A landscape is conquered by the soles of the shoes, not with the wheels of the car, as Faulkner once said. Here in the Catalan Countries, permeated with this rambler spirit that puts espadrilles before engines, we have always got around on foot, and landscapes have played a central role in the vast majority of our literature. But there is a third element to our outlook that separates us from the main European trends when it comes to landscapes. Where Wordsworth and Hölderlin link nature and emotions, Catalan writers add a third ingredient: national pride. El Canigó, with all its beauty, is not just a mountain, but a synonym of a nation and of a language; its aesthetic qualities become veiled by the mists of national symbolism.
In the Valencian Country, though, this use of landscape as a symbol for country has only been seen in the work of essayist Joan Fuster, poet Vicent Andrés Estellés and one other bastion of this practice, all of whom came after the Valencian Renaixença. Beyond these personalities’ efforts, we have never had our own, Valencian Canigó, though we could have quite easily. It is not for want of features, or tradition, or landscapes, but because, as Fuster observed, while the Catalan Renaixença emphasised the concept of patria-fides-amor, the Valencian one was characterised by its Felibrigian essence: in other words, a literature with no national aspirations.
One of the many Valencian landscapes that could have been reclaimed as a symbol of Valencianness is the Albufera. This spot – which, apart from being the biggest freshwater lagoon in Spain, is one of the ten largest in Europe – has been a source of inspiration for writers and painters alike, both nationally and internationally. In 1563, Flemish topographical artist Anton van den Wyngaerde gave us an artistic gem for posterity: his painting Albufera. It is not just a case of beauty created by a place of this magnitude being so close to the regional capital, but rather the exceptional nature of the site. Van den Wyngaerde painted a collection of a total of 62 villages, towns and cities under commission from King Philip II, and the only odd one out is the painting of our Albufera.
Albufera, Anton Van den Wyngaerde, 1563Then, suddenly, nothing. From being the object of a sixteenth-century Flemish painter’s curiosity, the Albufera faded into oblivion, in another extension of that Valencian trait of believing that everything elsewhere is better than what we have here. Joan Fuster himself, in the book L’Albufera de València, begins by saying that he should know a lot about the lagoon, that he should be familiar with it, but that this is not the case, because he has not been able to summon any enthusiasm for the wonders of his native region. This statement is followed by 160 pages of brilliant analysis of the landscape and all that derives from it. In fact, on a walk with Josep Pla around Valencia, the writer from Palafrugell recalls Fuster’s solemn assertion when he sees the rice fields of Albufera and bursts out with ‘The paellas, the paellas!’, imitating Goethe’s famous ‘The sea! The sea!’. The Albufera acts as a stage for Pla and Fuster to debate the concept of ‘scenic beauty’. When Fuster sticks to the European school of thought and offers the Sahara Desert as an example of beauty, Pla throws his head in his hands and asks how on Earth he can appreciate ‘that sand pit’ but not rice fields or the Albufera, because beauty has to be useful.
In a more costumbrista vein, we find one of the protagonists of the Valencian Renaixença, Blasco Ibáñez, who found in the Albufera and its shacks the perfect setting for novels such as The Shack, Rice and a Carriage, The Mayflower and Between Orange Trees, as well as, of course, the highly successful Reeds and Mud. As shown by Blasco Ibañez’s preference for writing in Spanish, the Catalan language, a key element of the Catalan Renaixença, is relegated to near non-existence in the Valencian Renaixença, appearing in just a few novels. Another Renaixença writer who saw himself reflected in our lagoon was Teodor Llorente, who wrote that the Albufera was dominated by a horizontal line and a wide perspective, which gave it its majesty and, of course, beauty.
But this space has not only inspired writers; it has also acted as a muse for various painters. We Valencians have a problem with paintings: we act as though the world ended after Sorolla. We can’t move on, even when pushed. It’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. Sorolla had a gift for painting, accompanied by an enviable perception of light. He was able to capture all the specks of light seen by the human eye with brush strokes of white. But, puzzlingly, Sorolla came to the Albufera, the area of Valencia with the most natural light due to its lack of buildings, and produced a dark, gloomy composition that, rather than expressing esteem for the site, oozes neglect.
Luckily, we know that Sorolla is not the be-all and end-all, and that there are other, exquisite artists whose only mistake was to be born in the same era as him. The most obvious case is that of Antonio Fillol (1870–1930), who was one of the first to find inspiration in the Albufera, with works that recall The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet. The difference between the two is that Sorolla beautifies unattractive landscapes, like La Malva-rosa, while Fillol depicts a place – the Albufera – that requires no improvements. The lagoon that Arab poets called a ‘sun mirror’ in their compositions calls for reliable representation, not idealisation. Fillol, a keen reader of Zola and Balzac, gets his hands dirty – in the mud of the lagoon – and avoids Sorolla’s idealism, comparable to someone prancing along the beach. Fillol depicts harshness, and men with so many sores on their hands that they could hardly pick up a paint brush.
A halfway point between Sorolla and Fillol – or, in other words, between enjoyment and gloomy neglect – can be found in the work of Antonio Carnicero, a painter from Salamanca. He depicts the Albufera where Goya lived for a time and which he described in a letter dated 3 August 1790 to Martín Zapater: ‘After hunting and fishing, we have lunch. They serve me and Pepa a rat stew with rice and a plate of eels of which many would be envious. There is also a delicious kind of prawn caught here in the lagoon. It would be heaven if it weren’t for the mosquitoes, which, in turn, feast on us’. What Goya didn’t know is that the mosquitoes of the Albufera are trained to bite only people from elsewhere, or artists who live there but fail to dedicate a single painting to the place, as he did.
The Albufera has played host to the best hands in the country. From the most stylised hands, the most skilful in guiding paint brushes and quills, to the hands most punished by daily manual work: often forgotten when the lagoon is mentioned, but always there. It is thanks to these hands, damaged by the sun, that writers and painters can admire this place, that visitors can marvel at the landscape and gasp ‘It’s beautiful!’. Today, we have three tasks: to appreciate the Albufera, to love it and to visit it. Luckily, without being able to paint or write, we can still enjoy this portion of sky, so close to home and yet so distant for many of us.