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José Javier Azanza López, Professor of History of Art at the University of Navarra and member of the Chair of Heritage and Art of Navarra.

Marble and bronze for immortality

Sun, 11 Oct 2015 14:27:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

On January 2, 1890, Julián Gayarre, the Roncal tenor with "the voice of an angel", died in Madrid at the age of 45. After the massive funeral procession through the streets of the capital, his body was buried in the Roncal cemetery three days later. It was Gayarre's family, led by his nephew Valentín, who commissioned the sculptor Mariano Benlliure (El Grao, Valencia, 1862-Madrid, 1947) to make a mausoleum to cover the tenor's tomb.

Why Mariano Benlliure Firstly, because the Valencian sculptor, trained at the Escuela de la Lonja and the Masriera y Campins foundry in Barcelona, was one of the leading representatives of Spanish sculpture of the inter-century period. But, mainly, because they were both united by

a close friendship, which arose during the visits of the Navarrese tenor to Rome to perform his great operatic hits; a friendship of which there are numerous written testimonies.

The process of execution of the mausoleum in Rome, where Benlliure had his studio, was long and complex. We know that the sculptor had finished the sketch in August 1890 (it is preserved in the Museo Nacional del Teatro de Almagro, and there is also a model in plaster of the figure of Music in the Salvador Vilaseca Museum in Reus), and in 1891 had already begun its execution; however, its completion did not take place until 1897. What were the causes of the delay On several occasions, Benlliure alleges difficulties in receiving materials to continue the work. But the main reason that forced to postpone its execution was the need to attend to the numerous commissions received from different official institutions and that had a deadline of submission; such are the cases of the monuments to Diego López de Haro (Bilbao, 1890); to the Marquis of Larios (Malaga, 1890); to Lieutenant Jacinto Ruiz (Madrid, 1891); to Isabel la Católica (Granada, 1892), etc....

Traveling mausoleum

With the accumulated delay, in 1897 the sculptural group was finished; but it was not installed in the Navarrese cemetery until 1901. The reason for this moratorium lies in the fact that it became a ¿traveling mausoleum", as Mariano Benlliure, proud of his work, understood that it was a good card of presentation of his artistic qualities, so he obtained permission from the family to exhibit it in different salons and art exhibitions. He was present at the VI exhibition Biennial of the Circle of Fine Arts, held in 1898 at the Crystal Palace of the Retiro in Madrid, where he received glowing praise: "Poem of marble and bronze, whose beauties of detail have no issue"(El Imparcial, 28-5-1898). And in 1900 the mausoleum obtained the Medal of Honor of Sculpture in the Universal exhibition of Paris, celebrated in the Grand Palais, in what Violeta Montoliu, biographer of the artist qualifies as ¿the total triumph". After this success, the mausoleum was moved to Madrid, where the queen regent Maria Cristina showed her interest in installing it in the place of Isabel II, in front of the Royal Theater; but the family of the tenor insisted on moving it to Roncal, where it arrived in 1901.

The placement of Gayarre's mausoleum in the cemetery of Roncal took place in mid-July 1901, according to the brief news published in El Pensamiento Navarro. It was Benlliure himself who supervised its installation, experiencing moments of deep nostalgia at the moment of letting go of his creation in the Pyrenean village, where, in his opinion, it was not going to have the transcendence it deserved: "You cannot imagine the great sorrow it causes me to have to enclose in such a completely deserted valley one of my most beloved works, the one I have made with the greatest enthusiasm to immortalize a loved one as exceptional as Gayarre....", confessed to his friend the liberal deputy from Granada Natalio Rivas in a letter written in Pamplona on August 22, 1901.

Two distinct parts

The official inauguration of the monument took place on October 1, 1901. Good sample of the affection he had for Gayarre, and of the importance given to his work, is the fact that Mariano Benlliure was personally in charge of the cleaning of the mausoleum for decades, After the death of Orduna in 1973, the mausoleum began a phase of degradation that led to successive restorations in 1989-90, 1996 (declared an Asset of Cultural Interest by the Government of Navarre) and 2010.

Focusing our interest on its composition and iconography, the mausoleum consists of two distinct bodies. The lower one, made of white Carrara marble, rests on a staircase and simulates a false sarcophagus profusely decorated with singing children carrying phylacteries with the names of Gayarre's most successful operas, garlands and bucklers.

On one side is the beautiful figure of the Music that, broken by pain, collapses on the staircase and rests his head on the sarcophagus hiding his face. On the opposite side, an opera curtain hangs to the floor, symbolically falling after the last performance, on whose border we can read the names of Donizetti and Rossini, whose compositions the tenor from Roncal interpreted.

The static composition of the lower body contrasts with the greater dynamism that Benlliure imprints on the upper part, cast in brass, where the allegorical figures of Harmony and Melody raise in their hands the figurative coffin of the tenor, decorated with bas-reliefs of putti, floral groups and musical motifs, which accompany the registration: "Julián Gayarre 1890". On the sarcophagus, the genius of the Fame leans leaning his head close to the coffin, in an attempt to continue listening to ¿the voice of an angel", a psychological detail of great success for the beautiful nickname with which Gayarre was known. The work shows the technical mastery of the sculptor, a skillful interpreter of a language that combines classicism, Renaissance sculpture, late romanticism and modernism.

The Countess's dog

The mausoleum of Julián Gayarre represents the beginning of funerary sculpture in Benlliure's production, based on a double premise: first, of the total of twenty-one funerary monuments counted by V. Montoliu, the earliest is the mausoleum of the tenor from Roncal; second, it is the only one in which the deceased does not appear in effigy (either in relief or in rounded bulk). Montoliu, the earliest is that of the tenor from Roncal; secondly, it is the only one in which the deceased does not appear in effigy (either in relief or in rounded bulk), since its meaning was entrusted to symbolism, as the sculptor himself stated: "it is the only work in which the portrait does not appear, everything is said by the figures". The analysis of the funerary monuments of Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (Madrid, 1905), the viscountess of Termens (Cabra, Córdoba, 1914), the bullfighter Joselito (Seville, 1925), Eduardo Dato (Madrid, 1928), Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (Valencia, 1935) and the tenor Francisco Viñas (Barcelona, 1943), allow us to establish some of the most important monuments, 1943), allow us to establish some points of contact with the mausoleum roncalés, case of the combination of materials, the decorative presence of classicist roots, the resource to the symbolic language, the topic child or the recumbent disposition of the personages. It can also be related to funerary monuments of other sculptors of the time such as Pedro Estany and Agustín Querol.

Finally, as a curiosity, let us note that Mariano Benlliure elaborated another "mausoleum" for Navarre, albeit of a much smaller identity. We refer to the monument commissioned by the Countess of Vega del Pozo, María Diega Desmaissières y Sevillano y López de Dicastillo (Madrid, 1852-Bordeaux, 1916) for the gardens of her palace in Dicastillo at report of her little dog Merlin, to whom she was particularly fond of. Old photographs show its execution in white Carrara marble on a stepped base, decorated with bucráneos and vegetal motifs to which were added two doves in the curved pediment of the crowning; and the presence of the dog was not lacking in a side projecting as a parapet.