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The Face of Spain

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19 February

The mosque of Córdoba is certainly the first building in Spain – the most original and the most beautiful. From the moment of entering the great court planted with orange trees, one gets a feeling of peace and harmony which is quite different from the mood of religious holiness and austerity imparted by Christian cloisters. The small reddish oranges cluster among the dark green leaves, butterflies chase one another, birds flit about and chirp, and the great marble cistern for ablutions seems to be there to say that the warmth and richness of Nature and the instinctive life of Man are also pure because they have been willed by God.

When one enters the mosque itself one is likely to suffer at first from conflicting impressions. The Renaissance choir built in the centre disturbs one's view of the forest of columns: some of the restorations, especially the rather garish painting on the ceiling, clash with the warm colour of the stone and marble: and then the double horseshoe arches, striped buff-white and brick-rose, arrest one by their strangeness and novelty. One has to visit the building several times to allow its magic to sink into one.

This mosque is surely a first-rate example of the adage, so true of all the arts, that necessity is the mother of invention. The Arabs, when in 785 they began to build it, had no style of their own. They wished to make use of the Roman and Visigothic columns that littered the city and, since these were too slight to support the heavy pieces of masonry that would be needed to continue them if the roof was to be raised to a sufficient elevation, they were compelled to strengthen the arches by inserting above the abaci a second lower range of arches to act as buttresses. This contrivance – so clumsy structurally but so beautiful in effect – paved the way for the later invention of the wonderful intersecting arches of Al- Hakam's maqsurah, which is the crowning glory of the building. A new style, put together from the syllables of a Byzantine idiom, had come into existence.

No two modes of architecture could well be more different from one another than the Muslim and the West Christian. West Christian architecture in its early phase is filled with the craving for weight and massiveness; and in its second phase, the Gothic, in that for a spectacular liberation from that weight in a skyward ascent. In both cases there is an emphasis on the tremendousness of the force of gravity, either in the form of great masses of stone weighing downwards, or of lofty columns springing up like trees in defiance of the down-pull. The load of original sin that oppresses the human conscience and seeks to drag the world back into the savagery of the Dark Ages is expressed in a load of stone. The sense of duration, too, the confidence in man's firm establishment on the earth, is emphasised: the Universal Church has been built on a rock and will last for ever, and, while it lasts, it will interpret history in terms of moral profit and loss, as the Old Testament has taught it to do.

Muslim architecture is quite the opposite. A mosque is to be a court, a square, a market-place, lightly built to hold a large concourse of people. Allah is so great that nothing human can vie with Him in strength or endurance, and in a society where the harem system complicates the line of descent, the pride or orgullo of the feudal ages – which comes from their association of land tenure with family and from the vista of the long line of descendants – is out of place; in the feudal ages a man thought of his line as stretching forward into the future, in the aristocratic ages he thought of it as stretching back into the past. Even the Muslim castles, large though they are, give the effect of being light and insubstantial. But a mosque is also a place for the contemplation of the Oneness of Allah. How can this better be done than by giving the eyes a maze of geometric patterns to brood over? The state aimed at is a sort of semi-trance. The mind contemplates the patterns, knows that they can be unravelled and yet does not unravel them. It rests therefore on what it sees, and the delicate colour, the variations of light and shade add a sensuous tinge to the pleasure of certainty made visible. This, at all events, is the only explanation I can give of the strange state of mind set up by Al-Hakam's maqsurah and mihrab. Another building not to be missed in Córdoba is the synagogue. Though erected as late as 1315 – that is to say, after the Christian occupation – its arabesque plaster designs are in the purest Muslim style. Close by lived Maimonides, the great Jewish poet and philosopher, whose tomb is still shown at Damascus. A square nearby has been renamed after him.

This old Jewish quarter of the city is particularly lovely. The characteristic feature of Córdoba, as everyone who has been there knows, is the two-storeyed house built round a patio. These patios with their pots of ferns and flowers and their fountain in the centre have an irresistible charm and, since the street doors are left open, one gets a glimpse into them as one passes. The plan of these houses is Roman, but none are older than the sixteenth century and most of them were put up after 1700. A large part of the area of the present city was occupied by ruins and gardens until well on in the nineteenth century.


20 February

This afternoon we set off to see the famous hermitages in the sierra. To do this one takes the bus a couple of miles as far as Brillante, a garden city built since the war, and then walks. As we got out of the bus, a man came up and offered to show us the way. He was a pleasant, eager little fellow who was enchanted at the idea of speaking to two English people, because he was a regular listener to the Spanish programme of the BBC. Very soon his history came out. During the war he had been a sergeant on the Nationalist side: then he had been appointed schoolmaster of a village in the sierra, but, finding the pay insufficient to support him, he had put in a local man as locum tenens and opened a small business in Córdoba. He regretted having had to do this because he liked teaching and had a strong sense of its importance.

We were walking up a broad track between limestone boulders and evergreen oaks. Clumps of asphodels with their glossy leaves and elegant, starry flowers were scattered about and among them, under the trees, sat parties of picknickers, dressed in their gayest Sunday clothes, with bottles and slices of ham and cold sausages spread out on napkins. This was the Quinta de Arrizafa, where the Caliphs once had their summer palace.

Our friend talked a great deal, holding forth on politics and religion. His politics were Monarchist, his religion a sort of liberal Catholicism, tinged with mystical adumbrations. He believed in goodness. The steepness of the climb was alleviated by the frequent pauses he made to gesticulate and explain his views. But when I told him of the Falangist doctor I had met in the train, he stopped short in his tracks and dropped his voice. It is remarkable what a fear these Falangist extremists set up in some people, in spite of the fact that they have today lost most of their power.

People dry up when they discover that you know them. One only begins to understand it when one remembers the fantastic number of people that they are supposed to have killed in and after the war: here in the province of Córdoba rumour credits them with having shot 28,000. However our friend soon brightened up again and, in answer to my inquiries, told me that the picture that the doctor had drawn of the brigands in the Sierra Morena was greatly exaggerated: they had been a nuisance some time before, but were now of very little consequence. And they rarely killed anyone. They were all of them political men – Socialists or Communists on the run.

The schoolmaster turned back after a mile and we went on alone. The road climbed slowly in long hairpin curves, so we took a short cut. This led us past the mouth of a little cave or rock shelter, whose entrance had been blocked with a few household chattels. Behind these we discovered a woman lying on some sacks, who, when she saw us, got up and came out. She was a woman of under thirty, dressed in a very old and ragged black dress which showed her naked body through its rents. She had been ill, she told us, after the birth of a child, which had died because her milk had dried up. Her husband had been employed on an estate nearby, but as the work had come to an end and they could not pay their rent, they had left and come here. Now she could not leave because her clothes were not decent. She was obviously starving, but she did not complain, or ask for money, and, when I gave her some, appeared surprised. 'Times are bad,' she said with resignation. 'Let us hope they will soon take a better turn.'

We arrived at the hermitage that crowns the rocky hill. Grey rocks, grey trees, white jonquils and asphodels, and no sound but the tinkling of goat bells. Far below we could see the white city, spread out like a patch of bird droppings by its brown river, and beyond it the red and green campiña, flowing in bright Van Gogh-like undulations. The hermits strike me as being museum pieces rather than examples of a serious contemplative life. There are ten of them, each occupying his own snug little hermitage, each dressed in a long brown robe and decorated with a bushy white beard that flows down over his chest in the true Carolingian manner. On Sundays they are on view and, as we walked down the path to the chapel, we passed one of them, seated on a chair under an ancient oak tree and reading from a calf-bound folio with the aid of a prodigious pair of cows' horn spectacles. It was obvious that he was fully aware of his own picturesqueness.

These hermits own the mountain on which their cells are built and employ a man to look after their goats; otherwise they depend for their subsistence on alms, which are never wanting. I imagine that this is the oldest colony of hermits in Europe, for they have been here continuously since Visigothic times. But the age is hostile to the sentiment O solitudo, O beatitudo, and when I praised the beauty and seclusion of this spot to the hermit who was showing us over the chapel, he grunted and said 'Es mucha soledad' ('It's very lonely').

The people of Córdoba are exceedingly proud of their city. If, for example, one happens to mention wine, they tell one that the wine of Córdoba (which is unknown anywhere else) is the best in Spain.

'You have only to carry a bottle of Montilla across the river and it improves at once, and when you take it back again, it gets worse.' Yet they know very little about the famous men their city has produced: Seneca they have heard of, but Góngora to them is just the name of a street and no one knows where his house stands. I had spoken about this to our schoolmaster acquaintance, who has a certain liking for poetry, and he promised that he would help me to find it. We met therefore by arrangement at a café.

Our first step was to visit the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza, or Secondary School, in search of the city archivist. This school was housed in a magnificent building with a large interior court. All the children in it were well dressed and came from middle-class families, so I asked our companion whether any working-class children found their way here.

'Very rarely,' he replied. 'These children all come from the primary schools run by the Church. In most of these one has to pay something, but one gets a fine education. The state primary schools are today so neglected that the children who go to them make no progress. This suits everyone: the Church sees its schools well sought after and the ruling classes are pleased to have the poor kept in their place. Most of the children of the poor grow up without learning how to read or write.'

We found the archivist, who gave us the address of Góngora's house and promised to show us other sites connected with him when we returned to Córdoba in a month's time. Then we adjourned to a tavern to taste wine, not from Córdoba, but the far superior Montilla. We discussed bullfights and, after that, religion. 'Yes,' said the schoolmaster, 'there has been a genuine revival. But you must bear in mind that the Church in Spain is like an old, old tree, some of whose branches have fallen and lie rotting on the ground. Not all the people you see dressed as Catholics are Catholic inside.'

He is a pleasant little man, combining gaiety with genuine kindness and a rather ineffectual enthusiasm for the things of the mind. A man with middle-of-the-road opinions. How many there are of them in this country, in spite of the Spaniards' reputation for fanaticism! Yet how little effect they have had!

Copyright © Gerald Brenan, 2007

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