Home > Art > Cuenca > 

The museum and his building

Historical account of the hanging houses

The Museo de Arte Abstracto Español occupies most of the architectural complex universally known as the Casas Colgadas [Hanging Houses], which has become the city of Cuenca’s most renowned urban feature. Fernando Zóbel, the founding figure behind the museum, decided to blend his personal art collection—which included examples of the most important innovations in Spanish modern art—with an architectural complex set in a spectacular location that dates back more than five hundred years. The result was a pioneering endeavor that became a milestone with regard to the display of art, enjoying international acclaim—as well as a symbol of modernity at the time. As a result of this process, the connection between the old and the very new, between the exhibition space and the works on display, became so solid that nowadays one could not be understood without the other. It thus seems appropriate to provide some documentary information on the chronology of the Hanging Houses, as well as on their former owners and inhabitants, the most relevant works of art in which they are depicted, and the significance of the surviving original material remains in their specific historical context. 1.

The first point that should be noted is that the present-day Hanging Houses are not a unified structure, but rather the end product of a complex process of evolution that has transformed these traditional domestic houses into an urban icon of mass consumption and, due to the presence of the unique art collection displayed in its halls, into a myth of modernity. The written history of these buildings begins in 1565, when the Flemish painter Anton van den Wyngaerde included them, as part of the ledge of the city, or Cornisa de San Martín, in his marvelous panoramic view of Cuenca from the East 2. When comparing Wyngaerde’s view with the oldest known photographs of this location, dating from the last third of the nineteenth century3, it is clear that the complex of buildings survived almost intact for some centuries, although sadly little remains now of that architectural marvel, which possessed the finest scenic qualities in old Cuenca.

"View of Cuenca from the East", 1965. Anton van den Wyngaerde
View of Cuenca from the East, 1565. Anton van den Wyngaerde

What are now known as the Hanging Houses are the surviving remains of the original buildings constructed on the Cornisa de San Martín. Van den Wyngaerde depicted them with four clearly differentiated façades. However, archival information indicates that some considerable time before 1565, these four façades belonged to a single building 4. Documents from the first third of the twentieth century referring to the acquisition of the block by Cuenca’s city council, and its later demolition and reconstruction, mention two separate properties, and not four or a single one. Focusing on the rear façades, which face onto the gorge, the two on the right, which are famously set back from each other, constitute a single building. This was acquired by the city council in 1905 as number 16 Calle de los Canónigos and will be referred to from here on as the building on the Cuesta de San Pablo. 5.

The other two constitute another building, made up of two houses that were joined together in the late eighteenth century, if not before. This is number 14 Calle de los Canónigos, which was acquired by the city council in 1926. Looking from left to right on the street, the third façade corresponds to the section that, from 1966 onwards, included the entrance to the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español—a section will refer to as the "central house." The last façade on the left corresponds to the section that includes the museum’s present-day entrance, its office spaces, shop, various extremely old rooms and the main exhibition hall on the top floor. It will be referred to here as the house with the Cañamares coats-ofarms, in reference to those to be seen on the exterior of this relatively well preserved historic building.

View of the Hanging Houses
in the Huécar River Gorge. Photograph: Santiago Torralba
View of the Hanging Houses in the Huécar River Gorge. Photograph: Santiago Torralba

The names of the families who lived in the Hanging Houses for most part of the last five hundred years are known to us from documentary information that dates back at least to the fifteenth century. We know that in the mid-part of that century the houses belonged to Ferrando de Madrid. The Madrid family was part of the ruling oligarchy of the city of Cuenca. It is thus clear that, from the outset, the Hanging Houses were part of the property holdings of an elite social class. Later in date, but prior to 1469, they belonged to Gil Ramírez de Villaescusa, archdeacon and canon of the Cuenca Cathedral. However, the key figure with regard to the Hanging Houses is Gonzalo González de Cañamares, a university graduate and also a canon of the cathedral from, at least, 1481 to 1528, the year of his death. Gonzalo González is significant for various reasons: he owned all the properties now known as the Hanging Houses, he lived in them, and his coat-of-arms can still be seen today on the only property that has retained significant historical and artistic elements from that period. And there is one final fact relating to Gonzalo González that is of enormous importance for the future of the buildings: his clever decision to link them with his patronage of the chapel of Santa María y Todos los Santos, which he founded in the cathedral’s ambulatory.

Gonzalo González de Cañamares was one of the most prominent members of the cathedral clergy in Cuenca during the last two decades of the fifteenth century and the first quarter of the sixteenth century. As early as 1629, the local historian Juan Pablo Mártir Rizo included him among the "famous people to have come from the city of Cuenca." We know many details about Gonzalo González’s cultural and intellectual activities within the field of religion, including the fact that in 1508 he founded the seminary of Nuestra Señora y Todos los Santos—also known as the seminary of Monte Olivete—in the University of Salamanca. He was also known for collaborating on the writing of several liturgical books for the diocese. Given his generous and enthusiastic support as a promoter of new architectural structures, it is worth looking into how he was able to finance the numerous undertakings of this type associated with his name. Aside from the land that his family might have owned and exploited for agricultural and livestock purposes, both in his native town of Cañamares (Cuenca) and elsewhere, his most important sources of income must have been secured during the course of his ecclesiastical career in Rome in the 1470s—a fact that is asserted by Gonzalo González himself in his will of 1528. 6.

In this passage of his will, Gonzalo González’s pride in his achievements clearly reflects the humanistic concept of virtú: the human capacity to forge one’s own destiny regardless of inherited privilege and family. As a cleric he could not fail to refer to divine favor, but he immediately goes on to emphasize that he had obtained most of his possessions by his "own efforts." He is, in other words, a self-made man. It was this earned wealth that allowed him to undertake so many projects, from the Monte Olivete seminary in Salamanca to the chapel in Cuenca’s cathedral, the church in Noheda (Cuenca) and the church of the Trinidad in Alarcón (Cuenca), to mention just a few examples.

Las Casas Colgadas. Photograph: Jaume Blassi
Las Casas Colgadas. Photograph: Jaume Blassi

Most of the Hanging Houses bought by Gonzalo González from 1481 onwards had, as noted above, previously belonged to Gil Ramírez de Villaescusa and at the time of purchase were divided up among his heirs. The first one to be purchased was the building that belonged to Catalina Ramírez, wife of Alonso el Romo de Santoyo, who lived with her husband in Garcinarro (Cuenca). The sale was completed on April 6, 1481 for a price of 30,000 maravedíes. That same day, and in a clearly coordinated action, Catalina’s mother, of the same name, and her husband Juan de Nieva sold an adjoining property to Gonzalo González, which they had also inherited from Gil Ramírez de Villaescusa, the owner’s brother. On this occasion the price was 28,000 maravedíes. The boundaries set out in the documents allow the properties acquired by Gonzalo González de Cañamares to be identified as the two large sections of the Hanging Houses: the house on the Cuesta de San Pablo and the house with the two Cañamares coats-of-arms. It hardly needs to be said that, among all the extensive archival information available, none of it confirms some of the historical myths about the Hanging Houses that have survived almost to the present day. These include the mistaken idea that monarchs lodged in them or that prior to the eighteenth century they housed the city council. The available information also refutes the idea that nothing is known about their history. For example, it tells us that Gonzalo González lived in the Hanging Houses until his death in 1528 and that, thereafter, they would be inhabited by his heirs for some centuries to come.

What is important here is that Gonzalo González linked the Hanging Houses to the patronage of the chapel of Santa María y Todos los Santos in Cuenca’s cathedral. The consequences of this arrangement would be farreaching as it ensured the survival of the buildings as a single property over the centuries. Furthermore, it allows us to know who owned them—the patrons of the chapel, as noted above—in a consecutive manner and without gaps in the documentation. This is a unique historical circumstance within the context of domestic, rather than palatial, architecture. In the founding document of December 31, 1486, Gonzalo González de Cañamares links the patronage of the chapel to his closest relatives, stating that in order for the chapel that he is founding to be as long-lasting as possible it is preferable that it should belong to laymen, rather than clerics, given that the memory of the latter falters more easily. For this reason he establishes that the first title-holder to the chapel should be his brother, Pedro González7. After Pedro it would be his eldest married son and from then on the descendants of his brother by the male line. Should the male line die out, the eldest married daughter of the last patron would inherit it and, after her, her eldest married son. Hence, the chapel would always remain indivisible and the property of lay people.

The first patron of the chapel was thus Pedro González de Cañamares, Gonzalo’s brother. Married to Inés López, he had two children: Gonzalo Bernardo de Cañamares and Elvira González. Gonzalo Bernardo is none other than the man mentioned years later in documents as Canon Gonzalo González de Cañamares, since, like his uncle and namesake, he also entered the Church. For her part, Elvira married a notable figure among the upper ranks of Cuenca’s society, namely Juan Pérez de Teruel. They had twelve children, a number of whom became patrons of the chapel, and as such owners and inhabitants of the Hanging Houses: Juan Pérez de Teruel y Montemayor, Corona González and the canons Gonzalo—the third of this name in the Cañamares family—and Alonso.

In his will of March 9, 1528, Gonzalo González de Cañamares included various clauses addressed to his relatives regarding the principal foundations that he was bequeathing. Notable in these clauses are the changes that he established regarding patronage of the chapel in the cathedral. Having noted that, when he founded it, he had reserved the right to its patronage for his brother Pedro and his descendants, he states that "from now On it belongs And Is owned by the said Canon González, My nephew, son of my said brother, And after him the canon My nephew Gonzalo González de Cañamares, son of my niece Elvira González, sister of the said Canon González, grandson of Pedro González, My brother." Affection led him to refer to his niece Elvira’s son as his nephew, when he was in fact his niece’s son. It also led him to radically change the clauses regarding the chapel’s foundation. He no longer bore in mind the disadvantages that he previously attributed to it having members of the clergy as patrons nor the advantages that he had attributed to the patrons being lay people. His cordial relations with the descendants of his brother Pedro and the idea of establishing a clerical "dynasty" through them inclined him to totally revise his initial intention. This decision gave rise to subsequent court cases between the lay members and the clerical members of the González de Cañamares family. As if this change in criteria was not sufficient, in other passages in his will Gonzalo González de Cañamares insisted on his preference for members of the clergy as patrons: "And if clergy And lay people present themselves On the same footing, the clergy should be preferred, And among the clergy the canon Or beneficiary of the Church of Cuenca."

Detalle del escudo del canónigo
Gonzalo González de Cañamares sobre la puerta de una de las estancias del museo. Photograph: Santiago Torralba
Detalle del escudo del canónigo Gonzalo González de Cañamares sobre la puerta de una de las estancias del museo. Photograph: Santiago Torralba

As noted above, the importance of this episode lies in the fact that the patronage of the chapel implied ownership of the Hanging Houses, which were always the principal residence of the patrons. We know of the perfectly cordial relations between his brother and sister, Gonzalo Bernardo and Elvira, after Gonzalo González’s death, and we also know that they divided up the rights to the chapel and the seminary without any of the legal disputes that the different documents issued by the founder could have provoked. Subsequently, however, these documents gave rise to conflicts between the children of Elvira González and Juan Pérez de Teruel, namely the conflict between Juan Pérez de Teruel y Montemayor and Canon Gonzalo González de Cañamares—son of the original founder’s niece—and that between Corona González and Canon Alonso González de Cañamares. Gonzalo and Alonso held the patronage for some years but were stripped of it in court in favor of their siblings, who brought the cases to court, with legal primacy given to the founding clauses of the chapel over those of the will of 1528.

When looking at the deceptively simple façades of the Hanging Houses it is difficult to appreciate the social importance concealed behind these walls. Enough has been written on Gonzalo González de Cañamares to demonstrate this fact, but it is also true for other members of the Cañamares family, although they might seem apparently modest from the perspective of history. One example is Juan Pérez de Teruel y Montemayor and the numerous religious patronages that he held: from those of Gonzalo González to those of Hernán Sánchez de Teruel, Alvar Pérez de Montemayor and Diego Pérez de Montemayor. We can imagine how he was considered in his own time and town given that he was the patron of one of the finest private chapels in the cathedral’s ambulatory, the patron of the Monte Olivete seminary in Salamanca, that of the chancel and convent of the Concepción Francisca de la Puerta de Valencia, and that of the finest chapel in the church of Santa María de Gracia.

So far the present text has focused on the early Cañamares and on Elvira González’s children as residents of the Hanging Houses. However, a lateral branch of the family, the Chinchillas, subsequently took over the original founder’s patronage and established the Hanging Houses as their principal place of residence. The family connections were carried on by Juan Hernández de Chinchilla, mayor of Cuenca and the eldest son of Diego Hernández de Chinchilla and Corona González, following the death of his mother in the late 1570s. Diego Hernández died in August 1588, leaving two under-age children, Luis Antonio de Chinchilla Cañamares y Teruel and Catalina de Chinchilla. Luis Antonio would be another resident of the Hanging Houses to achieve a distinguished social position during his lifetime, becoming mayor of the city like so many of his forebears. The next member of the dynasty to own and live in the Hanging Houses was Escolástica de Chinchilla y Cañamares, the eldest daughter and heir to the patronage of Mayor Luis Antonio de Chinchilla.

Carved and painted coffered wooden
ceiling in one of the rooms in the museum. Photograph: Santiago Torralba
Carved and painted coffered wooden ceiling in one of the rooms in the museum. Photograph: Santiago Torralba

However, Escolástica was the last patron of the cathedral chapel to live in the Hanging Houses—as a child and young woman—during the early period of their history. As a result of her marriage to Francisco Girón de Zúñiga Robles, who was born in Caravaca (Murcia) and was the brother superior of the Holy Confraternity in that city, she moved away from Cuenca. She died prior to February 27, 1675, when her eldest son, Manuel Girón de Zúñiga y Loayza, a resident in Huéscar (Granada), requested and obtained recognition for his eldest son to exercise his right to the possession of the entailed estates belonging to his mother in Cuenca. Among his heirs, as far as available information allows us to know, particularly important was Marcos Girón Zúñiga y Cañizares in that he is recorded as living in Cuenca and residing in the Hanging Houses. Once again, the patron of the cathedral’s chapel of Santa María y Todos los Santos lived in the principal residence associated with that patronage. Marcos Girón’s successor was his eldest son, Fernando Manuel Girón y Cañizares. Currently available information suggests that the period during which he was the owner of the buildings on the Cornisa de San Martín was of particular importance for the Hanging Houses. For some time, Fernando Manuel appears as residing in Villaescusa de Haro, near Cuenca, but he then moved to Cuenca itself and documents record that he also lived in the Hanging Houses. It may be during his ownership that some changes were made to the status of the ownership of the buildings, due to the financial hardships that he experienced. We know, for example, of a text that he sent to the visitador [visiting judge] on January 10, 1805 concerning his patronage in the church of Santa María de Gracia. He laments that all his sources of income deriving from that patronage have diminished, given that many of them took the form of stipends, which have disappeared, and for which reason he can no longer meet his financial obligations. Fernando Manuel Girón’s financial problems increased under his son and heir Joaquín Girón y Cañizares. In his will, drawn up on June 4, 1829, he refers to the fact that the king had granted him the right to sell most of his possessions in the city of Cuenca. And he clearly explains the reason: "Due to the numerous hardships that I experienced during the Peninsular War, the looting I suffered And the losses I had." The following decades saw a continuing decline in the physical state of the buildings, which were burdened by a range of issues that cannot be discussed here for lack of space. With regard to the connection between the chapel in the cathedral and the Hanging Houses, the story concludes with the sale by the Girón family in the twentieth century of the house with the coats-of-arms to a man named Isidoro Carralero, who in turn sold it to the city council in 1926.

Almost all the buildings on the Cornisa de San Martín were demolished in the early years of the twentieth century. However, the core of the Hanging Houses held out best against the pick-axe. In 1928, the house on the Cuesta de San Pablo was demolished and the architect Fernando Alcántara designed a new one, which was notable for the presence of striking wooden galleries. Years later the central house was also demolished. However, the most interesting one, the one with the coats-of-arms of Gonzalo González de Cañamares, has survived.

The term Hanging Houses8 in reference to this architectural complex seems to have come into use around 1920. The fame of the buildings had been fully established beyond the limits of the province of Cuenca for some decades prior to that date. The nearby sixteenth-century stone bridge that crossed the Huécar River Gorge had been depicted by artists as an emblem of the city of Cuenca for more than five hundred years and, from the eighteenth century onwards, the Hanging Houses were often to be seen next to it. Actually, the relief roundel in the retro-choir of the city’s cathedral shows one of the oldest depictions of them. In 1774 the historian Antonio Ponz included a rather clumsy sketch —probably by his own hand—of the buildings behind the San Pablo Bridge as one of the illustrations to the first edition of his Viaje de España [Journey around Spain] 9. Of considerable interest is a 1878 print published in Picturesque Europe (London: Cassell & Co.), which bears the title Bridge of San Pablo, Cuenca, but focuses its attention on the Hanging Houses. In this print, the house on the Cuesta de San Pablo has three projecting stories with tall supports, and, of these floors, the first is closed in and the other two are open, with free-standing wooden galleries. Differences aside, the appearance of the original building comes extremely close here to Alcántara’s rows of balconies. In 1886, the artist Tomás Campuzano executed a drawing to mark the opening of the Aguirre schools.10 The Hanging Houses are the most important feature in the drawing, depicted as they are from the typical vantage point of the San Pablo Bridge, although the actual bridge is not visible in the image. As if anticipating the tragic blowing-up of the bridge in 1895, the Hanging Houses take up the baton here, becoming the true symbol of modern Cuenca.

Gothic mural with a banquet
scene in one of the rooms in the museum (detail). Photograph: Santiago Torralba
Gothic mural with a banquet scene in one of the rooms in the museum (detail). Photograph: Santiago Torralba

Soon artists began to appreciate the enormously picturesque nature of the Hanging Houses and their surroundings, and numerous depictions of them followed by both Spaniards and foreign visitors. We will now single out some of them due to the particular type of image they offer, both of the Hanging Houses themselves and of their immediate context. The first one, already dating from the twentieth century, reflects what we call the "luminous gaze," with loose brushstrokes, lively colors and a radiant light. Associated to some degree with impressionism, views of this type assimilated the joie de vivre that was characteristic of that French movement. However, the best depiction of the Hanging Houses is the one produced in 1907 by the American artist William Henry Clapp. The Spanish vision is introduced by Aureliano de Beruete´s version of 1910, with its characteristic style. This is also true for Joaquin Sorolla, who painted a small panel that same year. In contrast, the depiction made by Santiago Rusiñol in 1916 surprises the viewer for being extremely atypical of his work in terms of style.

Also worthy of recollection is the group of American artists—including Vernon Howe Bailey, Jules André Smith and Ernest David Roth—who visited Cuenca in 1921 and left their own visual records of the Hanging Houses. These offer an analytical, descriptive vision of an almost documentary type, devoid of profoundness or introspection. Depictions by other artists reveal a wide range of styles, some associated with what I have elsewhere termed "realisms, expressionisms And late nineteenth-century pessimism." Their interpretations offer a range of different stylistic features: José Gutiérrez Solana’s work is notably symbolic, in a reflection of the spirit of "Black Spain" (c. 1919); Juan Espina y Capo remains faithful to nineteenth-century realism (c. 1920); Virgilio Vera is also realist in his approach (1920); Manuel Castro Gil proves to be more imaginative and modern (1922); Manuel Benet provides us with a ghostly, lunar version (1922); and Wifredo Lam, who produced his work shortly before becoming committed to the avant-garde, takes us back to late nineteenth-century realism (c. 1927).

Of all the buildings that make up the Hanging Houses, the most interesting one in both historical and artistic terms, as well as with regard to its authenticity, is the one with the coats-of-arms of Gonzalo González de Cañamares. Despite the changes it has undergone it retains numerous original elements. It was built in the last two decades of the fifteenth century, although some additions were undertaken in the following century. Gonzalo González’s arms—also visible in the cathedral’s chapel of Santa María y Todos los Santos—are displayed in his private oratory—on the doorway and in the frieze beneath the carved wooden ceiling. They consist of four quarters with a green diagonal band on a gold field,11 a Saint James shell, a fleur-de-lys and three hemp plants (cáñamo in Spanish) in reference to his surname.

This building has been connected the adjoining one to the north for at least the past two hundred years. However, given that the rear façades facing the gorge are different and have floors at different levels, the central section and the one with the coats-ofarms cannot be considered to have been built at the same time or by the same owner. When the architects Santiago Santa María and Raimundo Carabella surveyed the building on June 25, 1811, they perfectly described not only its age but also the linking-up of two buildings of different origins, which they described as "of extremely old construction, almost all made of Partition walls, with floors at different levels And an inconvenient roof." 12. The different levels of the two sections are also clearly indicated on the groundplans drawn up by Eduardo Torallas and Francisco León Meler in 1958 and 1962, which include the steps that connect the different levels, which still survive today in the museum’s main exhibition hall.

Our interpretation is that Gonzalo González de Cañamares unified these two structures as far as he could after he acquired them, installing the Isabelline Gothic staircase that would serve both sections—now with a common front entrance from the lobby of the central house—while removing the staircase that the latter building might previously have possessed, and adapting some of the floor structures.13. He also unified the façades on the entrance side by cladding them with the stonework that still exists, which continues to some significant extent onto the house on the Cuesta de San Pablo, as can be seen in the small patch that has no plastering over it.14 He also devised the curious solution that joins the two parts of the façades of the central house and that of the coats-ofarms, creating an open corner on the ground floor and a continuous wall surface on the upper two floors.

It can certainly be said that the house with the Cañamares coats-ofarms reveals a striking constructional unity. As noted above, it includes Gothic and Renaissance elements fused with others clearly taken from Cuenca’s vernacular architecture, as is evident in structural aspects such as the projecting galleries on the façade that looks on to the Huécar River Gorge. The house was extensively restored from 1959 onwards, at which point the municipal architect Francisco León Meler produced a report on its general state of conservation. Despite this restoration, most of the original rooms and spaces are still recognizable today.

The structure that supports the projecting bay at the rear of the ground floor is one of the most unique elements of the house with the coats-of-arms. This floor includes the Isabelline Gothic staircase, a carved and painted wooden ceiling in the oratory and a mural in the main reception room. The engineer Miguel Ibáñez García, who undertook a detailed analysis of the woods used in the bay’s construction, 15, destaca su has singled out the way it is put together and its importance in terms of construction—clearly, it would occupy an important position in any catalog of vernacular architecture in Cuenca. The supporting structure is visible in the basement, where we find cantilevered beams incorporated into a curious, interior wooden structure of counterweights similar to a seesaw, which neutralizes the weight of the projecting bay through that of the structure that supports the building’s ground floor. The principal cantilevers are double and superimposed, with the bottom ones shorter than the top ones. They run into the basement with the same difference of length. The ones underneath are supported by the first transversal beam, immediately terminating against the second transversal beam, which is slightly higher than the first one. The upper cantilevers enter the basement supported first by the lower ones and then by the second transversal beam, terminating in empty space, short of reaching the end wall. On top of them rest another two transversal beams, on which, in turn, rest the smaller longitudinal beams, which support the structure of the ground floor. These smaller beams, which also start in the projecting bay, are cut when they reach the second transversal beam, at which point new ones start next to them. 16.

The street level houses the entrance lobby where the Gothic staircase— one of the house’s most interesting features—begins. The building’s characteristics are fully concordant with the period of the Catholic Kings. This is evident in the stucco ceiling that covers part of the entrance lobby, which has foliate bands between narrow strips of tracery of mudéjar origin. Stucco also covers the flamboyant stone tracery of the lower panel of the staircase, which leads to the main floor, and the balustrade itself. This tracery has been associated with the workshop that made the original parapets for the clerestory in Cuenca’s cathedral,17 and is certainly of the same period.18 The first flight of the staircase leads to the main floor where, as was traditional, the living accommodation and reception rooms were located. This flight terminates in a hexagonal pillar supporting a segmental arch. The ornamental motif of half-balls is another characteristic feature of the period.

From the ante-chamber two doors lead into two unique rooms. The one on the right opens onto the main space, referred to as the "palace" in early documents, in which family and social life took place. On its north wall we can see a large, sixteenth-century mural painting, which may have been a more economical option than tapestry during the period for social classes of some standing. Almost on the level of folk art, the style of the mural vaguely suggests very late linear Gothic, despite its date of around 1530. Partially colored in two tones, it is not in good condition and shows modern re-painting in some areas, undoubtedly carried out in 1965–1966. However, it is still a unique work within the context of art in Cuenca due to the rarity of secular painting surviving from this period, and its festive nature and its location make it a fascinating historical record of domestic decoration and private life in Cuenca in the sixteenth century. The mural’s subject-matter—happy groups of men and women and some musicians enlivening the gathering— is completely in harmony with the function of the room. 19

Con nivel artístico casi popular, el estilo del mural evoca lejanamente el de un gótico lineal muy tardío y parcial coloración en bicromía, aunque es de hacia 1530. Su estado de conservación no es bueno y presenta incluso repintes modernos de dibujo en algunos puntos, efectuados sin duda en 1965- 1966. Pero todo ello no impide que resulte una obra singular dentro del patrimonio conquense por su absoluta rareza entre las obras pictóricas de carácter civil que nos han llegado de esa época. Con su carácter festivo y el lugar donde se encuentra ubicado ofrece una gran sugestión histórica, como documento de la ornamentación doméstica y de la vida privada conquense en el Quinientos. El asunto iconográfico no puede ir más a tono con la funcionalidad de la sala principal de la vivienda donde se encuentra: alegres grupos de damas y caballeros con algunos músicos que amenizan la velada 19.

The door on the left leads into another of the most evocative domestic spaces that have survived from prior times in Cuenca. Dating from around 1525–1530, this almost square room—measuring 3.25 x 3.18 meters— holds the most beautifully carved and painted wooden ceiling to be found in any non-religious building in the city. Under the longitudinal band that runs around below the ceiling of octagonal compartments, a frieze is painted with pairs of mermaids supporting the family’s coat-of-arms and vases with lateral masks, all painted with great skill. Another lower frieze, this one incomplete, includes part of Psalm 117 in Gothic script. The mural decoration of the room, which appears to date from earlier than that of the main room referred to above, is almost entirely lost. Another interesting aspect is the inside face of the door, which has a lintelled opening flanked by pilasters and is crowned by the founder’s coat-of-arms. There is little doubt that this small space was Canon Gonzalo González de Cañamares’ private chapel. Among other reasons, various documents have revealed that in the houses of members of the clergy in Cuenca it was common to have the oratory located close to the main room. 20.

The age and characteristics of the building emphasize the appeal of the collection created by Fernando Zóbel, as the exhibition halls can be understood in relation to the complex history of the buildings in which they are located. Beneath their apparent unity lie different buildings and different historical periods. When visiting the museum, visitors are in fact entering and leaving three different buildings, albeit without noticing it. The labyrinthine route, the relatively small scale of the rooms and the pyramidal layout—in the manner of an initiatory ascent—allow us to discover something new at each turn, in a constant series of revelations. The result is quite different from that to be found in the habitual series of large halls of most contemporary art museums, which tend to produce a sense of monotony.

Few visits to a museum are as memorable as that of the labyrinth of informalism that is the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. There is no finer way to convert skeptics of contemporary art than a visit to Cuenca’s Hanging Houses and the museum they hold. Whether on its narrow stairs; in the dark, smaller room that comes alive with color and far-ranging views; or in the main hall, with further rocky abstractions as its backdrop, new surprises are to be found in every hidden corner of this puzzle of aesthetic highlights. By combining the old and the new, the greatest achievement of the museum’s designers has been to ensure that the Hanging Houses continue to be living spaces, rather than simply a museum, rising above the cold and impersonal spaces shared by so many contemporary art institutions..

1 For more information, see the author’s recently published extensive monograph on the history of the Hanging Houses (Pedro Miguel Ibáñez Martínez, Las casas Colgadas y el Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, [Cuenca: Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha y Consorcio de la Ciudad de Cuenca, 2016]).

2 See Pedro Miguel Ibáñez Martínez, La vista de Cuenca desde el este (1565), de Van den Wyngaerde (Cuenca: Diputación Provincial, 2006), pp. 283–298.

3Such as those taken by José María Zomeño around 1895.

4 The origins and subsequent fusion of the notably different sections must be the result of a complex process of evolution during the late Middle Ages.

5 This is the building that has housed for decades the museum’s restaurant and "white hall."

6 "Yo confieso y declaro que residiendo en corte de Roma, con la ayuda de Nuestro Señor e de la bienaventurada Santa María siempre Virgen e de todos los santos, adquirí e gané muchos maravedís con su fauor por industria de mi persona, espeçialmente de algunos ofiçios que allí Nuestro Señor me dio, e de los quales ove asaz dineros estando en Roma e después que vine a residir a esta çibdad, e después de venido ansimismo vendí el un ofiçio, en modo que de lo que rentaron los dichos ofiçios e de lo que me dieron por el que vendí, reciuí muchas quantías de maravedís." [I confess and declare that residing in court in Rome, with the help of Our Lord and of the blessed Saint Mary forever Virgin and of all the saints, I acquired and earned many maravedíes with their favor (and) by my own efforts, particularly from some offices which Our Lord gave me there, and from which I earned considerable money while in Rome and after I came to live in this city, and after arriving I also sold an office, so that from which I earned from these offices and from what I gained for the one I sold, I received large quantities of maravedíes.] Diocesan Archive of Cuenca, Girón holdings, bundle 8, files 2 and 3, undated.

7 Both were the sons of Alfonso González and Elvira González de Cañamares. A third brother, Fernando, died while still young.

8 In the author’s opinion, for a house to be termed "hanging" it must possess two characteristics. Firstly, it must be located on the edge of a gorge or some other type of precipice, as indicated in the definition of the term "To hang," when applied to a building, in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española de la Lengua. Secondly, the house must have structural elements that project it out from its supporting structure and over the precipice.

9 Antonio Ponz, Viaje de España [1774] (Madrid: Aguilar, 1947), p. 270. The author attributes the drawing to Ponz himself.

10 See full-page illustration in the journal La Ilustración Española y Americana, December 22, 1886.

11 These are the arms of the Albornoz family, as the village of Cañamares belonged to the lordship of that prominent family from Cuenca, succeeded by the Carrillo de Albornoz family.

12 Diocesan Archive of Cuenca, Girón holding, bundle 8, file 28, undated.

13 Don Gonzalo had funded building work in other houses near the Postigo de San Pablo, including the properties he had purchased from Canon Alonso Rodríguez de Lorenzana, who had previously lived in them. He passed them on to his nephew, also a canon and his namesake, whose mother, Inés López, was living in them in 1528 (Diocesan Archive of Cuenca, Girón holding, bundle 8, file 13, undated).

14 Various photographs from the first half of the nineteenth century reveal the changes made to the top floor of the house on the Cuesta de San Pablo. The roof was different and narrower than it is now. In addition, the masonry façade of the adjoining house on the right penetrated a certain distance into the one on the Cuesta de San Pablo, although it was taller. The remodeling and rebuilding undertaken in 1963–1965 aimed precisely to find solutions in order to unify this group of pre-existing and conflicting structures. This conflict is also evident in the irregular, anomalous space of the room prior to the "black hall," which, in our opinion, would have previously encompassed a room on the second floor and the attic room under the eaves.

15 Miguel Ibáñez García, Análisis estructural de las Casas Colgadas de Cuenca: casa del canónigo Gonzalo González de Cañamares, degree project (Madrid: Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Montes, May 2006).

16 Ibid., pp. 59–62, 83, 84, 127–129, 151, 153, 154 and 200.

17 Some of these parapets have the arms of Bishop Alonso de Burgos (1480–1485). See Rodrigo de Luz Lamarca, La catedral de Cuenca del siglo xiii: cuna del gótico castellano (Cuenca: Author’s ed., 1978), p. 88.

18 Other examples of the use of stucco-work on staircases in houses in Cuenca during this same period include the one at number 20 Calle San Juan.

19 Originally, this room was entirely painted, as can be seen in the photographs taken in the 1960s before the building was restored. The south wall included a large painted coat-of-arms of Gonzalo González de Cañamares.

20 For this and other aspects of the house, see Pedro Miguel Ibáñez Martínez, "Arquitectura gótica civil en la ciudad de Cuenca," Boletín del Museo e Instituto Camón Aznar, 90 (2003), pp. 107–109.