BURGOS WAS THE CAPITAL of the Nationalist Government
during the Spanish Civil War, a stronghold of conservative Catholicism
and fascist support. My map of the town still shows an "Avenida del Generalisimo
Franco" running alongside the river, ending just by the Arco de Santa Maria,
an elaborate old city gate studded with turrets and statues.
The town has a feel I'd almost call "Germanic", with stout,
prosperous-looking citizens in loden coats and sensible shoes walking the
tidy, orderly streets. The river that runs through the center of the town
was, like the broad stream in Najera, probably once a lot wilder, judging
from the broad bridges that span it. Today, it's a pleasant, slow-moving
watercourse bordered on each side with lawns and trees, a long, thin park
under the bridges, dotted with young couples.
My guidebook for the trip is a bit out of date. I picked
up Edward Hutton's The Cities of Spain at a used bookstore before
I left, when I noticed that Hutton, who made his trip through the country
sometime in the early 1900s, had visited the same cities I'd be seeing.
I know almost nothing about Hutton, but can assume quite a few things based
on the book. He was probably educated at public school and either Oxford
or Cambridge, and came from the prosperous middle class. His worldview
was formed by the "aesthetic movement" that embraced everything from Ruskin
and the Pre-Raphaelites to Swinburne and Wilde. His knowledge of art and
architectural history is unimpeachable, inasmuch as his opinions are adamant
and stated with passionate verbosity.
Like most Europeans, Hutton is convinced of -- and a little
in love with -- an image of Spain as place of "sad ascetic dignity", a
tragic place that history has made glorious and then conspired to humiliate.
Never mind that, as an Englishman, Hutton was probably convinced of his
own country's proud complicity in that humiliation, with the sinking of
the Armada. When he made his trip, Spain's further humiliation had just
recently been underlined with the loss of Cuba and the Philippines in the
Spanish-American War. It was this same streak of romanticism about the
country that drew Hemingway there, years later, and inspired the International
Brigade in the Civil War. It's an image that dies hard, and which was practically
turned into the country's epitaph under Franco's long tenure as Caudillo.
HUTTON DOESN'T HAVE much to say for the cathedral in Burgos.
Flipping ahead, he's no more enthusiastic about the great churches in Valladolid
or Salamanca. Like most educated bohemians of his time, he believes in
the simple beauty of the middle ages, and seems to regard much of the renaissance,
and indeed most of subsequent art and architecture, as a steady fall from
grace. As for the ornate stonework of Burgos' cathedral, "we soon grow
a little weary of it, and find ourselves wondering what simple beauty has
been destroyed to make way for all that elegance, that fragile glory of
delicate pinnacle and carved goldsmith's work."
I have to say that the cathedral does seem over-decorated,
with baroque and neo-classical additions welded onto the gothic bones of
the building. I can only compare it to the gothic churches of Barcelona,
which were burned clean of their gold-painted plasterwork and carved wood
by the anarchists during the Civil War. No such desecration happened in
Burgos, of course, with the result that the churches of Barcelona -- Santa
Mario del Mar and Santa Maria del Pi, in particular -- seem broad and airy,
their stonework singed but naked, while Burgos' cathedral is a bit more
like an untidy museum, with the tombs of the Cid and his wife under the
transept, renaissance staircases and rococo sacristies.
There are almost no points on the floor where you can
see clear across the building, as the interior has been filled with choir
lofts and chapels and altars. In one chapel, a huge, rough marble slab
sits next to the elegantly finished sarcophagi of the High Constable and
his wife. The slab was intended for his son, who decided later that he
wanted to rest for all eternity some distance away from his parents. Like
the town, Burgos cathedral shows signs of being lived in, of having been
as silted up with time as the river that runs through the place.