The View from the Ivory Tower

Should we admire or despair of those single-minded people who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a pet obsession? Who put what we’d consider a ‘normal’ life on hold to disappear into the wilderness spending years in research?

I’m talking about the likes of Milman Parry, who traipsed around the remote mountains of pre-WWII Yugoslavia for a decade, recording folk songs in an attempt to gain an insight into the oral tradition as surviving since the time of Homer… Or Walter Muir Whitehill, who, similarly obsessed, spent nine years in Spain at around the same time, discovering and cataloguing Romanesque churches in the most godforsaken locations. (Both Harvard academics, I notice.) I came across this second one, Muir, while reading Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom.

11th Century Spanish Romanesque Architecture

Santa María de Iguacél, Spain. Photo by Turol Jones via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY 2.0]
After nine years of research and some more years of editing, Muir published a book titled Spanish Romanesque Architecture of the Eleventh Century. It came out in 1941, and Muir noted,

…proofs continued so methodically to cross the Atlantic that in 1941 I received bound copies, containing slips stating in twelve languages: ‘Arrived safely – thanks to British convoys.’

(As the WWII poster says, The British Navy guards the freedom of us all. Including the freedom to send books across the Atlantic, regardless of the number of German submarines and at the height of war when the transporting of war material, fuel and food must have taken precedence over everything.)

Muir goes on to say,

…in spite of war, frontiers and occupation the book was reviewed in France.

(As quoted in Roads to Santiago)

Academics in an ivory tower? Or an admirable determination that life would go on, that knowledge would be pursued even under Nazi occupation?

Here’s an excerpt from his book (again as quoted in Roads to Santiago – shocking as this might be, I certainly haven’t got the will-power to read the whole book myself):

The romantic little church of Nuestra Señora de Iguacél in a remote Pyrenean Valley to the northeast of Jaca, was entirely unknown to archaeologists until its publication in 1928 by Professor Kingsley Porter. One could not wish for a more fundamental monument for the Romanesque chronology of Aragón, for an inscription over the west portal, cut into the very stone of the building, states that the church was built by the Court of Don Sancho and his wife Doña Urraca, and finished in 1072.

The church of Iguacél is three-quarters of an hour on foot beyond the village of Acín, which is about three hours from Castiello de Jaca, the nearest point on a motor road. The church stands completely alone, and in 1928 the priest of Acín had the key.

Observe the footnote: I call this dedication. How many of these little forgotten churches are there in Spain? Thousands? And the good professor bothered to track them all down; no wonder it took him nine years. But then what to make of Cees Nooteboom himself, who, half a century later, following these directions, turned up in Acín and in pouring rain trekked to the church of Iguacél, even though he failed to acquire the key to get inside. A gentleman of some leisure, and evidently of some means, for he forever put up in the prohibitively expensive paradors. And more than that, certainly a gentleman with an obsession himself.

The Road to Iguacél

If you should like to follow in his footsteps, the road to Iguacél leads…

…in a valley of stark beauty. The last flash of red in the trees, a gurgling mountain stream, the thousand-year-old path winding ahead. There was nothing about the shape of those mountains that could have changed, I would walk about in a laboratory of preserved time and would meet no one, that was certain, on my way, except the successive ghosts of professors Porter and Muir, and of course Count Sancho, architects, masons and monks. The landscape is utterly deserted here, brother raven, sister gale, the perpendicular rain, and at the very end, that church, the same colour as the stony ground.

I have to say: after reading that, I did want to walk in the valley of Garcipollera.

In the end, the answer to whether we admire these people in their ivory towers or not probably depends on whether they produced something that enriches our world…

You may also like:The entry on Walter Muir Whitehill (Dictionary of Art Historians)The Curious Case of Milman ParrySanta María de Iguacél (in Spanish but with pictures of the church)

6 thoughts on “The View from the Ivory Tower

    1. I think you’ll like it, actually. Seems right down your street, what with you junketing around the odd corners of Spain, too. 🙂

      It’s basically a retelling of several of Nooteboom’s journeys all over Spain and his thoughts on the ‘sights’ – mostly sights off the usual tourist beat. I’d say mostly art history related to the places he’s seen but he touches on quite a lot of other subjects and his writing is very enjoyable. I put several quotes into the Quotes section too if you want to get a better feel for the book (just put his surname into the search field, it should bring all the pages & posts relating to him up). This particular post is based on one chapter in the book only and I’ll probably write a proper – well, by my standards, I’m really not in the book review business as such – review later as well, but I haven’t finished the book completely yet. And then I need to think about it a bit – to be able to form some coherent thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I doubt seriously that I will take the time to delve further into your subject, but one of the reasons I like to blog is that I am exposed to things I would never do on my own. So thanks much for sharing this bit of knowledge to me. I appreciate getting a tidbit of your research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t blame you for not wishing to delve further into the subject! I have very little intention myself to become an authority on 11th century Spanish Romanesque architecture… mainly because there are so many more topics of interest still out there! 🙂


  2. I was surprised to find you reading a book (one I’d never heard of) by Cees Nooteboom. He worked as a travel journalist and at one time was editor of one of the largest Dutch newspapers, De Volkskrant, so I dare say he could claim expenses for good lodgings. He’s one of those well-known Dutch people I’ve heard about ever since I’ve been here, but know nothing about. I assumed he was ‘just’ a novelist, but it seems his novels are few and far between because most of his work was travel writing. Apparently his first journalistic experience was covering the Hungarian uprising, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never heard of Cees Nooteboom either before I started to read this book! I got it as a present on account of my interest in Spain. I have to say it was just the right book for me – this random fusion of art, history and travel is just what I like. Very well written too, I recommend it!

      Liked by 1 person

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