Looking Up – Valencia’s artistic rooftops
Trudging through city streets, our view usually gets no higher than the plate glass window in front of us with an enticing display, or the menu on the wall outside a restaurant. Look higher though, and a whole architectural world is opened up to us, with statues, decorative embellishments and a cornucopia of designs to tease the eye.
Many of these upward images have a story attached to them, or at least a reason for their existence other than as a purely decorative feature. The Mercado Central in Valencia is in the enviable position of having two, as perhaps befits one the most glorious temples of gastronomy in the Valencian Community, and the largest covered market in Europe.
Perched on a spike above the central dome, a great green parrot stares downwards, watching over the antics of the milling humanity thirty metres below. The first of the tales tells of the bird being set in place to symbolize the chattering of the womenfolk in the market, both those behind the 900 stalls (female stallholders being historically predominant over their more quiet male counterparts), and the sharp-eyed housewives prodding, squeezing and haggling over the mounds of produce, always with an eye for a bargain.
The second myth details the antics of those rapscallions to the west of the Comunitat Valenciana. According to legend, desperate fathers from the poverty-stricken villages of inland Aragón would bring to the big city a son the family could no longer afford to feed ‘Here, look at that strange green bird up there. When it flies off it will leave a big golden egg and you can climb up and get it,’ the father would say. Then, as the child gazed upwards, Dad would slip away into the crowd, and the boy, a de facto orphan, would find work as a market porter or day labourer – if luck was on his side.
While Francisco Guardia Vial y Alejandro Soler y March, the chaps who gave Valencia the Mercado Central in 1914, might have been satisfied with the parrot as a visual joke, whoever designed the apartment block at Calle Castellón 30, used the whole of the building as his laughter landmark. Totem poles, Arabic embellishments, scroll work and pointed arches, the building is as Deco as Deco can be, multi-coloured and multi-faceted it stops you dead in your tracks.
Francisco and Alejandro may have been able to enjoy a visual joke (and one with a very long life) at the expense of their clients, but those who took the shilling of the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions to design temples of a different kind worked under a much stricter set of constraints. No flippancy was allowed in the outward display of gravitas and financial stability that these grand edifices were meant to display. If you were going to offer up your hard won pesetas to a bank’s safe keeping you didn’t want it to be one with an enormous budgie or tippy-toed ballerina perched about its statuesque portals. Here you needed proud lions or justice balancing a set of scales to proclaim to the world that you were indeed someone in whom to entrust your precious bundles of folding stuff – although historically the Spanish have felt more secure placing their spare cash in El Banco del Colchón (under the mattress) than anywhere the taxman could wheedle his way into.
The Estacion del Norte is a glorious example of building as promotion, with its stunning Modernista façade decorated with great bunches of oranges celebrating the industry that brought wealth to Pais Valenciano. Fortunately much of the building remains as it was when it was completed in 1917, a veritable monument to the arts. The elegant pillars supporting the bovadillo roof of wooden beams and curved sections, the latter covered in a mosaic of broken tiles and floral designs, are capped with big ceramic bunches of bright fruit and flowers, and around the walls tile-work plaques say ‘Buen Viaje’ in various languages – including Chinese! The original station clock ticks away the minutes towards your departure.
As you leave the sculptured portals of the Estacion del Norte, Valencia’s main railway station, in front of you a phoenix towers over a pillared cupola above a sign that proclaims the building to be the ‘Propriedad de La Unión y el Fénix Español’, an insurance company. Not only is it saying that it has enough clout to play with the big boys, but that is actually owns the building, set in the heart of this thriving city. Atop the phoenix a bare-chested youth adorned with a laurel leaf crown raises his hand in a perpetual regal salutation to the crowds below. I wonder if anyone ever waves back!
Calle de las Barcas is named after the boats that used to ply their trade on the river that later became the main banking street in Valencia (with such an abundance of finance houses it is tongue-in-cheekly known locally as Calle de las Bancas). Opulence is personified in the form of the Banco de Valencia, a ‘Flat Iron’ building, so called in American architecture because it sits at the junction of a Y and forms the shape of the old metal flat iron. This palace of overindulgence is a confection of brick, marble, stone and ornate tile work with undulating wrought iron balconies just made to be stood on while waving to an adoring crowd at street level – unlike the poor chap sat on the phoenix’s wing!
Not only was the design of a building important, so was the location. Being close to the seat of political power was seen to have a ‘rub-off’ effect and many main offices of large corporations would place themselves as close as possible to the Town Hall. The Plaza del Ayuntamiento is no exception, and the skyline here portrays much of this iconography of power. It is also the home of the Head Office of the Post office, Correos, on top of which winged maidens with one breast uncovered in true Amazonian tradition, prepare to launch themselves skyward from a train on one pillar and a boat on another, bearing letters and parcels to the awaiting populace. Netted over while the building was undergoing refurbishment recently, cynics described this as the true face of the Spanish postal system – everyone caught in a net of bureaucracy and darned slow to deliver.
Valencia is aflood with roof top statuary – saints bestow benedictions, angels strike contemplative ecclesiastical poses and gargoyles deluge water from their mouths on rainy days, but The Green Man makes his face known in a number of variations.
‘The Green Man’ is a mediaeval image usually found in churches. Carved in stone or wood, depicted on stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, he can be recognised as a face, often grotesque, with foliage sprouting from his mouth, nose, eyes or ears, or alternatively, he may be a face composed entirely of leaves. The earliest known examples are in the art of Classical Rome, from where the idea seems to have moved northwards, to be adopted by Christianity and spread far and wide along the pilgrimage routes. The Green Man vanished with the ‘Old Faith’ after the Reformation. For the Victorians, he played a major role in their church restorations and as a decorative motif on street architecture. Even today, when he enjoys a revival, the questions of who, what and why – the search for a meaning behind the symbol, still have no answer. It is suggested he represents the regeneration aspects of spring and fertility; some books on the subject expound him as Pagan, whilst others proclaim him a symbol of Christianity. He can often be found on Modernista, (Art Nouveau) buildings, of which Valencia has a profusion, or you may see the female version, with flowing locks swirling into floral or natural motifs.
While you can spend hours craning your neck upwards admiring the skyline of Valencia, there is one little gem that requires you to direct your gaze earthwards. At number 15 Carrer del Museu, a narrow little alleyway in the Barrio del Carmen, in what little is left of the wall of a ruin, is the façade of a tiny white painted cottage. Alongside it is a miniature walled garden and tower, and, fixed to the wall, is an official looking black and gold post box. The arched wooden front door stands ajar to reveal – a cat hole, entrance to what used to be the tangled derelict garden beyond the equally derelict wall. Someone with a sense of humour has painstakingly created this little bit of endearing nonsense, a smile-worthy match to the parrot watching over the Mercado Central.