Something is rotten in the lands of Montalegre

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

There are times when it is difficult (and difficult is an understatement) to be positive about the preservation of the Portuguese medieval heritage. There are times when, inn trying to protect  Portuguese heritage, we are forced to expose the pustules of local or national government, of bad governance and lack of seriousness – not to say wanton and destructive ignorance – our heritage is subjected to. That is the case with the Castle of Montalegre Castle.

The Castle of Montalegre, located in the district of Vila Real in northern Portugal, is a granite fortress that dates back back to the late 13th century. It is “highly likely” [1] that it was built on the orders of King Afonso III in 1273, though it would only be finished in 1331 [2]. It withstood the test of time in relatively good condition – it received improvement works and betterments during the reign of King JoãoII, and suffered little with the 1755 Earthquake. It was deemed a National Monument in 1910.

montalegre.jpg
A view of Montalegre, the castle and its town, from the 1509 Livro das Fortalezas by Duarte D’Armas.

The castle, with a circular bailey and four towers, rises atop a hill over the town of Montalegre proper. The keep, to the north, is a beautiful example of a Portuguese Gothic tower:  4 floors, spread across 27 metres in height. As a whole, the Castle of Montalegre is a superb example of nothern Portuguese castles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and a jewel of both the region and the country. If this description was brief, it is because what motivates me to write this post – and to depart from the somewhat neutral tone I have tried to maintain in earlier posts – is not the castle itself, but what is being done to it.

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A bird’s-eye view of the Castle.

Montalegre’s Town Hall opened a public competition in 2017, for an intervention on the castle. The project was aimed at improving access to the walls and rebuilding, with contemporary materials, the missing section of wall between the keep and the Torre Pequena (Small Tower). “It is a very complicated project, a very expensive investment”,  the mayor, Orlando Alves said this August. The works would be “paid for by Community funds, with the local authorities taking up 15% of the € 1.5 million earmarked for the works” [4].

Now all this is all very well and good – and I commend any municipality, Portuguese and otherwise, that tries to take proper care of its heritage, which belongs not only to it but toall of us. There is a vast, gigantic difference between restoration and conservation, however, and the absurdity that is being done in Montalegre:

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Snapshot shared by the Facebook page “Castelo de Montalegre? Com betão não” (“Montalegre’s Castle? Not with concrete”).
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Snapshot shared by the Facebook page “Castelo de Montalegre? Com betão não” (“Montalegre’s Castle? Not with concrete”).

We can see from these images that a stretch of concrete was poured over the existing wall. Concrete. Simple, bare, unadorned concrete. On a granite monument a couple of centuries shy of being a thousand years old.

According to the restoration directives for Portuguese monuments (with which I generally don’t agree with; but that’s by the by), any intervention in historical monuments must obey two fundamental criteria: the use of materials that are at the same time different from, but respectful of, the original ones; and the installation of reversible structures, easy to remove at a later date and which do not compromise the integrity of the monument as a whole. As is obvious to anyone, concrete poured on the structure’s original granite slabs doesn’t abide by neither one nor the other. Curiously enough, according to testimony of a manager of the above-mentioned Facebook page, these criteria were themselves quoted by the mayor during a recent Q&A regarding the works.

I joined with my colleagues and friends from the Facebook page “Repensando a Idade Média” to try and stop this process, and much of the information released to the media and the proper authorities was sent by us. These images, as well as other facts that have since arisen, have stirred a wave of indignation which, it seems to me, has not yet reached its peaked.The mayor wants to persuade us that ours is a politically-motivated move [5] and that “all this fuss makes no sense, the castle obeys a project conceived by a qualified technical team that complies with international directives and conventions, namely the Convention of Venice “[6]. Clearly, either Orlando Alves is not aware of the contents of said charter, or he needs to be reminded of his own words.

The problems with this intervention, however, aren’t limited to the concrete – and I was rather succint in that regard [7]. The project was surreptitiously approved, unavailable as it was to the general public. There is a purported discrepancy between the amounts of the tender ​​and the adjusted amounts that were awarded to the contractors. There are also questions about a possible link between the company in charge of the project and the mayor himself [8]. And, finally, it is not yet clear how the project was approved by the DRCN (Direcção Regional de Cultura do Norte, the Directorate-General forCulture in the North) and IGESPAR (the entity responsible for the management of the national archaeological heritage) [9]. All these questions should be investigated, in the larger context of the stupidity that was, and continues to be, pouring concrete on a centuries-old wall.

The case is evolving, and we hope that it can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion – that is, the criminal accountability of whoever conceived such a silly thing, and the removal of every harmful element from the monument. However, this isn’t just a local or national matter. As Orlando Alves himself so proudly proclaimed, the money used for this venture came mostly from EU community funds – that is, from the pockets of our European siblings. They, therefore, are also entitled to be indignant and angry about the waste and destruction that has been wrought here.

The Castle of Montalegre, after all, doesn’t just belong to Montalegre. Though the people of Montalegre are at the vanguard of this battle, behind them are all Portuguese citizens, and our European friends as well, coming up the rear. Heritage belongs to everyone. And we must all protect it, and denounce and prevent these acts of destruction.

 

[1] Martins, M. (2016). Guerreiros de pedra: castelos, muralhas e guerra de cerco em Portugal na Idade Média. Lisboa: Esfera dos Livros, p. 76.

[2] Idem, ibidem.

[3] Publituris (2018, August 2). Castelo de Montalegre em obras até Junho de 2019. Publituris. Retrieved from https://www.publituris.pt/2018/08/02/castelo-de-montalegre-em-obras-ate-junho-de-2019/

[4] Idem, ibidem.

[5] Agência Lusa (2018, December 12). Obras no castelo de Montalegre geram criticas mas autoridades dizem cumprir normas. Diário de Notícias. Retrieved fromhttps://www.dn.pt/lusa/interior/obras-no-castelo-de-montalegre-geram-criticas-mas-autoridades-dizem-cumprir-normas-10311010.html

[6] Idem, ibidem.

[7] Because someone much more informed than myself already spoke about this subject. I am referring to the technical report by the Architect Joaquim Miranda, a specialist in Conservation and Rehabilitation of Monuments and Sites, to which we were given access.

[8] I am referring to unproven information that has been given to us in confidence and which, for the moment, lacks proof. To be clear: I am referring only to the existence of the doubts, without making any accusations or considerations about whether they’re accurate or not.

[9] Agência Lusa (2018, December 12). Obras no castelo de Montalegre geram criticas mas autoridades dizem cumprir normas. Diário de Notícias. Retrieved from https://www.dn.pt/lusa/interior/obras-no-castelo-de-montalegre-geram-criticas-mas-autoridades-dizem-cumprir-normas-10311010.html

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Agência Lusa (2018, December 12). Obras no castelo de Montalegre geram criticas mas autoridades dizem cumprir normas. Diário de Notícias. Retrieved from https://www.dn.pt/lusa/interior/obras-no-castelo-de-montalegre-geram-criticas-mas-autoridades-dizem-cumprir-normas-10311010.html

Martins, M. (2016). Guerreiros de pedra: castelos, muralhas e guerra de cerco em Portugal na Idade Média. Lisboa: Esfera dos Livros

Miranda, J. (2018). Relatório Técnico – Intervenção Sobre Património Classificado – Castelo de Montalegre.

Publituris (2018, August 2). Castelo de Montalegre em obras até Junho de 2019. Publituris. Retrieved from https://www.publituris.pt/2018/08/02/castelo-de-montalegre-em-obras-ate-junho-de-2019/

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