San Sebastián in Madrid, but at some point in time failed to do so.

The painter Diego Rodrigo de Silva y Velásquez was buried in the Church of San Juan in Madrid in 1660. The destruction of his tomb in 1811 can be blamed on Joseph Bonaparte. During the French occupation of Madrid during the Peninsular War, Bonaparte ordered the demolition of the Church of San Juan in order to create a new plaza near the royal palace. Velásquez’ grave was cavalierly destroyed during this demolition. The site of the church, which was one of the oldest in the city, has since been excavated to construct an underground parking garage. Several attempts were made to locate remnants of the tomb during the latest renovation of the plaza, but no traces were found.

If the French are to blame for the disappearance of the final resting place and bones of Velásquez, they can be credited with preserving the gravestone and remains of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes to the best of their ability. Goya died in France in 1828 and was buried in Bordeaux, where he had lived in exile since 1824. His remains, along with those of his faithful friend Martín Miguel de Goicoechea, were exhumed in 1899 and returned to Madrid, where a year later they were placed in a mausoleum in the cemetery of San Isidro. Not content with this initial arrangement, government authorities eventually translated them to the chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, whose dome is adorned with frescoes executed by the artist in 1798.

Although the French had obligingly dispatched everything they found at the grave site, including the gravestone, to Madrid in 1899, the Spanish consul who negotiated the transfer was horrified to discover that a skull was missing from the two sets of skeletal remains exhumed from the grave. The theory put forward at the time was that grave robbers had pillaged the painter’s grave at the behest of craniologists eager to uncover the secrets of genius. This argument is supported Evan S. Connell, who mentions the existence of a painting of Goya’s skull executed in 1849 by an artist named Dionisio Fierros in his biography of Goya. Connell’s research turned up an interview with one of Fierros’ descendants that appeared in the February 20, 1943 edition of the Madrid newspaper El Español in which the interviewee stated that the skull had remained in the possession of the his grandmother, “until 1910 or thereabouts when it was broken up by some anatomy student who didn’t realize what he was destroying.” Such a story makes the curse carved on Shakespeare’s grave stone sound less like an outbreak of hysteria and more like an act of prudent forethought. Interest in the fate of Goya’s skull has never faded. In August 2000, contemporary composer Michael Nyman premiered a speculative four-act opera titled Facing Goya that mixed the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Goya’s skull with skullduggery involving eugenics.

Most of the online sources I have been able to find regarding the Pantheon of Illustrious Men in Madrid state that it housed the remains of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas when it was inaugurated. This assertion is repeated in Connell’s biography of Goya. However, more recent accounts of the exhumation of Quevedo’s bones from a common pit in the crypt of Saint Andrés Apóstol Church in Villanueva de los Infantes (Ciudad Real) in the 1990s would seem to refute these claims.

According to his last will and testimony now in the collection of the Casa Museo de la Torre de Juan Abad, the writer asked that his remains “be deposited in the chapel of the church of the Convento de Santo Domingo of this city, in the same tomb that holds those of doña Petronila de Velasco, widow of don Gerónimo de Medinilla, from where they should be transferred to the Church of Santo Domingo el Real in Madrid to the tomb of my sister.” Little heed was taken of his last wishes, however, and he ended up interred in the chapel of the Bustos family in the nearby church of San Andrés Apóstol. A century later, the Bustos family vault was “cleaned” to make way for new tenants and the remains it contained were transferred to larger crypt in the chapter house of the same church.

By the time the city fathers of Villanueva de los Infantes received the order from Madrid to bundle up the bones of Quevedo in preparation for their transfer to the Pantheon of Illustrious Men in 1868, the shift in tenants of the Bustos family vault and the existence of this common crypt had been long forgotten. Searching among the remains of the nine persons they discovered in the Bustos chapel, they identified the only corpse not clothed in a religious habit as Quevedo’s and proceeded to prepare it for its glorious journey to the capital. When the remains were unceremoniously returned to the city at the close of the century, they arrived with a note that cast doubt on their authenticity. It seems that the skull sent to Madrid had a full set of teeth—something that historians all agreed Quevedo lacked at the time of his death—and even more embarrassing, appeared to be that of a young woman. These remains were tucked away and forgotten until 1920, when the city government had the inspiration to organize a grand funeral and burial in the Ermita del Cristo de Jamila in what is now the site of the Park of the Constitution.

In 1955, a technical architect employed by the city of Villeuva de los Infantes discovered a document dating back to the seventeenth century that mentioned the existence of an oratory dedicated to Saint Thomas of Villanueva located below the chapter house of the church of San Andrés Apóstol. Excavations carried out to find this oratory revealed the long-forgotten crypt in which the remains of more than one hundred fifty human souls lay in a jumble mixed with the bones of animals, old shoes, stones, and scraps of wood, metal, and cloth. In May 2006, a team of researchers from the school of forensic medicine of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid began the labor of sifting through this sea of wreckage in search of the remains of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas. As the absence of any known direct descendants made DNA testing useless, they used a deductive method to ferret the remains of the illustrious author out of the mountain of more than 40,000 bones extracted from the common burial pit. First, they ruled out any bones that did not fit the physical profile of a man in his mid-sixties. The researchers then fell back on period descriptions of Quevedo, relying heavily on commentaries regarding the writer’s notorious limp. The scientists found a right femur that was notably twisted and a left femur that appeared to be deformed due to an extended period of compensation for an injured right leg. In the end, they identified these two femurs, a forelimb, a collarbone, and six vertebrae as possibly belonging to Quevedo with the caveat that “the skeleton was in an advanced state of decomposition” that prevented them from definitively declaring the remains to be those of the writer of La Vida del Buscón and La Providencia de Díos. Nevertheless, these fragments were gathered and interred once again with great pomp and ceremony in another chapel in the Church of San Andrés.  Today one can visit both what is now considered Quevedo’s “apocryphal” grave in the Ermita del Cristo de Jamila—perhaps inhabited by unknown female of the Bustos clan—and his slightly less apocryphal grave located in the Church of San Andrés Apóstol.

Although Quevedo maintained friendships with Cervantes and Lope de Vega, he engaged in a lifelong battle of wits with other contemporaries. He waged the most acrimonious of these wars against the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, who suffered an endless hail of insinuations and criticisms launched by Lope de Vega and Quevedo that went well beyond literary differences. The erratic lifestyles and less than exemplary morals of all three gentlemen provided fodder for the mutual fires of enmity they so assiduously tended; Quevedo publicly suggested that Góngora was a Jew and a sodomite, serious charges given the power of the Inquisition, and Góngora fired back with verses that portrayed both Lope and Quevedo as drunks, such as “Hoy hacen amistad nueva, más por Baco que por febo, don Francisco de Quebebo y don Félix Lope de Beba.” When Góngora’s addiction to gambling brought him to such ruin that he was forced to sell his house in Madrid, Quevedo stepped in as the buyer, just to have the satisfaction of throwing the poet on the street. Broken and defeated, Góngora returned to Cordoba, where he died a year later. Ironically, Quevedo’s fleeting victory seems to have ensured that his Cordovan enemy was to enjoy the uninterrupted sleep of the just: to this day what are unquestionably the remains of the poet Luis Góngora y Argote lie peacefully in great pomp and glory in the Great Mosque of Cordoba whereas those of Quevedo have suffered almost every indignity imaginable.

Lorca as Author and Tailor: Costume Sketches for The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife

“The author has drawn the character and the tailor has dressed him. Simplicity.”

Federico García Lorca, from the script of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife

The existence of ten previously unknown costume design sketches created by Federico García Lorca for the play The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife recently came to light when they were offered for sale through Casa Balclis, an  auction house in Barcelona. The sale announcement immediately sparked fears throughout the Spanish theater community that the lot would go to a foreign buyer. Opinions as to what institution should have final custody of work and what price it would bring were volleyed back and forth by experts in the press for weeks before the date of the auction.  A minimum opening bid of 10,000 euros was set for each work based on the sale of four Lorca drawings in Madrid in 2004. However, the seller that consigned the ten costume sketches to the Casa Balclis stipulated that all ten works be sold as a single lot, “so that they continue together, just as Lorca conceived them in his day.”

The ten colored pencil sketches, published widely in the Spanish press prior to the auction, are easily recognizable as the work of Lorca. What is more, many contain detailed annotations by the playwright, who designed the costumes for his favorite diva, Margarita Xirgu, down to the smallest details. Regarding the costume he proposed for the second act of the play, he noted, “Violent red dress and red rose. No earrings. More full-skirted than the previous dress. A bare arm. Stripe around the neck and belt of a different red.” Another sketch still bears a tiny swatch of  fabric, held in place by a rusty dressmaker’s pin.

Margarita Xirgu was one of the most versatile and distinguished stage actresses of her generation. She was a leading lady at the Teatro Español from her arrival in Madrid in 1914 until her exile to Latin America in the 1930s in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. She was reported to have had an astounding range as a performer, interpreting works as diverse as those of Valle Inclán, George Bernard Shaw, and Gabriel D’Annunzio. However, she is best known today for her interpretations of Lorca, which included roles in Mariana Pineda (1927), La Zapatera Prodigiosa (1930), Yerma (1934), Doña Rosita la soltera o El lenguage de las flores (1935), and Bodas de Sangre (1935). She introduced many of Lorca’s works to Latin American audiences in the 1940s and 50s and travelled to the United States to direct Yerma in 1967. According to the auction house, Lorca gave the costume sketches to Xirgu after the show’s opening on December 24, 1930. Some years later, the actress passed them on to her brother, Miguel Xirgu, a professor at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona. Miguel Xirgu mounted a clandestine student production of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife at the Institute in the early 1940s. Before he passed away in 1945, he gave them to the student in charge of the wardrobe for that clandestine production. More than six decades later, the family of this former student approached Balclis regarding the possibility of putting them on the market. If Xirgu’s main interest was preserving the drawings during a period during which the work of Lorca was banned in Spain, he was a keen judge of character. Representatives of Balcils have noted, “The family’s great love of the theater is noticeable, as the drawings are in an excellent state of preservation.”

The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife stands in the shadow of Lorca’s greater works. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting glimpse of the claustrophobic atmosphere and general intolerance that characterized Spanish rural society at the time the play was written and that would soon become factors in the tragic fate of its author and that of his country. Although Lorca described it as a farce, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife comes across as more of a moral tale than a satire. Its characters do indulge in, and suffer the consequences of, the most grievous weaknesses of the Spanish character: mal genio (chronic bad temper), mala leche (malice) and chismorreo (gossip), but they also incarnate Spaniards’ talent for bearing up under adversity and their steadfastness in maintaining personal commitments. The play traces the unhappy relationship of a high-spirited young girl and her much older husband, a recurrent theme throughout the history of Spanish theater. In its forthright exploration of social relations and its refusal to offer the audience a definitive happy ending, the play echoes the short comic works of Cervantes’ time known as “entremés” (interludes). Despite the tenor of the plot, which walks the tightrope between comedy and social commentary,  the characters of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife have a recognizable and universal humanity. Although his shrewish wife spends her days complaining, the long-suffering shoemaker is, in fact, a pushover for every customer who walks through the door. Facing the prospect of remaining childless and forever the victim of slanderous neighbors, it is only natural that she curses her fate and dreams about former suitors. Worn down by his wife’s endless nagging and fantasizing, the shoemaker packs his bags and leaves her to fend for herself in a village full of lecherous men and gossiping women, a feat that she carries off prodigiously, as the play’s title suggests. What forms the basis of their eventual reconciliation is a love born of the need to maintain a mutual defense against the small-mindedness of the society in which they are fated to live. The author does not offer the audience illusions of a fairy tale ending for his characters: true to their creator’s apt observation of human nature and their own innate proclivities, the newly reconciled wife is bound to revert to her shrewish behavior and the neighbors to their merciless gossip.

As the writer himself explained: “In my Shoemaker’s Wife I sought to express . . . the struggle of reality with fantasy that exists within every human being. (By fantasy I mean everything that is unrealizable.) The shoemaker’s wife fights constantly with ideas and real objects because she lives in her own world, in which every idea and object has a mysterious meaning which she herself does not know.” Patricia Donovan has noted that the play is, “less of a farce in the French or Anglo-American tradition than it is a comedic poem about the human spirit.” She quotes Lorca as saying, “That spirit is the only really important character in the play…. After all, the shoemaker’s wife is not a particular woman but all women…. The whole audience has a shoemaker’s wife within its heart.” The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife is about common people who struggle to reconcile the vast gulf between their dreams and reality. As José Monleón, author of García Lorca: vida y obra de un poeta, points out, Lorca “was also interested in education, in reaching people.” He adds that the poet’s drawings have a didactic value “as part of that popular language that he wanted to transmit . . . these drawings give us another way of transmitting his way of seeing the world and his sensibility . . .”

Unlike the play, the auction held in Barcelona on October 26 had an unequivocally happy ending for both the arts professionals who repeatedly lobbied for the collection to remain in Spain and the general public that will now have the opportunity to view them. The Spanish government exercised its right of first refusal and purchased the drawings to prevent the possibility of their sale to a foreign or private collector. It is expected that they will be housed in the National Theater Museum in Almagro.  The costumes for The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife were especially important to Lorca. He clearly saw their power to convey the dynamics of the heroine’s situation throughout the performance. In his opening comments to the audience before the curtain rises on the first act, the author-presenter chides the impatient diva, who clamors in the wings to make her entrance, and draws the audience’s attention to the actress’ wardrobe: “All right, I’m coming! Don’t be so impatient to make your entrance; you’re not decked out in a full-length evening gown, only a shabby dress. Do you hear me? The simple costume of a shoemaker’s wife!”  That the costumes were meant to play a leading role is clearly demonstrated again in this copla sung by a child who innocently repeats the insinuations of the protagonist’s prying neighbors:

Who buys, dear cobbler’s lady,
the fabric for your dresses
and these batiste blouses
trimmed with bobbin lace?

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Yes, it was wrong; no, we can’t fix it: the Spanish judicial system and the poet Miguel Hernández

“It’s paradoxical that we are celebrating the centennial of a poet whose death sentence has never been annulled.”

Luis Pesquera, Miguel Hernández Commemoration, 2010

The Spanish “Law of Historical Memory” was enacted in 2007 to end the amnesia that had shrouded the fates of thousands of hapless Republican loyalists for more than three-quarters of a century. Although it was drafted during the administration of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was executed by pro-Franco troops, the legislation has fallen short of legally exonerating the names of the many Spaniards who defended a democratically elected government in the face of a military coup in the 1930s. The present Spanish government has had limited legal resources with which to amend the harm done to Republican loyalists. As Diego López Garrido, the Socialist Party’s spokesman, explained during the drafting of the legislation, the Spanish parliament could not annul the sentences imposed by the military and civil courts during the Falangist regime as such an action would constitute an invasion of “the territory of judges”; the best it could do was to declare the trials undertaken during that period illegitimate.

The main provisions of the Law of Historical Memory are the recognition of victims of political, religious, and ideological violence perpetrated by both factions involved in the Spanish Civil War; the prohibition of political events at the Valley of the Fallen, a massive monument to the followers of Franco who perished in the war built by forced labor; the removal of Francoist symbols from buildings and public spaces throughout Spain (except for those on property belonging to the Roman Catholic Church); the rejection of the legitimacy of laws enacted and trials conducted during the Francoist regime, the granting of Spanish nationality to surviving members of the International Brigades who defended the Second Republic, and State cooperation in the identification of what are estimated to be hundreds of unmarked mass burial grounds where executions took place during and after the civil war. As a result of this legislation, tours of the Pardo Palace in Madrid no longer include a viewing of Franco’s living quarters, Franco’s heirs have been forced to vacate a mansion in Galicia that the dictator and his family had used as a summer residence since 1940, various statues and other monuments linked to the Franco and the Falange Party have been removed from public view, and streets in towns and cities throughout Spain formerly named for individuals connected to the Franco regime have been changed. However, none of these actions can be taken as permanent. Recent electoral victories by the Partido Popular, a right-wing party founded by one of Franco’s ministers, Manuel Fraga, have given rise to a spirited cultural backlash that has entailed yet another renaming of public thoroughfares and public institutions. The new mayor of Elche, Mercedes Alonso, inaugurated her administration by  changing the name of a public garden located on the city’s Avenida de la Libertad from the Jardin de Dolores Ibárurri (La Passionaria) to the Jardín de la República Argentina, declaring that Ibárurri “had no link to the city,” and flatly stating “It’s destroyed, it doesn’t exist, it’s a part of the past.”

Unlike Germany and Italy, whose brutal but short-lived totalitarian regimes were defeated, dismantled, and judged by external powers, Spain has had the onerous burden of reconstructing civil society on its own after almost forty years of rule by a single political party that suppressed all dissent. Although democratic political processes were established and a new constitution was written following the death of Franco, these were forged during an extended period of transition in circumstances that permitted many of the social, political, economic, and religious structures of Francoism to remain largely intact. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Franco was never defeated or judged for his actions, nor were any of those responsible for the actions of his regime brought to account. The constitution and institutions of the new “Kingdom” of Spain were negotiated under tensions created by separatist movements and fears of another military coup d’état. Those who had enjoyed almost unlimited power during the dictatorship were expected to relinquish a part of their prior privileges and the dictatorship’s victims were expected to relinquish their individual claims against a government that now aspired to full recognition within the international community. History would be brushed under the rug for the sake of a better future. What has resulted from this “pact of silence” has been an uneasy truce between those who seek to keep a turbid past hidden beneath the rock of time and those who wish to expose it to the light of day.

The drafting of the Law of Historic Memory coincided with plans for nationwide commemorations of the centennial of the birth of Miguel Hernández. His heirs considered the circumstances propitious for requesting the annulment of the charges brought against the poet in the wake of the Civil War. At first, their case showed promise. Armed with a “Declaration de Reparación y Reconocimiento Personal” authorized under the recently enacted Law of Historic Memory that had been presented to them by Vice President María Fernández de la Vega in a public ceremony held at the University of Alicante, Hernández’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter sought the annulment of the death sentence dictated to him by the military “Tribunal de Prensa” in Madrid in 1940 and later commuted to a thirty-year prison sentence.

The charges brought against Hernández in 1940 were “adherence to the rebellion” and “carrying out an intensive literary activity,” both ironic considering that the military tribunal judging him represented an insurrectionary faction that had brought down a democratically elected government by armed force and intensive literary activity is what one would expect a poet to engage in. The peculiar logic that underpinned political persecutions during Franco’s dictatorship was the concept of “inverted rebellion.” In a concise but informative summary of the early Francoist judicial system, Miguel Gutiérrez Carbonell stressed that Spanish military tribunals in the 1940s showed no impartiality, the laws that instructed them were a travesty, and as the Law of Historic Memory has since conceded, the sentences dictated by such a system were “very unjust.” He noted, “reviewing the sentences related to this type of charge handed out during the period one can identify a general set of criteria: a charge of supporting rebellion was sustained on the basis of a person’s ideological sympathy towards ‘red subversion’; merely espousing a leftist or republican ideology or belonging to any political party that was not patently right-wing without engaging in any other incriminating activities was sufficient to establish a person’s adherence to a revolutionary cause.” He goes on to enumerate the violations of judicial process that were institutionalized in Franco’s summary judicial proceedings: “the defense lawyer was always a member of the military and was not required to hold a law degree. There was no provision for the accused to be represented by his or her attorney of choice.” The lawyer assigned to the defendant had no more than three hours to prepare a defense: “Three hours to find and present relevant evidence, study the case, and present court documents, when what was at stake for the accused was the death penalty or a thirty-year prison sentence.” The rulings of these military tribunals could not be appealed.

Spanish courts have refused numerous petitions to annul summary judgments passed during the Franco era on the grounds that they conformed to the laws in vigor at the time they were issued. Nonetheless, the heirs of Miguel Hernández hoped to prove that the poet had been denied a fair trial even from the point of view of the abysmal judicial system that had condemned him. A folio of documents that authorities in Alicante failed to transfer to Madrid for presentation at Hernandez’s trial had recently come to light during the digitization of historical archive material. It contained a letter from Juan Bellod, a military official in the Francoist regime, asserting the poet’s innocence. In an act of generosity that might have had consequences for his own future, Bellod wrote:

I have known Miguel Hernandez since he was a boy . . . He is a person with an impeccable past, generous sentiments and deep religious and humanist training, but whose excessive sensitivity and poetic temperament have led him to act in accordance with the passion of the moment rather than calm, firm will. I fully guarantee his behavior and his patriotic and religious fervor. I do not believe that he is, at heart, an enemy of our Glorious Movement.

The family of Miguel Hernández pinned their hopes on the presentation of this new evidence, but last June, in a closed session, the Spanish Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Other individuals who hoped to clear the name of a family member through new legal channels created by the Law of Historic Memory have likewise been disappointed, and there have been calls to amend the law to allow for the annulment of unjust sentences meted out to victims of the dictatorship. However, given the current political climate, any possibility of changing the law in favor of the victims of the Franco regime now seems remote. As he was dying in his prison cell, Miguel Hernández stubbornly refused to sign a confession that might have led to the commutation of the remainder of his thirty-year prison sentence and perhaps even the right to leave Spain. To the end, he maintained that he had not committed any crime against his country and he steadfastly refused to bow to the new regime. For decades after his death, his family paid the price for Hernández’s decision to defy the will of the dictatorship. For them, a government declaration that they have suffered unjustly is not enough; they maintain that until a judge declares him officially innocent of the crimes attributed to him in Madrid in 1940, the sentence stands as a blot on the reputation of both the poet and Spanish society.

For those interested in knowing more about the experience of Spanish citizens subjected to Francoist reprisals following the fall of the Second Republic, the University of California maintains an English-language website documenting its Spanish Civil War Memory Project, which contains subtitled interviews with survivors of the period.

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The Patio of the Infanta, Saragossa’s Renaissance Treasure

When British architect Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt traveled to Spain in 1869 to sketch its architectural heritage, the country was in the throes of the Third Carlist War. His illustrated memoirs of the journey, An Architect’s Note Book in Spain, overflows with acid commentaries on the ruinous state of Spain’s historic buildings and monuments and the general backwardness of Spanish society. Regarding the former residence of the Condes de Miranda in the city of Burgos, he noted, “it is now but a half-ruined and entirely dirty lodging house for the lower classes in a poor and neglected part of the city.” In Saragossa, the story was the same; he described the façade of the centrally located exchange building (La Lonja) completed in 1551 as “fine” and “noble,” but was unable to enter and understood it to be abandoned. The Donya Juana and son whose names were engraved on the façade of the Lonja were Juana I (the ill-starred daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella also known as Juana the Mad) and Emperor Carlos V. The Spain of Carlos the Emperor—heart of an empire that  was during long periods ruled from Sicily and extended to faraway lands its ruler would never see—bore little resemblance to the Spain that Wyatt visited in 1869, a country scarred and exhausted by nearly a century of internal power struggles that had begun when the ambitions of another Carlos V (pretender to a crumbling peninsular throne that could claim only vestiges of a once-vast empire) precipitated the first of a series of disastrous civil wars that would bear his name.

It seems that Wyatt’s principal guide to Spanish monuments was the multi-volume Viaje de España, o Cartas en que se da noticia de las cosas mas apreciables y dignas de saberse, que hay en ella, compiled more a century earlier by Antonio Ponz Piquer at the instigation of Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes for the purpose of cataloging property seized by the state in the wake of the dissolution of the Jesuit order in 1767. Wyatt laconically noted in his book of sketches that Ponz had spoken “with great complacency of the sumptuousness of the houses of Saragossa.” Regarding the highly praised Renaissance palace constructed by the merchant Gabriel Zaporta, he sadly reported, “My sketch sufficiently shows the ‘base uses’ to which the truly palatial Casa de Zaporta or de la Infanta has ‘come at last.’”

The  building was one of a series of extraordinary residences designed around ample central courtyards that were built by Saragossa’s Renaissance elite. Zaporta was one of the city’s most prominent merchants. Born in the municipality of Monzón to a family of “New Christians,” Zaporta appears to have taken full advantage of the financial and political opportunities open to converts during the period, relocating to Saragossa, amassing a substantial fortune in the trade of a wide range of goods between Aragon, Valencia, Castile, France, and Flanders and securing long-term stability through the purchase of “censales,” an early form of public debt that provided a perpetual annuity to investors, was not considered a form of usury, and that could be maintained indefinitely, sold, and even inherited. In 1542 Zaporta acquired a title of nobility and the properties of the Senorío de Valmaña in recognition of a loan for four million reales that the merchant had provided the crown to finance a military campaign in Tunisia. He also held positions of power within the Kingdom of Aragon. For at least five years he held the position of Treasurer-General, and from 1550 until 1569 he repeatedly served the city of Saragossa as jurado municipal (a position created to defend the municipality and its citizens from the overreaching authority of magistrates) and municipal councilor.

The history of Zaporta’s spectacular private and public success stands in stark contrast to those of others who fell foul of the inquisitional authorities of Saragossa. Although other converso families were suspected of playing a role in the assassination of the inquisitor Pedro Arbúes in 1485, there seems to be no record of the Zaporta family being mentioned in connection with the affair. In any case, Zaporta enjoyed royal favor, and the Inquisition was busy stamping out other heresies during the period of Zaporta’s climb up the social ladder. The French and other foreigners were under heavy suspicion of Protestantism and the Inquisition in Aragon was especially zealous in punishing those suspected of committing sodomy or practicing bigamy or witchcraft. Although undertaken in the name of the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition’s work was often fueled by xenophobia, personal grudges, and ignorance. Nevertheless, Zaporta seems to have known how to keep his name and his fortune above the fray of ecclesiastical interference and popular envy. In addition to his palatial home, he also constructed a family funerary chapel in Saragossa’s cathedral (La Seo).

Shortly after his second marriage to Sabina Santángel in 1549, Zaporta undertook a major renovation of his home in Saragossa. The crowning jewel of his efforts was an elaborate two-story courtyard supported by banded columns executed in the Spanish “Plateresque” style. Almost every surface of the structure was covered in sculptural relieves of mythological and historical figures such as Charlemagne, Carlos I, Philip II, and Ferdinand V (“the Catholic”) of Spain, surrounded by Italianate floral decoration and astrological symbols. Courtyards were used in different ways throughout the Mediterranean, depending on the local climate and culture. As opposed to Andalusian garden patios, which echoed traditional Roman and Islamic atriums and were employed as intimate leisure spaces, courtyards in Saragossa were more apt to be used as carriage entrances and were more closely linked with work and business activities. When opened, the wide doorways of the palaces of Saragossa allowed the public an occasional glimpse of their impressive courtyards.

The house was meant to convey a sense of prestige and mark the founding of a local dynasty. However, although Zaporta fathered five children who styled themselves as nobles, rather than merchants, within a few generations the house was sold and changed hands various times until 1789, when it became the home of the Infanta María Teresa de Vallabriga, widow of the Infante Luis Antonio de Borbón, brother of Carlos III. When Wyatt passed through Saragossa in 1869, its connection with the Zaporta family had been largely forgotten and the house was popularly known as the Casa de la Infanta. Over the years the building served as the headquarters of the Real Academía de Bellas Artes de San Luís, housed a conservatory and several schools, and was for a time the municipal social club before being relegated to more industrial uses such a piano factory and a print shop. Ironically, the Real Academy of the Fine Arts of San Luis was founded in 1792 by Manuel Godoy, the son-in-law of the Infanta María de Vallabriga, the building’s most famous tenant. The organization today states its mission as “the defense, conservation, and restoration of all manner of monuments and works of art within the territory of the Autonomous Community of Aragon.” In its failure to rescue the house of Gabriel Zaporta in 1903, the academy fell regrettably short of its professed goals of defending, conserving, and restoring the cultural heritage of Saragossa and Aragon.

By the late 1880s, the building had fallen on what seemed to be irreversibly hard times. Wyatt knew it as a run-down boarding house and reported that many of the arches of the patio “are now closed up in lath and plaster; with a heartless indifference to everything else than getting as much room as possible to let to poor lodgers who swarm this once splendid palace.” Such makeshift alterations and the installation of a carpenter’s workshop on the ground floor converted the once elegant building into a tinderbox. In 1903, after a series of fires and several unsuccessful attempts to find a local buyer, the owners decided to raise the building. By sheer luck, a French antiquarian and collector named Fernand Schutz purchased the courtyard shortly before the demolition for 17,000 pesetas (by my own feeble calculations based on 1900 exchange rates between the Spanish peseta and the American dollar, approximately $2,550), and later reconstructed it on his own property on the Quai Voltaire in Paris. Decades later, art historian and University of Zaragoza professor Guillermo Fatás Cabeza vented his rage at the shortsightedness of the turn-of-the-century “unsophisticated country bumpkins” of Aragon for their lack of preoccupation for the judgments the more discriminating French would be bound to make concerning the lack of cultural awareness on the part of Spaniards, “who, for a few lousy pesetas, allowed foreigners to cart off their art, their history, and their noble heritage.”

Luck struck again when the savings bank IberCaja purchased the courtyard in 1957 for 3 million pesetas and hauled it back to Saragossa. Years later, in 1980, it was reassembled and installed in the bank’s new central office where it shares a space with a fine set of antique tapestries and several paintings by Goya. The Patio of the Infanta has been accessible to the public since its inauguration and serves as an intimate setting for organ recitals that showcase another key piece of IberCaja’s collection: a historic organ constructed by José de Sesma in 1692 lovingly restored by José María Arrizbalaga.