Approaching Úbeda from the south, the church of San Lorenzo is hard to distinguish from the old city wall, having been built against one of its towers and out of the same reddish sandstone, like so many old buildings in Úbeda.
In the façades of great houses, built of blocks of dressed stone, the stone is left bare, often carved with caryatids of extraordinary elegance, done by a French sculptor who worked here in the 16th century and is said to have run afoul of the Inquisition, perhaps because his figures look more like classical divinities than Catholic saints. In the ordinary houses, built mainly of rubblework rather than dressed stone, which is reserved for the surrounds of doors and windows, the walls are uniformly whitewashed, producing an impression of sober elegance, architectural harmony and of continuous urban tissue. When I was a child, more houses than now were built against the wall, like organisms that had grown out of it. Old palaces with columned courtyards had been subdivided into populous tenements.
Half-abandoned palaces and disused, closed churches excited a child's imagination. The singularity of the church of San Lorenzo was its tall belfry, empty of bells. Ivy dissolved the distinction between the work of man and the kingdom of nature. It climbed to the top of the belfry like a vertical garden. The mystery of this church was that it was closed. Sometimes the door was left ajar and you could glimpse a shadowy interior populated by figures of saints, and, I think, stacks of aromatic boards and sawdust from a carpenter's workshop inside.
The church had been closed since the Civil War, when the interior had been wrecked. Years later, a house nearby was occupied by the Salvadorian painter Mauricio Jiménez Larios - for whom this corner of the world was a place to come to, when so many of us had left. Mauricio conceived the project of establishing a cultural center in the church. He knew that its abandonment meant a risk of ruin. I proposed that it be a sort of museum of traditional trades, and of the oral heritage of the town's past, its history in the war and post-war period.
Now the church is in danger of collapse, and the bishopric of Jaén, the owner, prefers to do nothing
Nothing is more depressing than watching the discouragement of an enthusiastic, reasonable man. After years of talk and foot-dragging it was clear that the cultural center was not going to happen, and the church remained closed, its decrepitude all the more apparent in contrast to the vigor of the ivy. The authorities in Spain are fearsome when they neglect to fix something, and sometimes even more fearsome when they do decide to fix it. Some bright spark decided that the ivy was a danger to the stability of the belfry. So they cut it all away, and then discovered that the danger was now aggravated, the stones having come to rest on the ivy roots that penetrated the wall.
Now the church is in danger of collapse, and the bishopric of Jaén, the owner, prefers to do nothing, while other authorities have more pressing priorities. The writer Jerónimo Maesso published an article denouncing this abandonment. Some irate local answered, why do we want to preserve old churches when so many people are in need?
It seems not to occur to such people that, in a town like Úbeda, preservation of our architectural heritage is not a superfluous expenditure but an investment, which not only makes life nicer, but attracts the sort of tourists who are not in the habit of urinating in public places, and are ready to pay good money for good hotels and restaurants.
But this is not the road that has been chosen. Probably the church will fall, or be torn down, and replaced by a hideous block of apartments with a view of the river. I refuse to believe that is always, always, what we deserve.