“After Altamira, All is Decadence”
It has been reported in the press this week that a replica of the Grotte Chauvet has been created. It will be open to the public by the time you read this. The original, containing thousands of prehistoric animal and figure drawings, will no longer be accessible to visitors because our human presence is putting the artwork at risk. This is not a question of hooliganism or graffiti. It is simply the erosion caused by our attendance there, our exhalations near the paintings. A friend who is staying with us remarked that it was a great pity that one should buy a ticket to visit a copy, even one hailed as a near masterpiece. I disagreed with him, recalling one of the most memorable experiences of my travelling life: a visit to the caves of Altamira.
Altamira (a UNESCO World Heritage site), located a few kilometres from Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, northern Spain, was the first site with cave paintings to be discovered, in 1880. How the discovery came about was quite by chance and a rather lovely if sad story.
In 1875, a Spanish landowner, lawyer and amateur anthropologist, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, learned that a stone mason, while quarrying locally, had unearthed some rather unusual caves. Don Marcelino went to take a look. He found a pencil-thin aperture. It had been revealed after millennia by the landslides caused by the mason’s gunpowder explosions. Don Marcelino slid through the opening and found himself within a series of labyrinthine caves, chambers and tunnels that measured in length some 270 metres, almost a quarter of a kilometre. This dark hidden space had not been visited for at least ten thousand years. Don Marcelino, even in the crepuscular light, noticed markings on many of the cave walls but he could not …