A Small Town In Spain Wants To ‘Break The Stranglehold’ Of Madrid And Barcelona’s Arts Scenes

In an elegant but unfinished basilica 100 miles from Madrid as the crow – or in this case the stork – flies, some of the hidden and long-dispersed religious treasures of the Spanish Renaissance have been gathered together for an unlikely and potentially pioneering exhibition.

Although Alba de Tormes has a rich and turbulent history – it is home to both the illustrious House of Alba and the majority of the remains of St Teresa of Ávila – the small and picturesque town in Castilla y León is not a habitual venue for the kind of art show more commonly staged in Madrid or Barcelona.

The exhibition, The Splendour of Painting in Valencia, is hoping to change that and to help rebalance Spain’s cultural geography.

If the aesthetic aim is to share 120 pieces that illustrate how the arrival of Italian and Flemish art in Valencia fuelled and influenced the Renaissance in Spain, its parallel goal is to bring cultural events to parts of the country that are all too often neglected and under-appreciated.

Juan de Juanes’s painting of Christ tied to a pillar is the focal point of the exhibition. Photograph: PR

“The idea came about because we really wanted to bring art to places where such important works have never been shown,” says Nicolás Cortés, a 30-year veteran of the art world who is one of the promoters of the project.

“But it’s also about the environment. We want people to come to beautiful places like this so they can get to know them. History-wise, Alba de Tormes is just amazing: St Teresa of Ávila; Saint John of the Cross, the Duke of Alba. It was like the second royal court of Spain in the 16th century when it came to painters and artists, all of whom gathered around the duke.”

Today, Alba de Tormes is a little quieter. Swallows hurl themselves through the blue sky high above the stork nests that stud the ancient towers while, far below, the River Tormes flows under a medieval bridge.

Despite being only two hours’ drive from Madrid, and half an hour from the university city of Salamanca, the town sits in a province whose rural reaches are suffering the slow ravages of depopulation seen across much of what is known as la España vaciada, or “the hollowed-out Spain”. As well as the challenges of urbanisation, unemployment, demographic shifts and a lack of services, la España vaciada is often overlooked when it comes to culture.

Prayer in the Garden by Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina is among 120 paintings in the Alba de Tormes exhibition. Photograph: Paco Alcantara/PR

“We want to bring people to la España vaciada,” says José Gómez Frechina, the exhibition’s curator and an expert on Valencian art. “We want to change the circuits so that people don’t just see things like this in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville or Valencia.”

Gómez Frechina believes that the show’s exhibits – 90% of which have never been on public display – will draw visitors and help celebrate the pivotal role Valencia played in the history of Spanish art.

The exhibition’s focal point is Juan de Juanes’s painting of Christ tied to a pillar, a work widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the Spanish Renaissance. In a booth nearby, an immersive video take on the painting brings it eerily to life as Christ stares from the screen and moves his agonised body, tilting his thorn-crowned head and lifting his bound wrists.

Around it, paintings loaned by private collectors – many of them altarpiece panels – chronicle the foreign influences that shaped art in Valencia and made the eastern city an artistic powerhouse.

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“In Spanish terms, between 1400 and 1550, Valencia was like the Paris or the Milan of the time,” says Gómez Frechina. “It was home to the greatest cultural splendour of the time – literary, social and economic. Then Philip II establishes Madrid as the capital, with El Escorial, and Spain changes.”

Valencia, he adds, became an intellectual and artistic gateway thanks to its location as the port that linked Spain to Rome, Naples and Flanders. The infamous Valencian nobleman Rodrigo de Borja – better known as Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI – was as keen on art as he was on womanising. The future pope brought the great Italian painter Paolo de San Leocadio to Spain, where he painted pieces including the magnificent ceiling frescoes in Valencia cathedral that were rediscovered 20 years ago.

Three of the artist’s works feature in the exhibition, as do paintings by Fernando Llanos and Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, two Spanish masters who are thought to have worked alongside Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence, and who painted part of the cathedral’s main altarpiece.

The arrival in Valencia of foreign works, artists and styles, says Gómez Frechina, “struck the city like a bolt of lightning, illuminating the way for all the painters there”.

The curator and Cortés hope their exhibition will prove similarly catalytic. “You don’t normally get something like this round here,” says Cortés, who fell in love with Alba de Tormes 20 years ago.

“We want to bring this kind of culture to lots of places all over Spain – like this one – and perhaps even to different parts of Europe. But this is the first time we’ve tried this; this will be the test.”

He is adamant that cultural projects like this one can help both the places that host them and the visitors they draw. “Local businesses have done all this,” he says, gesturing at the panels, the lighting and the special light filters that a team of very brave “spide-men” attached to the basilica’s high windows to protect the exhibits. “The money will stay here. And there are three local women who are working here.”

The former dealer wants people to come to the town to enjoy its sites, its hospitality and the natural riches that surround it, from the river to the storks and the golden eagles and wolves that inhabit the landscape.

“In the future, we want to use projects like this to get people into nature – and to see the incredibly strong relationship between nature and art,” he says.

“It’ll take a long time but I think it’ll go very well. At the end of the day, art is about bringing people closer to beauty.”

Everything, however, will depend on how many people kick themselves free of the cultural gravity of Spain’s biggest cities and strike out for somewhere unassuming to see something unprecedented.

“We’ve kind of landed here like a meteorite,” says Gómez Frechina. “And now we need word of the meteorite to spread.”

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