Saturday 22 August 2009

Now Let Us Praise Famous Men

By Richard Morley
When I first came to Spain one of the first addresses I had to find was in the Paseo Eduardo Dato. Being a curious soul I soon learned that the man for whom the road was named was once Mayor of Madrid and three times Prime minister of Spain. So, quite an important man in the scheme of things.

Some months later, arriving at the then new terminal four, where there was yet no Metro, I took a taxi and totally scrambled the pronunciation of my destination, which was the Plaza Canalejas. The taxi driver looked at me blankly and I was forced to retrieve my infamous Michelin map of Madrid and point at where I wanted to go. Not surprisingly, that name has stayed in my brain.
Then I met an American who told me he lived in “Pink Rivers”, or Rios Rosas. Not only does the place have the eponymous metro station but also houses the Geological Museum and school of mines, which figures large in my life. But to him it was just “Pink Rivers”, which he found absurd.
Madrid, like towns and cities all over the world honour their great and good by naming streets and plazas for them. But some men and, I am sure, women demand more than just a street name or a metro station for us to remember them. Yes, the city has hundreds of statues of gallant men on horseback and many plaques commemorating those who lived or died in such and such a house, but where are the truly great?

After all, London has both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral to house the remains of Britain’s favourite sons.

And then, just the other day, while researching just why Atocha has its name, (and the answer will surprise you!) I discovered the Panteón de Hombres Ilustres, or The Pantheon of Great Men. And here I found the memorials to the three men whose names begin this post.
Set in a dismal back street not far from Atocha railway station this grandly named “Panteón” is a rather non descript, to my mind ugly, building with just a small sign bolted to a gate to tell you what it is. Apparently, it was meant to be a much grander building, with a basilica for state ceremonies, but times and plans changed. What eventually was built was a square cloister surrounding a small garden.

But here are the memorials for Spain’s greatest men, or at least a few of them. The place is not large. In some cases, although the Panteón might be their last resting place, it was not their first, and these memorials were collected from different locations. In the case of Rios Rosas this was fortunate as the Basilica of Atocha where he was originally entombed was destroyed in the civil war.

Jose Canalejas Mendez 1854 – 1912 Assassinated in the Puerta del Sol. Elected to parliament at the age of 27. Held various posts culminating being Presidente of the council of Ministers. I find his memorial, sculpted by the Velenciano artist Mariano Benlliure, dramatically evoking the scene of his tragic death, to be reminiscent of the sculptures of Rodin in Calais in France. Eduado Dato e Iradier 1856 – 1921 Assassinated at the Puerta de Alcala, he was a deputy in the last government of Alfonzo XII and started the school of criminology. Mariano Benlliure’s representation of Dato lying on his tomb seems to me to be the stuff of nightmares, with the angel of death appearing to be about to stab the statesman with the holy cross.

Antonio de Rios Rosas 1812 – 1873 He was elected to parliament in 1836 at the age of 24, became ambassador to Rome, later becoming a minister and president of congress. He looks every inch the statesman in his memorial. The Catalan sculptor, Pedro Estany, makes him look very grand.
However, I think my favourite monument is that of the wonderfully named Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (1825-1903), who I had never heard of before encountering his tomb. He was a politician and for a time President of the council of ministers and went on to be prime minister no less than eight times. He held this position during the Spanish American war and was held responsible his opponents for the loss of the country’s remaining colonies. Somehow he found time to do this between being both an engineer and a journalist. His effigy lies sweetly at repose while being nursed by a naked lady while a young man at his feet holds an emblem of truth.

The Panteón was built on the site of the original Basilica of Atocha, (there have been several). The crypt of that church still exists below the garden of the Panteón. It does not seem to be open to the public, but here rests the remains of one I have been researching for other reasons and I would liked to have found out more. It is of Agustín Arguelles, 1776 – 1843, who was guardian of the young Queen Isabella II and President of Parliament. He promoted freedom of the press, (which might be why his eponymous neighbourhood is full of book shops!), a free market and the abolishment of the slave trade and torture.

As well as Arguelles, the crypt also houses the remains of José Maria Calatrava, (1781-1847), judge and member of parliament; Juan Alvarez Mendizabal, (1790-1853), Economist and politician who was exiled twice as the king, Ferdinand VII found him to be a pain in the neck; Diego Muñoz Torrero (1761-1829) a priest and politician who supported the abolition of the inquisition; Francisco Martinez de la Rosa (1787-1862) statesman, dramatist, Prime minister and the “most unpopular man in Spain”, earning the sobriquet “Rosita la Pastelera” (Rosie the compromiser or cake maker) and Salustiano de Olozaga (1805-1873) soldier, writer, lawyer and politician and one time civil governor of Madrid.

It seems very strange to me that in a building designed to immortalise Spain’s greatest, the lives of only twelve men, and no women, are remembered here. It was built at the tail end of the 19th Century by the architect Fernando Arbós, used for a while and then the county’s enthusiasm for the project seems to have foundered. Somehow it survived when the neighbouring Basilica of Atocha was destroyed. This might be regarded as a pity, as the rebuilt basilica is quite beautiful, while the Panteón is not!
Who would you place in the Panteón de Hombres Ilustres? These days I would assume that women could be remembered there too. Comments below please.


  1. Hi Richard! Since our week meeting this summer in La Alberca I have read very closely your posts. Congratulations! I've learnt a lot of my city because of you. I thought you weren't going to write about El Panteón de los Hombres Ilustres... but great! here I have something about that. Thank you very much. I hope see you soon on your fridays meetings.
    Best regards. Fran (the guy with the pregnant wife...)

  2. Are the Ruben Dario and Alonso Martinez Metro stops sufficient memorials to the Nicaraguan poet (Felipe Ruben Garcia Sarmiento a.k.a. Ruben Dario, poet who initiated Spanish-American literary movement known as Modernismo) and Spanish jurist (Manuel Alonso Martinez, 1827-1891, prinicipal redactor of the Spanish Civil Code)?

  3. @Tom: As I said in a previous post about history being written on the street signs of cities and towns, it does perpetuate the names of the famous (or infamous) for posterity and Madrid takes that into the names of its Metro stations. There are great stories behind those names, great deeds that are commemerated. I wrote in the current post that Spain seems to have lost enthusiasm for celebrating its heroes in the Panteón. Perhaps naming Metro stations for them is a better way. In some stations the story of the men, or women (but not many)behind those names is told. My curiosity about these names stems directly from not having that information. Perhaps research I am currently engaged in will one day rectify that.
    @Fran: It was you that sent me there - and you that can also take responsibility for other postings coming up in the next few weeks. Thanks for your advice and suggestions.

  4. And does the ship wreck of the Nuestra Senora d Atocha in the Florida Keys (check out the story at have anything to do with the naming of Atocha Station?