PALAMOS, Spain (Reuters) - Could a poolside folly at a private Mediterranean resort in Spain owned by a reclusive German billionaire actually be a 12th century architectural treasure spirited away from its original home?
This is the historical mystery being unraveled by a medieval art expert who has been investigating a cloister that has stood since 1958 on a northeastern Spanish estate owned by wealthy German philanthropist Curt Engelhorn and his family.
Gerona University Medieval Art History Professor Gerardo Boto believes the cloister, now nestled in a pine forest on the estate in Palamos, some 120 km north of Barcelona in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, could be the remains of a romanesque monastery that was originally built several hundred miles away in the central region of Castilla y León.
“If its authenticity is confirmed, that could help us rewrite a few aspects about Spanish romanesque,” Boto told Reuters on his first visit to the cloister.
The two remaining sides of the cloister with their intricate, pale golden arches sit next to a pool near a 200 year-old Catalan farmhouse, or “masia”.
Boto said the cloister was reminiscent of Santo Domingo de Silos, a Benedictine monastery in Castilla y León’s northern province of Burgos. The monastery is one of the best examples of romanesque architecture in Spain and its cloister, a secluded quadrangle flanked by archways on its inner side, is one of the most superbly preserved.
“This is as if we were gazing at the oldest son of Silos,” Boto said, gazing at the Palamos cloister on a visit accompanied by the press.
A group of experts from Catalonia’s regional government have also visited the site recently and are expected to determine in the coming weeks whether the cloister really is an original 12th century gem that has been dismantled twice and trucked across the country for reassembly first in Madrid and then Palamos.
Boto first stumbled across the cloister in a French architectural magazine in 2010 and could not believe the pictures he was seeing.
He started an investigation which included carefully analyzing the high quality photographs in the magazine and checking Google Earth to get an idea of its size.
Boto was unable to gain access to the estate until he unveiled his theory at an art conference which sparked media attention and prompted the owners to allow experts and journalists on to the site.
The Engelhorn family have never felt the need to determine the authenticity of the cloister, but have a letter from a Metropolitan Museum of New York curator calling it a fake.
Now, the Engelhorns say that if the cloister is genuine, they will allow visitors in to see it.
“If the Generalitat (regional Government) or any official body tells us it is a monument and we have to allow visits, there is no inconvenience,” said Josep Comas, a spokesman for the owners.
The history of the delicate stone arches is sketchy, but the closest back story of the columns and intricate carvings mooted in the Spanish media only starts in the 1930s, leaving centuries of its real origins completely unknown.
According to El Pais newspaper the cloister once sat on a walled piece of land in a district of Madrid from the 1930s until it was sold to a relative of the current owners in the 1950s for a million pesetas, a fortune during the era when dictator Francisco Franco ruled Spain.
No one knows how or why it came to be in Madrid from wherever it was first built.
Boto has some theories about the monument’s original medieval home, but he wants to study it further and allow other experts to investigate before leaping to a conclusion.
“I’ve been following this issue for years and I’ve been finding and discarding different candidates,” he said.
“It’s been six or eight months since I travelled to Castilla y León , to see those places so I don’t know if they would be of a suitable size, for instance”.
Editing by Amanda Cooper and Paul Casciato