In a few days’ time, I shall be diving back into the mind of a seventeen-year-old face to face with an artist in a small ancient town that crouches on a hill less than an hour away from Madrid. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it sheltered dissidents and scholars. It was a great centre of learning, renowned for its Jewish and Arab scholars as well as its Christian ones. Toledo’s narrow winding streets echoed with numerous languages in my imagination, all deep in discussion: Jewish dissidents, apologists for different strands of Christianity and Islam, independent minds of all hues engaged in thought-provoking discussions; all that engaged my imagination.
The remembered city of narrow grey stone streets that curved and tumbled into steps down slopes has lingered in my mind. The door of a small church opened and there, in a burst of light over the altar; an elongated figure twisted his head upwards towards a gash in the clouds with light shining through it. Deep, dark reds and blues of robe and sky lit by light from heaven.
Over the years I have listened to many discourses about these elongated figures. A surgeon I heard giving a lecture on El Greco was certain that the artist painted such contorted figures because of astigmatism, or some similar eye condition – an optical something-or-other. His nickname, the Greek, was because he was born on Crete. He would have grown up seeing the slender, spiky figures on Greek icons in churches or in houses for private devotion. When he left Crete for Venice, he would have been amazed by the spatial drama in the work of Tintoretto and may have joined his vast and prosperous workshop. There the painter from a small Greek island would also have absorbed the grandeur of the ageing Titian’s paintings and the cosmopolitan works of Veronese. So many learnt and remembered strands were weaving themselves into my thoughts as I boarded the train to Toledo.
If I wanted to study languages at university, I would have to know two foreign languages well, or one foreign language and Latin at scholarship level. My French was fluent, but I needed another language, so I decided to visit my aunt in Logroño, a provincial town in northern Spain. She had met a handsome Spaniard on the beach at San Sebastian and they married just before the Spanish civil war started. When she was expecting her first child, all the experienced doctors were in the war so the only person who could help was a medical student. He panicked and used forceps on the child’s head to deliver her. By the time Rosalia was three years old, it was clear that something was wrong. My aunt and uncle travelled all over Spain to consult specialists, but nothing could be done. She was brain damaged. Then the Second World War started. Spain, traumatised by its civil war, remained neutral. Rosalia’s brother was born. She had tantrums and started hitting her mother with anything she could lay hands on. Eventually, when a teenager with the mind of a three-year-old began hitting her mother with a hairbrush, she was put into a specialised care home. Her brother became a lawyer, married, left his wife and disappeared. So while in Madrid for a conference, I shall try to find some trace of my cousin and I also plan to return to Toledo.
What do I remember about the town? It was mentioned by the Roman historian Livy in the early years of the first century AD as a small tribal centre that was easy to defend because of its location. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire and surrounded by walls. A water system was built and is still in use. It had one of the largest circuses in Hispania holding 15,000 spectators – I do not remember seeing it and wonder whether much of it remains. Chariot races were popular, often sponsored by private citizens. By the late seventh century, Toledo was the most important city in the Iberian peninsula. Often in conflict with Cordoba further south, Toledo suffered in the conflicts between the Muslims and Christians. It became a city of refuge for persecuted Jews and by the eleventh century, it was an important centre of learning with Arab, Jewish and Christian scholars whose works were copied and disseminated throughout Christendom. In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII’s contemporary, Charles V, made Toledo his imperial capital. However, in 1561 Charles’s son, Philip II (who was, for a short time, engaged to Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I’s elder sister), moved his court to Madrid and built the palace of El Escorial outside the city. Toledo’s subsequent economic decline helped preserve its culture and learning and gave us the city we see today. How much has it changed, since I was last there two decades ago?