Uncovered cloister's origins remain unsolved

Experts' panel only manages to determine that magnificent structure in Palamós is a mixture of the ancient and new

The cloister located at the Mas del Vent estate in Palamós, Girona.
The cloister located at the Mas del Vent estate in Palamós, Girona.MARCEL-LÍ SÀENZ

The verdict is in: the Romanesque cloister of Mas del Vent, in Catalonia, contains authentic elements, which have lead to the theory that it a historic recreation from the early 20th century.

This is the much-awaited conclusion by technical experts working for the regional government who analyzed the striking construction. The mysterious origins of the cloister, which sits inside a private home in the small town of Palamós, have been the subject of heated public debate ever since EL PAÍS ran a story about it two months ago.

After hearing the opinions from about a dozen experts, Catalan officials announced that the cloister contains a few elements from the 12th century, but that as a whole it can only be considered an example of Romanesque revival. The authentic pieces no doubt served to suggest the proportions and characteristics of this unusual monument, the experts said.

The cloister first came to the public's attention when a medieval art professor at Girona University, Gerardo Boto, mentioned it during an art symposium. Further research showed that it was put together in 1931 in Madrid by the restorer Julián Ortiz after an antiques dealer named Ignacio Martínez bought the stones from an unknown source; it was meant to be sold to an American buyer but the deal fell through. In 1957 the cloister traveled to Palamós after being purchased by the Swiss national Hans Engelhorn.

It would seem that the rush to produce a report before the August vacation period left many questions still unanswered by a group of experts made up of four restorers, three archeologist-architects, two geologists and one art historian. None of them is a specialist in Castilian Romanesque sculpture, unlike Gerardo Boto, who is the author of seminal books on the subject as well as a dissertation on the monastery of Silos, which he has compared with the cloister at Palamós. Boto, who has ardently defended the authenticity of the cloister, was not invited to visit it on the day that the media were asked in (he later did so using an accreditation from this newspaper). But nor was he was asked for his expert opinion.

Chronology of a mystery

  • In 1931 a Madrid antiques dealer, Ignacio Martínez, purchases the cloister. No information about its origins is provided. The monument is put together at an empty plot in the Madrid district of Ciudad Lineal. The land is owned by a marchioness who is friends with Martínez. The woman asks the antiques dealer and the restorer Julián Ortiz Fernández to restore it and care for it.
  • Hans Engelhorn, a relative of today's owner, the Swiss national Kurt Engelhorn, purchases the cloister in 1958. The transfer to Palamós (Girona) begins in 1959.
  • In 1967 the owners order a report based on photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which sheds doubt on its authenticity.
  • The French edition of the decoration magazine AD, in its July 2010 issue, devotes a story to the private estate of Mas del Vent.
  • A presentation by Gerardo Boto, a professor of medieval art, starts renewed interest.
  • In June 2012, EL PAÍS runs a story about the cloister, and for the first time the monument is opened up to experts and the press.
  • On July 19, 2012 the Catalan government calls together experts who disagree over the findings of a final report of the cloister.
  • On July 31, Catalonia releases its conclusions, confirming that it contains elements of the 12th century but the rest was built in the early 20th century.

One of the chief remaining questions is exactly how much "reintegration" was carried out by the antiques dealer Ignacio Martínez in the early 20th century. The expert committee has clearly been unable to determine this point, although they assert that the original elements are not the capitals, which happen to be the most damaged part of the cloister. Neither were they able to establish the origin of the first stones, although they said that they must have belonged to a cathedral or a major monastery. They also said they were unable to determine the original religious construction from where the authentic pieces originate. They did assert that the stones were obtained from the quarry of Villamayor, in Salamanca.

During their presentation to the media, the expert committee renamed the Palamós cloister, calling it the "Ciudad Lineal cloister," in reference to the Madrid district where its trail was lost in the early 1930s.

Eduard Riu, the director general for Architecture in the Catalan government, said that the belief that some elements from the 12th or early 13th century exist is based on the presence of slow-growth lichen on the stone, which only arises after many years at the mercy of the elements. Another line of reasoning focuses on the degradation of some of the abacus, or slabs atop the capitals of the columns.

Ferran Mascarell, the Catalan culture commissioner, said that further research is needed and that the monument will be protected. The regional government has already started the paperwork to get the cloister included on its inventory of Catalan heritage sites, "so it can receive the necessary protection," and the report recommends that the town of Palamós declare it a Local Asset of Interest.

The technicians were unable to determine the ratio of real to pseudo-Romanesque elements in the cloister, although they did admit that the entire monument is made with the same stone from the quarry of Vilamayor.

The capitals, they added, have been "cleaned very aggressively," which has eliminated the superficial layers that might have allowed them to venture a date.

"There are a few signs of patina, but they are not very significant," they said, adding that a study of the lichens - a lengthy, expensive process - could afford a more precise dating process.

But the thing that makes the team especially suspicious of the monument is its absolute magnificence. "This is the most spectacular Romanesque cloister of all the Romanesque cloisters on the peninsula," said Riu. "If it were really Romanesque, that is.

"A cloister this size and this spectacular could only have been inside a cathedral or a major monastery. Obviously it is not from a cathedral, or we would know about it. And it is unlikely to have been inside a great monastery without leaving some kind of trace."

"It is a perfect square of exact dimensions," the technical experts wrote in their report. "The architectural elements are like those of San Juan de la Peña, but the sculptural reference is (the monastery of Santo Domingo) de Silos, from which it borrows most of its iconography."

Its original location before Ciudad Lineal in the 1930s continues to be shrouded in mystery. The report only says that it got there "from another place, but we don't know where."

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