A Homage to
Catalonia

Rescuing the Romanesque

Mules against international crime



The Romanesque churches of the Catalan Pyrenees played a significant role in the resurgence of the Catalan sense of identity that came at the end of the late nineteenth century. These forgotten buildings were 'discovered' by an intrepid band of intellectuals who made the arduous trip here from Barcelona in search of the country's historical roots. Venturing into the village churches they were amazed to find, largely hidden away behind gloomy Gothic altarpieces, the fading remains of Romanesque mural paintings that were almost 1,000 years old. Back in Barcelona, news of this discovery sparked awareness of a past belonging specifically to Catalonia. It also drew the attention of international art dealers abroad. By 1918, American collectors had started bribing parish priests to let them ship these priceless paintings across the Atlantic. The work of removing them was done by highly skilled Italian experts using a complex technique called strappo that was virtually unknown outside of Italy. When the Catalan authorities got wind of this looting they contacted the Italians and hired them on their own account. One by one, these ancient, crumbling masterpieces were painstakingly stripped off their walls onto canvases, which were then rolled up, loaded onto mules and taken back to Barcelona. Today they can be seen exhibited at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC, Catalan National Art Museum) mounted on life-size reconstructions of their original church apses.