Spain sees Catalonia as a property. The use of direct rule to recover disputed art proves it.
The Spanish government has been exercising direct rule over Catalonia since October. This week, Spanish Culture Minister Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, acting as Catalan culture minister, has used his newly-obtained powers to force a settlement to a long-standing cultural heritage dispute.
The 20-year feud concerns the ownership of 44 artefacts from the Sixena Monastery, a Romanesque jewel in the heart of Aragon, less than 30 miles away from the trenches where George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War. The works of art (paintings on panel and canvas, sculptures, reliquiaries) are currently kept in the Museum of Lleida, in Catalonia, some of them on display and many in storage. The condition of some is frail, the historic significance and value of most is enormous.
Méndez de Vigo has instructed the Department of Culture of the Catalan government, now under his leadership, to obey a provisional judicial order that dictates the return of the objects to their former location in Aragon, Catalonia’s neighboring region. Even though this judicial order could still be disputed, the minister demands its immediate implementation.
This is a worrying attitude. It indicates that Spain is willing to use direct rule for its own benefit, even if that means opposing the long-standing policies of the democratically elected government that has just been ousted and jailed under charges of tumultuous sedition. The case of the heritage of Sixena has a long history of legal disputes between the governments of Catalonia and Aragon.
Both parties have put forward strong arguments in favor and against the return of the artefacts, but it is not my purpose to judge their validity in any detail here. The essential summary is that the works of art were sold or donated to the Museum of Lleida by nuns from Sixena during the last years of General Franco’s dictatorship. The formality of these purchases and donations is, however, questioned by the Aragon authorities. It may not be a clear-cut case, but it is one that deserves a settlement in a context of institutional normality, in which the Catalan government can defend its own interests.
Despite the minister’s intentions, Barcelona and Lleida still have many ways to oppose the removal of the works of art. The integrity of the collection is protected by the Catalan cultural heritage law, according to which the assembly of artefacts cannot be separated. The Museum of Lleida can also oppose the decision on technical grounds.
Despite calls by the Aragonese culture minister for “the defense forces” to intervene, it is very unlikely that Spain will resort to a forceful removal. But the practical impossibility of the “repatriation” of this collection should not distract us from the more profound implications of the decision by the Madrid-controlled Catalan government.
First, it demonstrates the fundamental contradiction in the way the Spanish government perceives Catalonia. Despite its rhetoric, Madrid doesn’t really believe Catalonia is an actual part of Spain. On the contrary, if Spanish works of art are in Catalonia, they are perceived to be almost outside Spain and in need of being returned.
Second, this movement shows an absolute disregard for the right of regional governments, such as the Catalan one, to have views and policies that oppose those of the central government. The Spanish government sees Catalonia not as a nation, but as a property, and therefore it is acceptable, if not imperative, to correct the mismanagements of the local rulers as soon as the opportunity arises.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.