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The great restorations in Navarre (3). Royal Palace of Olite. Recovery and restoration of an emblem in ruins.


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Diario de Navarra

Carmen Jusué Simonena

UNED Pamplona

Diario de Navarra, in collaboration with the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art of the University of Navarra, deals monthly, with specialists from various universities and institutions, with aspects related to restorations and interventions in large groups of our cultural heritage.

"Sad to say, while all over Europe the restoration movement is developing more and more, not a day goes by without the destruction of one of those admirable creations of our artists of the age average. At this very moment, while in Olite we hear the roar of the collapse of the majestic remains of the palace, in neighboring France, the Chateau de Pierrefonds, among many others, resounds with the uproar of the workers who are restoring it to its former splendor.

The great abode of Charles the Noble is ruined; its restoration is difficult, but since this is not undertaken, let us at least know how to respect, and make others respect, such venerable remains". A real wake-up call in these evocative and clear words of Juan Iturralde y Suit, in his report on the ruins of the Royal Palace of Olite, published in Pamplona in 1870.

Therefore, it is worth remembering how the splendor of the royal mansion in medieval times was followed by centuries of decadence and withdrawal until, fortunately, its ruin was halted. In such a way that, even today, Olite is still remembered for its condition of royal seat, of which the palace is the maximum exponent.

From a royal mansion to the ruin of a palace without kings and ashlar quarries

The Royal Palace of Olite, erected by Charles III the Noble (1387-1425) is currently one of the main architectural emblems of the Kingdom of Navarre, however, after its past splendor in the last medieval centuries, the conquest of Navarre by Ferdinand I the Catholic (1512) and the incorporation of the kingdom to the crown of Castile, were declining the high royal and political functions performed in it.

The palace was still an occasional mansion of the viceroys and a sporadic stopover for the Spanish monarchs on rare visits to their kingdom in Navarre. By royal grant (1556) the Marquises of Cortes had been authorized to occupy it for an annual rent and repair expenses; its mayoralty was later granted to the Ezpeleta de Beire family, who held it until the 19th century.

But the imposing palatial architecture did not take long to suffer the tremendous deterioration of time and neglect. At the beginning of the 17th century, hundreds of arrobas of its brass and lead pipes were melted and roofs were torn off; the Crown tried to sell it in 1718, offering the buyer a seat in Cortes, and at the end of the same century, during the War of the Convention (1794), there was a fire that destroyed part of the rich coffered ceilings and roofs.

Years later, during the War of Independence, in order to prevent the retreating French troops from gaining a foothold within its walls, Espoz y Mina ordered it to be set on fire in 1813, so that only the masonry walls survived, and even these suffered serious damage. Thus, after its violent destruction and the successive attempts to convert it into a Town Hall or to take advantage of its ashlars, which were extracted in large quantities from the ruins, accelerated its decline.

The Commission of Monuments of Navarre and the beginning of programs of study for conservation

Fortunately, in 1869, the Commission of Historical and Artistic Monuments, through Eduardo Ilarregui, became aware of the ruin of the building, commissioning J. Iturralde y Suit and Aniceto Lagarde the visit to the site in order to elaborate a report. The result was the "report on the ruins of the Royal Palace of Olite" and ten watercolors by Iturralde y Suit, accompanied by three plans and cuts of the buildings by A. Lagarde, published in 1870, the first serious study of the complex.

In spite of this, at the beginning of the 20th century and in the face of the evident danger of destruction, the Monuments Commission urged the Diputación to obtain from the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts the declaration of National Monument, a moment to which correspond the reports issued by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando and the Royal Academy of History, both supported by the text of Iturralde y Suit. Thus, in January 1925, the Royal Palace and the church of Santa María la Real were declared National Monuments.

Years before, in 1913, the Navarre Provincial Council had acquired the buildings in order to undertake their restoration and in 1923 called a competition so that, in the deadline of a year, the plans, report and budgets of the intervention were presented, to which three proposals were submitted: Javier and José Yárnoz Larrosa brothers, with the slogan "Lome de Tornay", Regino Borobio and Leopoldo degree program, with the slogan "Castrum forte-Regumque domus" and José Alzugaray, "Bonne Foy". The Provincial Council decided to send the works presented to the Academy of San Fernando, which stated that it would be pleased to see that the position of Architect Conservator or Restorer of the Palace of Olite would go to José Yárnoz Larrosa, author of the winning project .

As Leopoldo Gil points out in his article "El Palacio Real de Olite: crònica de una obstinación", from the first paragraphs of the report of project, the attitude of the Yárnoz brothers towards the monument is clear. For them, preserving the ruins was not enough. It would not be enough to prevent the monument from collapsing, because that would be tantamount to erasing many chapters of the past. In the words of the authors, they maintained the trend followed in Spain, France or Germany advocated by Viollet-le-Duc in which restoration would mean resurrecting what had gone before and reconstructing history, that is, restoring it to a complete state.

The restoration report was published in 1926 and, in the same year, the Diputación appointed José Yárnoz Larrosa as the person in charge of the works to be carried out in the palace of Olite. In the words of J. Martínez de Aguirre, author of an extensive monograph on the Evreux buildings in Navarre, the overview offered by the Yárnoz brothers in their report has not yet been surpassed.

And restoration work began

In 1940 the Institución Príncipe de Viana was created, a cultural organ of the Diputación Foral de Navarra, which was, in a certain way, the continuity and improvement of the objectives proposed by the Comisión de Monumentos Históricos y Artísticos de Navarra, with the Artistic Heritage Section, one of the most important, being in charge of the restoration, maintenance and custody of all the artistic heritage of the kingdom, among other functions.

A technical office for the essay of the projects was organized in the Chamber of Comptos, headed by José Yárnoz Larrosa, and the warehouses, construction and masonry workshops were installed in the Palacio Viejo de Olite.

The work began with the dismantling, dismantling, re-cutting and consolidation of the tower of the Four Winds, reconstructing the Gothic viewpoint and the King's Gallery, completed in 1941 and 1942 respectively. The works continued with the placement of the tops of the great tower, of the tower of Portal, of the Three Crowns, the fitting out of large interior rooms such as the King's and Queen's chambers, the consolidation of the remains of the chapel of St. George, of the Aljibe tower, of the new arches of the Queen's garden..., so that in 1956, after sixteen years of uninterrupted work , the appearance of the building showed an improved silhouette.

The restoration continued to progress and, in 1963, the location of a Parador de Turismo was accepted in the area where the stone masonry workshops were located, that is, in the Palacio Viejo, which was inaugurated in 1966, and later the buildings attached to the church of Santa María were demolished, leaving Exempt the cloister of the church.

In 1974, the restoration of the Palace was completed and since then its maintenance has been continuous. A restoration, which was carried out according to certain historicist criteria prevailing at the beginning of the century, among others, and has been considered idealizing in some cases, while in others it is praised for its monumentality. In any case, it is interesting to see how the images preserved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, show the palace complex very complete except for some of its finishes.

Let us return, finally, to recall some words of J. Iturralde y Suit regarding the Palace of Olite: "The people who look indifferently at the monuments of their past glories are unworthy to occupy a place in history, and doubly criminal when the past is as brilliant as that of the ancient kingdom of Navarre. The day will come when Spain will weep and be ashamed of its vandalism and indifference".

Fortunately these were not premonitory words, the restoration of the Royal Palace of Olite allows us to have a restored, consolidated and properly cared for building, instead of what could have been a real ruin, which is currently visited by more than 250,000 people a year.

Olite was the desire of Charles III the Noble, the chosen place where, with his court and his minstrels, with his private zoo and its extensive gardens enriched by plants of distant origin, decided in his words: "in most of our time, to make habitation and dwelling".