Exactly two decades ago, the architect José María Pérez 'Peridis' began the successful series The Keys of the Romanesque on Spanish Television. He did it from San Juan de Baños (Palencia), where he presented the oldest church in a town that, in a way, heralded the arrival of Romanesque art: the Visigoths. In just half an hour, the cartoonist traveled through some of the fundamental enclaves of this civilization and of the inherited towns, from San Pedro de la Nave (Zamora) to San Miguel de Escalada (León) or San Cebrián de Mazote (Valladolid). The wink towards pre-Romanesque art coincided with the launch of a volume that would change the perspective of many on the Visigothic world. It was The Adventure of the Goths, by the well-remembered journalist and radio host Juan Antonio Cebrián. Since those two milestones, twenty years have passed, yes, and the Visigothic world and its material legacy —pre-Romanesque architecture— have not stopped attracting followers or unleashing passions, until conquering a kind of new golden age. The numerous current archaeological excavations, the release of books and documentaries or the emerging cultural tourism that runs through the most suggestive places of that era prove it.
Disseminator of pre-Romanesque art through the Internet and social networks, Pablo García-Diego is one of the people who best embodies that insatiable concern for the Visigothic world. This retired computer scientist narrates how in 1973 he moved to Asturias for work reasons and there he unexpectedly found the temple that would change his life: the church of San Salvador de Valdediós, in Villaviciosa. "I didn't know anything about pre-Romanesque art", he confesses. Thus began his crusade to discover all the published knowledge about the civilization that succeeded Roman Hispania —which was not many—, soaking up volumes such as the History of Spain, by Ramón Menéndez Pidal, or the works of the Frenchman Jacques Fontaine. His spare time became the heritage of research and travel that would end up nourishing innumerable records of monuments prior to the 10th century.
What I did not know then is that the frustrated beginning of a book that would never be published would feed one of the most complete monographic portals of the Spanish digital universe on pre-Romanesque tourism. In 2005, García-Diego also promoted the association Amigos del Arte Altomedieval Español, which, since then, has not stopped gaining followers. Above all, on social networks, where more than 23,000 lovers of this enigmatic heritage daily unravel the details of a long ignored past. "Until the year 2000 nothing was known about all this; then, studies such as those of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) began to be carried out, archaeological excavations began to be carried out constantly and the newspapers have not stopped publishing often news about the Visigothic world", he emphasizes.
envy of Europe
Precisely, in recent days, the media have echoed the struggle of a small Cuenca town, Villamayor de Santiago, to investigate a recently discovered Visigothic necropolis. "We have more and more powerful remains from the 5th to 8th centuries than many other places in Europe, where they would already like to have the quantity and quality of our remains." These are the words of Daniel Gómez Aragonés, historian, writer and one of the main current disseminators of the Visigothic world, who "fully" coincides with the explosion of interest in this stage. "There is a longing to meet our roots and essences, to know who we are, where we come from and where we are going," he justifies. Because the Visigothic civilization is "one of the most unknown parts of our past, but also one of the most important: we cannot understand the Middle Ages without knowing what the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo was", he exemplifies.
Fortunately, that distant past is still here, with us. Gómez Aragonés, author of works such as "Historia de los visigodos" (Almuzara) or "Toledo. Biografía de la ciudad sagrada (The sphere of books), corroborates that, happily, whoever is concerned about this historical stage, can go through it through its "Today we can enter temples such as Santa María de Melque or San Pedro de la Mata in Toledo, Quintanilla de las Viñas (Burgos) or Santa Comba de Bande (Ourense), but we also have the archaeological park of Recópolis (Guadalajara) or the option of visiting the National Archaeological Museum and suffering from Stendhal syndrome when observing the extraordinary treasure of Guarrazar", he lists.
Social curiosity about the Visigoth world has not been generated spontaneously, but has come hand in hand with scientific knowledge and dissemination. The writer from Toledo says that the main enemy of this stage was "ignorance" and a "stigma" towards the Visigoths, whose past used to refer "to the grace of the famous list of kings". Gómez Aragonés points to one of the keys to this change in mentality: "If the public has been blown away by series like Games of Thrones or Vikings and, when they go to the story, they realize that those details of fiction are present in their own past, experience a total high. Perhaps that discovery is behind, for example, the unusual success of the conferences on the Visigothic world that run through different towns in the two Castillas or Andalusia.
"No construction idea"
At the beginning of the 5th century, the Visigoths—a nomadic people from southern Sweden—landed on the peninsula to inherit the brilliance lost by the Roman Empire. "When they arrived in the south of France they had no idea of building, they had not laid stone upon stone in their lives", emphasizes Pablo García-Diego. But the story changed. They learned, they evolved. "They developed the coconut at supersonic speeds," says the head of the High Medieval Art association. This is how they took the buildings of Roman civilization - diaphanous basilicas with three naves and an apse - and transformed them to adapt them to "a much more hermetic religion".
An insatiable search for the ideal temple that brought some fundamental discoveries for architecture, such as the incorporation of the horseshoe arch, which today is believed, without batting an eyelid, to be an invention of the Muslims. Or the design of the cruciform plan, successfully tested in the Galician temple of Santa Comba de Bande and replicated in buildings as unique as San Pedro de la Nave. Its liturgical needs, the complexity of its rites, led them to compartmentalize the interior of their churches or to illuminate oddities such as the independent heads that can be seen in the very strange basilica of Santa Lucía del Trampal, Cáceres. A profound exercise in creativity, but also in eclecticism: the Visigoths had no qualms about borrowing ideas from any European country or even from Eastern cultures.
Opposite Romanesque and Gothic
"Romanesque and Gothic are like Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the taste for the pre-Romanesque never stops growing", jokes Daniel Gómez Aragonés, who maintains that "the three artistic edges" of this stage —Visigothic, Asturian and Mozarabic— " They are living a very special moment". He perceives it in the visits in which he acts as a guide through some of the monuments that he is most passionate about in his native Toledo, such as Santa María de Melque, of which he speaks wonders. "Whenever I'm inside Melque, my hair stands on end," he admits. Perhaps because of the facility of this church from the end of the 7th century to transmit the values of the Visigothic culture. "It is a place that has risen to connect with transcendence and if today we can perceive that spiritual part, it is because they did it very well," he explains.
But not even like this Santa María de Melque can fill an empty space in our days. "I would love for us to be able to see the palace of the Gothic kings," lamented the promoter. Although everything has a remedy. "It is very important to visit Asturian art, because what is not in Toledo is there," he recommends. "Santa María del Naranco (Oviedo) is a masterpiece of European pre-Romanesque", corroborates Pablo García-Diego, about one of the most iconic monuments in Asturias, whose triple window overlooking the rivers and meadows of the Principality has been for more than three its recognizable tourist badge for decades, under the familiar emblem "Natural Paradise".
In Oviedo they are aware of the tourist pull of its two greatest bastions: the Santa María del Naranco building itself —the best preserved Christian palace on the entire continent— and the neighboring church of San Miguel de Lillo, which houses masterpieces of painting and sculpture of the time. "We have always had tourists, but now they are better informed," detailed tour guides in the area. But there is more. The dissemination of the heritage of Mount Naranco has benefited from the pandemic: mobility restrictions have prompted travel within, also to discover two of the jewels of Asturian art. "As many do not know, here we tell you that these buildings are a World Heritage Site," say the professionals in the sector about the declaration signed by UNESCO in 1985. In any case, they recognize that those who visit Naranco bring the lesson well learned : "They continue the route through Asturias to get to know the rest of the main pre-Romanesque buildings, such as San Julián de los Prados or San Salvador de Valdediós".
Indeed, Santa María and San Miguel —together with the church of Santa Cristina de Lena— are the valuable heritage of one of the most avant-garde Asturian kings, Ramiro I. Constructive solutions such as the semicircular arch and the vaulted buildings would be little more later the emblem of a tsunami that would conquer the entire Western Christian territory: Romanesque art. Pablo García-Diego has spent years wondering about the identity of the architect and the team of builders that Ramiro I employed to build the icons of the so-called Ramirense period. "There is a silence about who is behind these temples and it seems that I am the only one who cares about him; I don't know how historians are not crazy looking for him," laments the computer scientist.
From museums to archaeological sites
Fortunately, the buildings of the Visigoth period are not the only vestige of a culture whose discovery is on the rise. Although the historian Daniel Gómez Aragonés acknowledges that "visitors are always more shocked when they arrive at a Visigothic church and are covered with stones", lovers of the Visigothic period have other alternatives to travel to the past. One of them is in museums. Along with the Museum of Councils and the Visigothic Culture of Toledo, Gómez Aragonés points to a must-see: the National Archaeological Museum. In Madrid, the famous votive crowns from the Guarrazar treasure are kept, as well as another of the most recognizable Visigothic emblems that Aragonés, who was passionate about the time, wears in the form of a tattoo: the aquiliform fibulae of Alovera.
In any case, knowledge of this true germ of Spain would not be possible without study, research and dissemination. Pablo García-Diego cites the research that has been carried out in places such as Pla de Nadal (Valencia), the archaeological site of Los Hitos or the recovery of the ruins of the church of San Pedro de la Mata, both in the province of Toledo. Gómez Aragonés also underlines the essential informative work, a field in which "very good things are being done". The writer points to one of the codes in the successful transmission of this message. "People think that a historian can't have a passion for his work, but it's an essential component and when you pass it on, the public appreciates it," he says. Even so, it seems that the Visigoth civilization has not yet done more than dust off a small part of its surprising past. So much remains to be revealed.
Daniel Gomez Aragones
Photo 6. External aspect of San Miguel de Lillo, Oviedo. JMS
Photo 7. Church of Santa María de Melque, in Toledo. Daniel Gomez Aragones.