Canon Domingo González Villanueva sounded the alarm when only three months had passed since the consecration of the Cathedral of Cádiz, in 1838. As stated in the minutes of the Cabildo, from its brand-new vaults “flakes of stone fell and pieces of something greater”. And what should be the happy ending of a tortuous work of more than a century turned into an ordeal. 183 years later, the salt continues to corrode the more than 3,000 square meters of roofs. On January 29, a rubble detached from the facade recalled that its managers and public administrations have not undertaken restorations for more than a decade, nor have they executed the master plan drawn up at the request of the Junta de Andalucía that dictates how to solve the problem.
That piece of limestone that hit the side of the cathedral square without causing injuries is not the only sign of the saline curse still unsolved. The repetition of landslides (the temple was closed between 1969 and 1983) led to the installation of a large network in 1989 that runs through all its interior vaults. The decision was made after the fall of a large bloc that broke a bank, a few days before the celebration of a First Communion Mass.
The pulverization of the vaults is evident just by looking up: the corroded blocks cause constant pockets of debris in the mesh, which must be cleaned periodically with a rake. Juan Jiménez Mata, the architect who laid the net three decades ago, does not know how much weight the warp would now be able to support in the event of a major detachment.
Construction of the Cadiz temple began in 1722 as an aspiration to a prosperous city enriched by trade with America. And it culminated as best it could with a lower quality limestone, well into the 19th century, just when the city was entering a crisis from which it has never finished emerging. Juan Alonso de la Sierra, one of the greatest specialists of the monument together with his brother Lorenzo, adds: “The cathedral reflects the same guidelines as the city.”
In the construction, 24 kinds of stone were used to build a building that started with the baroque traces devised by Vicente Acero and that, over the decades, was turning to the neoclassical and academicism. But mainly one of those kinds of stone, Steppe limestone, has become the nightmare of the temple. Juan Jiménez Mata, architect of the last 16 major restoration works, explains: “It started at full speed; but when there was less money, this stone was added from the cornices upwards. The problem is that it is softer and in the face of atmospheric agents it behaves much worse ”. The evil would not be much different from that suffered by other great monuments if it were not for the fact that the salt that surrounds it and penetrates the walls makes it even more harmful. “The cathedral is an immense salt factory,” adds Jiménez Mata.
The building was built using mortars (masses of sand, binder and water) made with beach sand and with the water that was extracted from a brackish well located in the crypt. Alberto Jiménez, architect and active heir to his father’s studio, relates: “When the tides were high they did not set, and the lime became dust”. This caused the ashlars of the vaults to be held only by some rubble [fragmentos de materiales que se utilizan para rellenar huecos] that generate tensions and break soft stones such as limestone. The proximity to the sea does the rest: with the humidity, this salt dissolves, penetrates the ashlars and breaks them when it crystallizes again on dry days.
The curse could have been contained if the temple had not been further affected by long periods without isolation. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he spent 40 years with open-air sections. The explosion of a magazine in 1947 left the building without windows for years.
The damage has a laborious and expensive solution: fill the empty joints with new mortars and replace the lost stones with new pieces of stonework. It is the solution that Estudio Jiménez Mata has applied during the 30 years in which they have worked in the temple with restorations such as those of the lower sacristy or the relics chapel, in which the evil was successfully neutralized. Extending this solution to 3,100 square meters of vaults would cost 15 million euros. This is what Juan José Jiménez calculated when, in 2009, the Ministry of Culture of the Junta de Andalucía commissioned him to draw up a Master Plan that would guide the steps, the order of priorities and the ways of working. More than a decade ago, the architect delivered the document to the Cabildo de la Catedral and the Junta, but it was kept in a drawer. Currently, the Delegation in Cádiz of the Ministry, to questions from EL PAÍS, does not know why it still does not approve it: “It must be one of other planning documents that were not completed in its programming.”
More than ten years have also passed since the cathedral did not undertake a major restoration on its battered vaults. In the same period, the regional and central administrations have not financed any intervention either, although from 1998 to 2009 they invested 1.5 and 2.3 million, respectively, in other restorations. Since the Cabildo de la Catedral was left alone in charge of the restoration of its building, it has devoted its efforts to contracting annual maintenance tasks for the roofs and cleaning of the anti-hoof network —the same one that Jiménez Mata installed 32 years ago— , in addition to occasionally restoring chapels and sculptures. The Cádiz Delegation of Culture has continued to authorize interventions during this period, the last in 2020 to restore the Chapel of the Assumption, the first to be built. But no one appears on the list of the last decade to tackle the evil of the stone of the ceilings.
Fabián Pérez, restorer of Ars Nova and regular collaborator in the temple, defends: “The effort of the Cabildo in restoring movable and immovable property is noteworthy. Nor has it stopped due to the pandemic ”. However, this institution has refused up to three times to attend EL PAÍS to explain why it has not requested the 1.5% cultural, how much it has invested or if it is guided by the priorities set in that Master Plan.
Meanwhile, the Jiménez Mata are concerned, from the outside – the cathedral has not commissioned work from the studio since 2014 – the absence of openwork interventions in increasingly degraded vaults: “There should be a group of bricklayers hired, directed by a architect who constantly revises roofs and cornices ”, Juan Jiménez complains. His son Alberto points out another deficiency: “We do not ask that the works be commissioned, but we do ask that the people who intervene in the historical heritage be valued with transparency and through a public contest.” 183 years after Canon González Villanueva realized that something was wrong, the curse of salt continues its course without a Master Plan or major restorations in sight. And Alberto Jiménez Mata warns with concern: “Pieces keep falling, but the size that falls is a lottery.”