Plaza Mayor, Salamanca

The Politics of Spanish Monuments: Dictatorship, Democracy and Colonialism in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor

Salamanca or, La Dorada as it is known by many, is a city brimming with some of the most eminent jewels of Spanish architecture. One could say that Salamanca, in the northwest of the Spain, is an emblem for a wider trend throughout its province, Castilla y León; home to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, it is a charming Gothic patchwork, with a plethora of buildings with glowing yellow sandstone that almost tints the vast blueness of the sky above. Many sites of interest come to mind: the stunning New Cathedral, the University building’s façade, the Convent of San Estebán… but none so much as the striking Plaza Mayor, the beating heart of the city and, indeed, the royalty of this moda castellanoleonesa. This grand example of the Spanish conception of a plaza is firmly in touch with its historical and artistic roots in the aesthetic it projects, but is also part of every-day salamantina life. The square, like many of the city’s monuments, is magnificently lit up at nightfall, 365 days a year, evoking a warm and inviting ambiance even in the depths of December. Indeed, it is an essential part of day-to-day Salamanca, an intersection between the residential and shopping zones, and the stylised old town. It experiences the daily trajectories of many and is even the location for public events. In November, the plaza glowed purple, rather than its usual golden warmth, in solidarity with the Día Internacional contra la Violencia de Género, and every December 16th it is host to eager university students as they celebrate a premature Nochevieja with their classmates before returning home for the Christmas holidays.

Yet the rich history of the site has, in recent years, come into conflict with the present. Comprised of four pabellones, the square pays tribute to the faces of the Spanish past, with each wall adorned with numerous medallones, or plaques in honour of various historical figures. The iconography of the Pabellón de Petrineros is probably the most varied of all, documenting profiles ranging from the literary celebrities of Cervantes and Unamuno to religious figures such as Santa Teresa Jesús—even the Duke of Wellington makes an appearance. The plaques of the Pabellón Consistorial, on the other hand, have experienced a fraught history, some of them being removed during the Revolution of 1868 and others disappearing during the Second Republic. It does now, however, feature allegories of the First and Second Spanish Republics and proudly displays plaques in honour of an important monarch in the democratic history of Spain, the recently-abdicated Juan Carlos I and his wife Sofía.

These familiar faces of democracy have, however, been neighbours to a very different figure ever since their arrival at the plaza—but not for much longer. The medallón which commemorates General Francisco Franco, the dictator from 1936 until his death in 1975, is to be removed after a unanimous vote by the Comisión Territorial de Patrimonio Cultural. While exactly how the plaque will be removed is still to be revealed, the commission announced that they would do so with the aim of guaranteeing no harm to the architecture of the plaza.

But why take such a step, over 42 years after the death of the General, who remains an important figure in Spanish history? Answers to this question are plentiful. Firstly, the medallón has always been rather misplaced on the Pabellón Real, which, prior its commission, had always been reserved exclusively for Spanish monarchs from across the ages; his neighbours include Isabel I & Fernando II de Aragón, Alonfso XI, Carlos I de España… the list goes on. Thus, one powerful argument, albeit not the central reasoning behind the decision, is the fact that the plaque categorically does not belong on the pabellón.

A further logic behind the commission’s vote concerns the conservation of the plaza from an artistic-historical perspective. Over the years, a number of restoration attempts have been carried out on the medallón in the aftermath of acts of vandalism, most poignantly those carried out on the 20th November (the anniversary of the dictator’s death). Consequently, the members of the commission maintained that the plaque had been so changed over time due to these restorations that it no longer concurs with, “las suficientes razones artísticas, arquitectónicas o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley.”

A final reason presents itself as more problematic still, as it concerns the fraught historical and cultural significance of Franco in current Spanish national imagination. The key question is: how does he fit in?

The memory of the dictatorship, which ended a mere 40 years ago, means that it is still alive for many, particularly those who experienced it personally. Indeed, it is unsurprising that there should exist Spaniards who remain in support of Francoism given the very length of the regime and the illegality of political opposition throughout its duration, coupled with an air-tight propaganda machine. Yet since the Transición began, shortly after the Franco’s death, there has been an outpouring of reactions against public monuments in his honour. Indeed, in 2007, the government prohibited official public references to Franco; thus, government buildings and streets named after El Caudillo reverted to their original names, and memorials to him were removed, the last of which being an equestrian statue in Santander removed in 2008. Just last year, the city of Malaga also revoked honours and distinctions concerning him, including the titles of “Hijo predilecto, Hijo adoptivo y Alcalde honorario.”

These conflicting associations are symbolically summarised in the very fact that, while the Spanish national anthem, the Marcha Real, is no longer sang with the lyrics introduced under Franco, no new lyrics have been introduced to replace them due to a lack of consensus. The decision to remove the plaque, conversely, ‘tenía que ser tomada por unanimidad,’ according to historian María José Turrión, a member of the commission. Thus, for the commission, the answer to the question is, he does not fit in, be it artistically or architecturally, categorically, or as a figure worthy of depiction in this national emblem to Spanish history. The law introduced in 2007, known as the Ley de Memoria Histórica, sought to recognise and amplify the rights and established mediums in favour of those who suffered persecution of violence during the war and dictatorship (paraphrased trans.). Turrión went on to defend the decision as, “un acto de justicia y de coherencia con el Estado de Derecho y la democracia”. And yet, adjacent to the Pabellón Real, the Pabellón de San Martín, boasts an array of conquistadores, important figures in Spain’s colonisation of the Americas such as Cristóbal Colón and Hernán Cortés. A few kilometres further west in Salamanca, as in many Spanish cities, there lies the Plaza de Colón, with a monument of the conquistador as its centrepiece. With colonisation still largely viewed as a major scientific and geographical discovery in Spanish history, it seems that it is not only recent history with which the country has yet to come to terms.