The Hidden, the Buried and the Living History of Übeda, Spain’s Renaissance Jewel

Much has been written about the town of Übeda in the province of Jaén, which with neighbouring Baeza were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2003. Known as Spain’s Renaissance gems, there are possibly more richly decorated and perfectly conserved buildings per city block here than in any other place on the Iberian peninsula; magnificent palaces, grandiose squares, private chapels and stately homes. One can spend days admiring Plateresque façades, Romanesque churches, Gothic arches and religious carvings from the 16th and 17th centuries at the height of the Andalucian Renaissance. Yet, with all its splendour, what struck me most during a recent visit to Übeda was something quite different. Three simple images have remained with me, so here comes the story of The Hidden, the Buried and the Live History of Übeda.

The Hidden History – The street-side baby drop-off

Deep in the old quarter of Übeda on an unassuming side street lies the Casa Cuna or the Cradle House. Now a private residence, the only thing left is a ghost of a window with a screened wicket, formerly the turnstile where unwanted babies were deposited in centuries past. This is where children conceived out of wedlock and women who were raped would ‘deposit’ new-borns they could not, or would not care for. Yet, married couples frequently used the services of la Casa Cuna, as well. A law existed where a legitimate married commoner could receive the title of Gentleman or Hidalgo by producing seven consecutive live male offspring, thereby receiving the title of Hidalgo de Bragueta, literally Gentleman of the Zipper. Such an attractive offer must have challenged many a man to prove his virility. And pity the wives who would let them down and produce female offspring. Entirely her fault, of course…

Passing the wicket today, one cannot help but mourn the tragedy that occurred on this narrow street and inside Casa Cuna, where so many infants suffered and perished. One may wonder what the people living in the house feel? I hope they occasionally light a candle in the turnstile for the abandoned children of Übeda.

The Buried History – The underground Mikveh ritual baths

In 2007, three local developers wanted to convert a few houses in the old town of Übeda into luxury apartments with underground parking. As they began their de-construction, removing the inner walls of a former beauty parlour, they discovered stone arches and other indicators that this must have been more than a regular home. Two of the developers wanted to close up the evidence and continue building without saying anything to the local authorities. (Pretty standard here in Spain, unfortunately) The third developer thought it had great historical value and insisted that they got it checked out properly. The partners split, the good ‘conservationist’ keeping the ground floor and basement for archaeological digs, while the other developers made flats out of the upper floors.

During the initial excavations, the scientists thought they had found a Catholic chapel. In the 15th century, Spanish Jews had to practice their faith in secret, so they disguised the entrance of their synagogue. To further protect their place of worship, the Jewish community had put a fake sign of the Inquisitor Office on the house next door, hoping that nobody would imagine them to be as bold as to live and pray beside a house of the Inquisition. Further excavations revealed the 15th Century synagogue, complete with seven interior wells still with water today. Excavating the cellar area was almost impossible, as past house owners had used the basement as dumping ground, filling it with construction rubble to avoid paying building permits. As literally ton after ton of debris were removed to access what was thought to be an old wine cellar, they discovered the seven stone steps leading down into a Mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Regardless of ones faith, there is a peace and serenity surrounding the bath. Though no photos were allowed, the image is imbedded in my mind. There are only a handful conserved Mikvehs in Europe, and two in Spain, the only one with a continuous supply of fresh water in Übeda, making this a very rare discovery, indeed.

It is a tremendous privilege to visit this sacred place that not only the Spanish Inquisition tried to abolish, but which a mere decade ago would have been destroyed forever in the name of progress had it not been for the honesty of one builder. Nine years has passed since La Sinagoga del Agua was discovered and the builder is still its owner. The synagogue’s last chapter is not written yet. Part of the Jewish settlement is still ‘buried’ in a neighbouring house, but the present owner refuses to sell. Anyhow, having waited almost 600 years to be unearthed, what does a few more years or generations matter…

The Living History – the white-haired artist

People have been making ceramics in Übeda for millennia, so naturally we wanted to visit one of the town’s famous pottery workshops. The first morning, we went on a photo hunt, starting at the main plaza. The low sun silhouetted the famous funeral chapel of the Saviour, while it’s rays spread into the empty plaza. Well, almost empty, except for a man with long white hair strolling leisurely through the square. After breakfast, we visited a ceramic workshop across from the town hall. The owner came to greet us, a man with long white hair. “Why did you take my picture this morning?”, he asked with the abrupt sincerity of the elderly. To me, a town is nothing without its people, and this gentleman was someone one hardly would miss. Neither was his story.

Juan Martínez Villacañas, or Tito as he is called, was born in 1940 in the pottery district of Übeda. His father was a ceramic and Tito learned to make pots from childhood. In those days there were still hundreds of potteries in Übeda, primarily making everyday utility items. In the 1960’s most of these workshops were forced to close down, as new materials like plastics and modern technologies such as electricity and domestic water access replaced ceramic vessels. In spite of the dark outlook, Tito continued in his chosen profession, reinventing himself by adapting what he had learned to a modern society where pottery had lost its functional use. He registered his company Alfarería Tito in 1965 and has produced ceramics under the embossed label TITO-ÚBEDA ever since. That he is still around, right in the historic centre of Übeda, is a true testament to his art.

The younger generation of the family now work with him, bringing new innovations while remaining faithful to the rich Spanish pottery traditions, incorporating forgotten methods and designs and bringing back finishes and colours that have not been seen since the Renaissance. Alfarería Tito has received national awards and critical acclaim. Tito’s ceramics are in collections all over the world and have been featured extensively in movies such as Carmen, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen, Águila Roja and HBO’s Game of Thrones, to mention a few. With such proven success, it is not strange that other ceramics have tried to copy him or his name. But the old artist is not worried. At 76, Tito still goes to his workshop every day, sitting at his potters’ wheel in an old apron encrusted in terracotta-coloured clay. His entire workshop is like a museum with thousands of pieces, hidden amongst which are old photographs, antique ceramic pieces and a transistor radio.

I met one of his helpers in the paint- shop, meticulously hand-brushing tiny cobalt crosses on a white carafe, just like it was done in the 16th century. He had been working with Tito for 30 years, he said. That’s loyalty if you ask me… I wandered into the large courtyard, where giant old wine and olive tinajas stood side by side with Tito’s ceramic pieces. On a wooden table were the leftovers of his breakfast, a torn loaf of peasant bread, a bottle of Jaén olive oil and a well-used ceramic mug. Three large sunflower heads were drying beside it, making the still life complete.

“People always hope to like what they do, but some do what we love.”  TITO



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