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COSTANZA BELTRAMI // San Juan de los Reyes de Toledo


San Juan de los Reyes de Toledo: historia, construcción y restauración de un monumento medieval. Daniel Ortiz Pradas. 292pp, La Ergastula, 2015

Ortiz Pradas’ publication opens with a quote from Alexandre Dumas: ‘[Toledo] has memories enough to keep a historian busy for ten years, and a chronicler for his whole lifetime.’[1] Dumas’ sentence is equally valid for this book’s subject, the Toledan Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. While most scholars focus exclusively on the monastery’s late-medieval history, Ortiz Pradas expands the narrative up to the modern period. He argues that nineteenth- and twentieth-century architects and restorers should be appreciated as the ‘heirs’ of Juan Guas (active 1453–1496), the master mason widely regarded as the building’s designer.

This is especially the case for Arturo Mélida (1849–1902), who began the “restoration” — or rather, the wholesale reconstruction — of the monastic cloister in 1881, after the French occupation (1808) and the ecclesiastical expropriation of 1836 turned the site into a ‘revolting puddle,’ as described in a government report.[2] Mélida is the star of Ortiz Pradas’ book. Rather than disparaging his invasive reconstruction, the author considers him as the last of the monastery’s builders, one with a full and rightful claim to creativity and invention. This positive appraisal of Mélida’s contribution reverses traditional scholarly dichotomies of ‘authentic’ and ‘fake.’ While most scholars would minimise modern contributions to preserve a sense of original integrity, Ortiz Pradas celebrates them, creatively using restoration projects, travel accounts, unpublished government reports, old photographs and little-known contemporary articles to piece together a history as complete and balanced as possible.

Attention to detail, comprehensiveness and clarity are the book’s greatest strengths. Inspired by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), Mélida ‘restored’ by creating the ideal late-medieval building. He strove to make his alterations indistinguishable from the medieval fabric, for example by using an abrasive treatment to uniform the colour of old and new stones. More than that: Mélida lived the medieval past so strongly that he saw himself as an (idealised) medieval master mason, and presented his restoration blueprints as an illuminated text on parchment. As argued by Ortiz Pradas, Mélida’s concept of restoration differed so much from the modern, that his actions should not be interpreted as an attempt to mislead. Nevertheless, his interventions involved the almost complete substitution of the cloister’s original fabric, including significant transformations to its iconographic programme. Unsurprisingly, such large-scale changes have inhibited the analysis and interpretation of the Monastery’s decoration. This publication will finally enable scholars to discuss the building’s lavish sculptures without fear of mistaking nineteenth-century copies and additions for original late-medieval elements. The book’s portable paperback format will certainly contribute to this, although the grainy paper used for printing hinders the readability of many useful early photographs which would otherwise count among the book’s revelations.

Part of the volume’s usefulness stems from its inclination towards historical description over analysis. This is a detailed and reliable account of previously unpublished documentation rather than an essay crusading for its opinions. And yet, lack of strong argumentation is the book’s greatest weakness, especially in the few occasions where it results in the superficial treatment of important and fascinating contextual issues.

This is evident in the first chapter, which is presented as a reconstruction of the monastery’s medieval history but is actually a review of nineteenth-century knowledge of the monument. Such a compilation offers useful context in light of the book’s focus on Mélida, yet its aim is never explicitly stated. The reader is left to wonder why relatively minor modern texts are discussed at length, while building accounts contemporary to the monastery’s construction are barely considered. Literature review marries chronology without a clear structure or a sense of progress. Moreover, Ortiz Pradas’ summary of scholarly opinions on the building acknowledges the many open questions in our knowledge of the site, but these remain underexplored in a chapter which reads as a competent compilation rather than as a new contribution.

While it is perhaps unfair to criticise such lack of critical engagement in a chapter peripheral to the book’s main topic, even the third chapter, entirely dedicated to Mélida, could have benefited from being contextualised and politicised further. Established by the Catholic Monarchs to celebrate Isabel’s triumph in the war of succession against her niece Juana, and embellished with the chains of Christian prisoners freed during their crusade against the Nasrids in Andalusia, San Juan de los Reyes was always intended as political statement of personal, military and religious power. The monastery never lost such ‘nation-building’ importance: in a 2010 article, Ortiz Pradas himself discussed Mélida’s interest for San Juan de los Reyes’ Hispano-Flemish architecture as part of a debate on the Spanish ‘national’ style which raged in Romantic intellectual circles.[3] Mélida interpreted the style as the reflection of a unique Spanish spirit, a conclusion shared by mid-twentieth-century architectural historians such as Fernando Chueca Goitia and José Maria de Azcárate, whose influential ideas are still widely disseminated by guidebooks and university textbooks.[4] Evoking such debates would have enabled for a fuller understanding of San Juan de los Reyes’ symbolism and for a critique of its ‘myth’ within Spanish culture. Equally lacking is a discussion of the Spanish and European context in which the restoration took place, apart from some discussion of Viollet-le-Duc’s theories. This strikes me as a missed opportunity, since San Juan de los Reyes’ critical fortunes abroad make for a fascinating read: in 1865, George Edmund Street described the building as ‘less pleasing or harmonious’ than any he had ever seen, but five years later the Victoria and Albert Museum commissioned a plaster cast of one of the cloister’s corners for its collection.[5] Through scholarly exchange or actual collaboration, such international context must have had a local impact whose discussion would have enriched the book.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book’s shortcomings are largely compensated by its precision, breadth and readability. There is no doubt that this fascinating journey through five hundred years of history will become a cherished and reliable reference for researchers of late-gothic and nineteenth-century Castilian heritage alike.


[1] Alexandre Dumas, From Paris to Cadiz, A. E. Murch trans and ed. (London: Peter Owen, 1958), p. 83. [Quoted in Spanish translation in the text].

[2] ‘asquerosa piscina,’ A.A.S.F., Sig. 53-2/2. Comisiones Provinciales de Monumentos, Expediente de San Juan de Los Reyes; in Daniel Ortiz Pradas, San Juan de los Reyes de Toledo: historia, construcción y restauración de un monumento medieval (Madrid: La Ergastula, 2015), 78.

[3] Daniel Ortiz Pradas, ‘Herederos de Juan Guas. Arquitectos de San Juan de Los Reyes en los siglos XIX y XX,’ El siglo XV hispano y la diversidad de las artes, special issue, Anales de Historia del Arte (2012), 359–374.

[4] Fernando Chueca, Invariantes castizos de la arquitectura Española (Madrid: Dossat, 1981), 85–89; José Maria de Azcárate, ‘La fachada del Infantado y el estilo de Juan Guas’ in Archivo Español de Arte, 96 (1951), 308 and passim; La Arquitectura gotica toledana del siglo XV (Madrid: Instituto Diego Velazquez, 1958), 25 and passim.

[5] George Edmund Street, Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain, vol. 2 (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1914), 351.

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