A renovator working on the façades of Seville’s cathedral reflects on the importance of preserving the heritage of the cities as well as on the hardships of her profession.
It’s spring in Seville and there is a multitude of people congregated at the entrance of the Cathedral. There are horses that carry tourists in their carriages, there are other tourists standing in the middle of the Plaza del Triunfo to take a selfie, and there are those whose necks are bent so that they can intensely stare at the map they have in their hands. A few meters to the left, you can see a group of people wearing white helmets entering beneath a structure that covers the southeast façade of the Cathedral –from the Renaissance period– that was constructed some time between 1528 and 1593. These people go through a temporary wall that conceals the various people who are diligently working with the stone. One of these people is Ana Martín Sevilla, age 38, a renovator.
Ana was born in Zaragoza, the capital of Áragon, a region in the northeast of Spain. For much of her life she lived with her parents –public service workers who are now retired– and her three other siblings, whom she describes as a “united family” even though they now live independent lives. Ana is the third out of her four siblings and the most independent of them all. She recounts, “ They always told me that I was the adventurer of the family… I’ve always wanted to travel and study outside of my hometown.” Today, after seven years in her career as a renovator, the adventure continues.
Her work, although it may seem familiar, in reality is not very well understood. “When I tell people that I work as a renovator, they are captivated. They say ‘How cool!’, and I feel good, but they really don’t know. They have a very idealized notion of the work.”
Ana has quite a bit of experience conserving historical objects and pieces of work. She says that renovation is a job that involves more than just painting, cleaning, or retouching works of art from the past. “ The most fundamental aspect [of the job] is conservation,” she explains. This means that the artifact should be le just the way it is found, in a manner that does not compromise the integrity of the piece. It is a profession where pieces of artwork are preserved in a way that honors the passing of time and allows for the objects to tell their own story.
The renovation of the façades of the Cathedral of Seville is the most recent project that Ana, along with the company Ártyco, has been working on. It is a difficult job that not only requires knowledge of the structure itself but also knowledge of the materials and tools that are going to be used. e tools include hammers of different sizes, air pressure pistols and paint that comes in a variety of colors and that has to be applied with a specific technique. Each tool assists in the cleaning and maintenance of the structure’s integrity and a skilled renovator has to have thorough knowledge of the processes that occur in each of the areas of operation.
“It’s a very tiring job. Very physical,” explains Ana. “ There are eight levels of scaffolding and you have to climb up and down them many times with materials, masks, protective goggles and weights. Although people will say, ‘You’re just there; standing calmly,’ but the reality is that you have to maintain that same posture for eight hours. It’s very difficult,” insists Ana.
Having to work outdoors is another added difficulty of the job because the weather can go from one extreme to another. Ana remembers one occasion during the renovation work she was doing in part of a church when the temperature fell to three degrees Celsius (37.4 Fahrenheit). Di cult situations like these are what, according to Ana, “people do not value.”
“At each site, there are different roles,” says Ana. There are not only renovators, but also assistants and other people who are specialists in certain areas as well. It is a profession that requires a lot of teamwork. If there is an atmosphere of comradery, then working at the site is good, and everything is easier, although that is not always the case. “ The environment at this site is very good and everyone is friendly.” She explains, “it is a really, really good atmosphere that I notice. But throughout my time, as a renovator, I have found myself in very different situations – situations with a lot of competition.”
THE CONSERVATION OF TIME
Seville’s Cathedral is the third biggest in the world, and is also a symbol of the great power and influence the Catholic Church has in the city. In 2016, the Cathedral beat its previous record number of visitors with 1,565,723 people. This has allowed for the allotment of a 300,000-euro budget for the renovation of some of the areas of the Cathedral that need the most help.
In a city like Seville where there is so much artistic and architectural heritage, the debate on which historical structures are preserved and which structures are not is constant. Ana Montesa Kaijsel, who is now a teacher in a public elementary school, also pursued a profession as a renovator during 17 years in the Andalusian Heritage Institute. She thinks that a renovation project relies a lot on the money that is available. “If there is money, then the renovation is done, and if there isn’t any, then it isn’t.” The prioritization of the renovation of an object depends on the value that is attributed to it. The ex-renovator explains, “Why is the Guernica of Picasso preserved? Well, because it’s the Guernica!”
An opposite example can be seen in the Church of Saint Catalina, which can be found on Calle Alhondiga in the Historic Quarter of Seville. It was originally constructed near the end of the 13th century as an Almohad mosque. For eight years, the church was closed because of its precarious state of conservation. In 2008, the Diocesan parish received support from city hall to preserve it. Today, the church is still not completely renovated, and it is still not open to the public.
“Any piece of work is worthy of being pre- served,” says Montesa. In her opinion, all objects of history, whether they are paintings, sculptures, altarpieces or buildings, have emotional value that deserves to be saved. Montesa humorously says that if it were up to her she would even preserve “a painting by her mom.” Even though she le behind her career as a renovator for health reasons, she says that the job is something beautiful because of the inter- action with pieces of history that are alive. “For me, doing this job has no comparison,” she says.
This consciousness towards the historic value of objects that can be touched is shared with Ana Martín. “It’s very important to have that sensibility. I don’t know if it’s because I first studied Art History and I saw it as something that went be- yond the human being. For me, at the beginning, I was very respectful of the art,” she affirms.
CHANGES IN TIME
If you were to ask Ana eight years ago what she would be doing today, she probably would not have told you that she would be working on the Cathedral of Seville. For a while, Ana worked as a waitress, but right after graduating from the Superior School of Conservation and Renovation of Cultural Goods of Áragon, in Huesca, she attained her first job as a renovator in a small town near Zaragoza. She finished her studies in July and began her job in August. She was very excited be- cause she never thought that she would be able to work on projects that were so important. “It’s a job that’s not like other professions where many people can dedicate themselves to it. In reality, there is not a lot of work [opportunity]. There are not many companies dedicated to renovation work,” she says.
Renovation work is a career that is filled with many periods of unemployment and the conditions are constantly changing. Ana’s job has taken her to many places throughout Spain, like San Sebastian, Málaga and the Balearic Islands, where she has not only learned about the history of each place but has also learned about the distinct character of each region in the country. “It is a profession where you are constantly learning… Each project is distinct and you have to learn about its history and its materials. You have to study without a break.”
Even though Ana does not know what her next project will be, she says that while she is working on the façade of the Cathedral of Sevilla, she will be happy and content. She concludes, “ The places that I have access to, being able to touch works of art and being in a place from which I am able to see them and understand them up close and being up on the scaffolding and see the Cathedral from a privileged place… that, for me, is the best.” •