In Paleolithic times, 18,500 years ago, pictures of bison, horses, and other animals were painted on the ceiling and walls of a cave in northern Spain near what is now the town of Santillana del Mar. One artist in particular possessed genius-level skill and used the natural uneven contours in one room’s ceiling to create vibrant works with a three-dimensional effect.
Then 13,000 years ago, a rock fall closed off the entrance to the cave.
The cave opening was rediscovered in 1868 by a hunter, but since there are many caves in the area, it didn’t seem important. In 1879, an amateur palaeontologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, investigated it looking for stone tools and brought his eight-year-old daughter María. She wandered into the room now called the Great Hall and came running back. “Look, Papa, oxen!”
This was the first find of Paleolithic cave art, and no one could believe it for two decades until more art was discovered. Although the same artist may have worked in other caves, Altamira remains the “Sistine Chapel” of prehistoric cave art.
That’s why everyone wants to see it. In 1973 alone, 174,000 visitors hiked through the modest-sized cave. But the art had been made with mere charcoal and natural rusty ochre pigments, and the presence of so many sweating, breathing, germ-covered human beings changed the cave’s climate and endangered its paintings. Since then visits to the cave have been restricted or banned altogether. Instead, in 2001, a museum and reproduction of the cave opened nearby, drawing an average of 250,000 visitors each year.
But now, if you’re very lucky, you can visit the cave again – the real cave, not the imitation. This year as an experiment, starting in February, five visitors are chosen by lot among those present one random day of the week to visit the cave in person, with a guide, for a mere 37 minutes, only 8 minutes in the Great Hall, wearing disposable coveralls, hats, face masks, and special shoes. They may not touch the rocks or take photos.
These visits will end in August, then their effect on the cave will be analyzed: rock and air temperature, microbiological contamination, humidity, carbon dioxide, and other possible changes.
Two of the first five visitors admitted they saw little difference between the original and the copy in the museum, except that the lighting was better for the copy. The head of conservation at Altamira, Gaël de Guinche, insists, however, “Nothing compares to the original. It isn’t just a question of the paintings, it’s the place, the humidity, the darkness, the cold, the experience itself.” He himself has visited the cave only twice “because I know it’s fragile.”
All the first visitors agreed on how impressive the original was and how bright and vivid the paintings were. One added, “The most exciting thing isn’t the cave. What truly impressed me is the passion of the people who take care of it.”
If you can’t get to Altamira, you can see reproductions in several places in the world, including an underground exhibit in the garden at the National Archeolological Museum in Madrid. I’ve visited a couple of times, since it’s only two kilometers from my house. An outer room explains the history and importance of the cave. An inner room displays a copy of the painted ceiling.
Although the lighting is subdued, you won’t believe you’re in a cave or even a pseudo-cave. It’s a cellar room. But the art is faithful, you can stay as long as you like, and reclining benches make staring upward a little more comfortable. And since nowhere near a quarter-million people visit each year, you can study the art in relative solitude.
Still, I can’t forget the time I “saw” another reproduction of Altamira’s art at the Typhlology Museum in Madrid. Run by ONCE, the Spanish National Organization for the Blind, the museum features, among other things, scale reproductions of national and international monuments that you can touch. This way someone who cannot see the Burgos Cathedral or Statute of Liberty can get some idea of what all the excitement is about.
The reproductions include a carved wood panel that is a scale model of the Altamira ceiling. Beneath my fingers, the figures rose magically from the natural contours of the stone, something hard to fully appreciate just by looking. The artist must have felt the rock and “found” the animals, then rendered them in pigment.
For good reason, the curators of Altamira will never allow anyone to fondle the paintings. While a visit to the real thing might be impressive, its most unrealistic copy helped me understand the paintings in a way that nothing else could.
The real thing might be overrated.
— Sue Burke
Cross-posted from my professional website: http://www.sue.burke.name