Monday, November 8, 2010

Old is the new New! Salamanca

There are two stock figures from Salamanca in Spanish classic comedy: the Doctor (of law, usually, but of any academic study in practice) and the Student (ditto). The former is dry as dust, corrupt, greedy, lustful and pedantic to a fault. The latter is boisterous, poor, romantic and ready for anything except study.

The former may be comprehended in the chapel of St. Barbara in the cloister of the Old Cathedral where, for many centuries, candidates for this highest academic honor held their oral final exams in many languages but not the vernacular. After hours of grueling questioning, they were locked in for the night to meditate on the honors and duties awaiting them should they succeed - not unlike medieval knighthood. Meanwhile the doctors testing them were heartily feasted at the expense of the candidate’s family (before the verdict - clever, eh?). In the morning at dawn, they assembled in the chapel … to reexamine the answers of the previous day. And only after that did they vote. Losers were let out of the cathedral by a side door. Winners were presented at the highly ornamental front portal for the whole town to see them and rejoice. Three days of celebration followed, with banquets, plays, bullfights, every Spanish shenanigan you can think of. This continued to be the custom until sometime in the early nineteenth century - the time the French army attempted to suppress Spanishness, national consciousness was born in the peninsula, and everything changed, though not the way the French had wanted it to. Therefore, in olden times, to be a doctor from Salamanca was something wondrous, and everyone in Spain - except the sly playwrights - respected and admired it.

Also of course the students, who can be seen cavorting on the staircase in the University’s main building to this day, carved in stone, carousing, playing practical jokes, hunting a rhinoceros (it looks like), doing everything but study. Gaudeamus igiturminable. And at the top of the staircase is one of the most splendid “artesonado” ceilings in all of Salamanca (if not Spain), layers of coffering in dark wood, each coffer presenting a knotwork of stalactites in high Mudejar style, while the upstairs of the cloister is that curious arch formation (quite common in Salamanca, unknown elsewhere) like curtains rising to an overhanging bulge, highly theatrical and handsome if not obviously good for the structure. In the chambers about are ancient books, ancient frescoes, ancient desks, and portraits of some of Spain’s least worthy kings: Carlos II, Carlos IV, Fernando VII, hapless tubercular Alfonso XII. The university was founded by Alfonso IX and his grandson, Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) in the thirteenth century, a few years after Oxford and Cambridge.

Popular legend has it that the doctors of Salamanca assured Columbus the world was flat, and that he should stay home, but this is a myth invented by Washington Irving (who was consul in Spain for some years). In fact, what they told him (Columbus) was that the world was 25,000 miles in circumference (approx.) (Spain had not gone metric at the time) and that with the current technology, he’d never make it to Asia sailing West unless by fortuitous happenstance there was an island or two en route to feed his crew. Columbus retorted that the world was 12,000 miles around, Asia just two thousand miles away, and he would make land in Cipango (Japan) a month after leaving the Canaries. In fact they were both right, but the doctors had the figures on target. This shows just how worthwhile it is to be pedantic in a chancy world.

Salamanca has been renowned for its university for nearly 800 years, but the city was well known long before that. The Celtiberians had a fortress here beside the river, and the Romans captured it and built the bridge that still crosses just below the cathedrals. They made it a principal station on the Ruta de la Plata, the Silver Road, from the mines in the Asturias to the Lusitanian capital at Emerita Augusta (Merida) and so down to Gades (Cadiz), from whence it could be shipped to Rome. But the university set a seal on its identity.

As we all know, universities never quite die; they grow and burgeon and swallow ever more property, and spawn institutes and lesser colleges - but (happy Salamanca! and Oxford! and Cambridge! and New Haven!) in eras of good architecture, this amoebic spread is only good news for visitors.

The proud Salamancans, only recently certified subjects of the Castilian monarchy and no longer of the Moors in Cordoba, built themselves a grand gothic cathedral in the fourteenth century to celebrate, with a spectacular altarpiece (53 miniatures of the Lives of Jesus and Mary, crowned by a Last Judgment) by imported Italians and a handsome cloister to which the very rich could affix appropriate chapels. By Columbus’s time they were even richer, and demanded the right to tear down the old cathedral and build an even bigger one, to keep up with the new ones in Toledo, Sevilla and Segovia. The Catholic kings approved, but not everyone wanted to tear down the lovely old building. In the end, the northern wall was demolished and replaced (so that the nave seems a bit off-kilter) while a new cathedral of Spanish grandeur (and in Spain churches are first of all BIG) plunked down beside it. The two with their two towers looming over the Roman bridge make a harmonious bulk, but I can’t be alone in finding the new one much of a muchness. Even when all of Salamanca was devout, how could they ever fill it? The piers are thicker than sequoias, the fretwork of the choir is gilded, it is an inhuman church, where the old one is grand but not oppressively so. The best part of the new cathedral is the various doorways, all decorated and overdecorated in moody Salamanca sandstone, which weathers to a grim and handsome red-brown that probably inspired the makers of terracotta to think they could produce buildings just as handsome without the bother of stone carvers.

Other enormous churches with overripe facades around town include the Monastery of St. Stephen, whose looming overhang reminds me of the entrance to Peterborough Cathedral (appropriately enough the resting place of Catherine of Aragon, Fernando and Isabel’s daughter). Other churches suffer from what I call baroque fungus: a gallimaufry of plaster and gilding and paint and carving that falls like glop upon the wall beneath all over Counterreformation Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and has been known to render me physically ill. The gilded retablo (altarpiece) of St. Esteban, which I saw when I sneaked in for a concert of a choir from Pampluna on Saturday night, is the largest in town, but the one in the Convent of St. Clare is the brightest and gaudiest. It shines down upon a church under an eighteenth-century barrel vault that was inserted here to replace the original, wooden Mudejar ceiling damaged in a fire. But -- bless the resourceful nuns -- they left the original ceiling, what was left of it, in place above the barrel vaulting, and climbing there one sees the gothic painting, the exquisite carpentry of the thirteenth century. Nearby is the convent of the Duenas, who like the Clares do not associate with men, but just as the Clares admit you to their museum (which includes a traditional pointed “tipi” as used by the shepherds in the hills of Extramadura in olden days), the Duenas let you see their eighteenth-century cloister, a rhomboid with capitals desperately carved to imitate the free-flowing fancy of earlier times. Mysterious are two portals of horseshoe-arches elaborately decorated with tilework in four colors (turquoise, black, white, gold) as if this was once a mosque or at least a Mudejar cloister before the Age of Reason came and sat on it.

You never know in Europe what foundations you will find if you dig. Old is the new New. Someone, many someones, was here before. An American lady on the train from Madrid said she didn’t want to go to Escorial because that’s where the Spanish Inquisition had started, but of course it didn’t, and it was inescapable - hers is not a tenable attitude. Let bygones be bygones. Up to a point. Franco’s face (as well as Juan Carlos’s and Sofia’s) stares at you from a circle overlooking the Plaza Mayor (said to be Spain’s handsomest and largest, certainly a riot of crazed carving after the sedate but similar model in Madrid).

Nonetheless I was nonplussed as I left the Clares (alas, the nearby Romanesque church of St. Thomas - said to be the first one built on the continent after his martyrdom at Canterbury - was closed; it looked dishy, and I wanted to tell Ronald about it) and passed by a superb neoclassical portico two stories high fronting some college or other (and stinking of piss), when I passed a young couple walking their brown pug dog, which grunted at me and sniffed at me in the dusk. With a start I realized it was not a dog. Now, I have no objection to pigs; I’ve always heard them described as highly intelligent animals and quite trainable, but to have a pet pig here, in Spain, where half the items on every menu are some variety of pork seems just a bit creepy.

In general I dine here on tapas, which are cheap and various and very strange. One morning I had potatoes cooked with egg all over them - not fried egg into a mass of solidified slime resembling old mortar, as in American omelets, but a hot yellow sauce imparting superb taste to all it touched. Genius. One day when my innards are in order (they are not) and I’m feeling very hungry indeed, I’m going to have perdiz, partridge, which I have only eaten once, in Toledo in 1993, the finest meal of that visit to Spain. But at the moment - my digestion has not recovered from an allergy to penicillin prescribed by my dentist back home. (Spanish pharmacists have been very sympathetic as I act out my ailments. Allo-purinol is over the counter here, and very cheap.)

To be continued.