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"Down and dirty: Fitzcaraldo stories from the archives (on the Cafe del Principe)".

A note on my title: it refers to the almost surreal stories reminiscent of Werner Herzog's classic film, Fitzcarlado; accounts one finds in archival documents of individual passions facing nearly insurmountable odds. Prohibited from lifting the documents off your desk in Madrid's Archivo Historico Nacional we work with them head down for hours on end. Then, as a result of their poor state of preservation, upon turning their pages they can become dust in your hands; it is easy to get dirty in the archive. The experience is touching because as the papers crumble you feel like the last surviving link to the individual lives they deal with.

Originally, I thought of discussing some stories about those lives, but beg your patience and instead will speak of something different, Madrid's iconic Cafe del Principe. This was the cafe next to the Principe Theater, today's Teatro Espanol; home of the Parnasillo, the tertulia of Spain's young romanticists of the generation of 1830. Mesonero Romanos remembered the Cafe as "destartalado, sombrio y solitario" (53). Though it is a cultural landmark aside from this, we know nothing about the place. (5) The original plans for the Cafe, however, do exist and they help us fill this void in our knowledge.

Spain's important neoclassic architect, Juan de Villanueva, built the Cafe. Because I did not think I would have a projector available, I have turned Villanueva's drawings of it into a poster. This is the Cafe; next to it you see the Coliseo:

[Poster display. See Plates I and II, which the original poster presents side by side.] (6)

The drawings are not well known, and have never been considered in the context of literary history. For us it is important to note that the publisher of the drawings, Villanueva's biographer, attributed the wrong date--1805--to the building (95; 236-37). Phillip B. Thomason's otherwise excellent work on Madrid's Teatro de la Cruz gives 1806-07 as the date, which also is incorrect (31-2). (7)

According to archival documents the Cafe del Principe had its origins in 1790. In that year, Augustin Martinez de Castro, who owned the two houses that would become the Cafe, adjacent to the theater, was cited for a building code infraction (see Plate 3). Since he would have to work on his property anyway, he requested a license for further construction. As Madrid's chief architect, Villanueva went to inspect Martinez de Castro's property and it was then that he thought of the project that resulted in the Cafe. On February 21, 1790 Villanueva wrote to city officials:

Con motivo de haver practicado ... la diligencia de alineacion de las fachadas ... de las casas viejas que se quieren refabricar sitas en la calle del Principe, contiguas y medianeras a el Coliseo de Comedias ... se advirtio [y] reflexiono que tal vez estas mismas casas ... seria conveniente se comprasen ... agregandolas al mismo Coliseo, y dandolas comunicacion mas particularmente con el Escenario ... (3-101-1, expediente 2).

The landholder's opposition to the city takeover of his property then delayed the project. Villanueva may not have had the idea for the Cafe from the very beginning but as the work progressed he must have realized that after adding the space next to the theater's stage near the rear of the property, an area remained in front, facing Principe Street. This became the Cafe. (8)

At the latest the idea for the Cafe was added by 1793. In a letter to the city dated on February 25 of that year the architect states,

Habiendome hecho cargo de la disposicion y estado de la obra principiada en la casa contigua y medianera a el coliseo del Principe ... he formado el correspondiente proyecto de lo que en aquella estension debe hacerse, y fabricarse a el consabido fin ... proporcionando a la parte de la Calle, la servidumbre publica de un Cafe y Botilleria ... (3-101-1 expediente 4)

1793 is the latest date therefore we should attribute to Villanueva's plans for the Cafe, though he might have already begun work on it prior to sending the drawings to Madrid officials, and perhaps even before he produced them.

In addition to the Parnasillo, because of its date the Cafe is also suggestive of one of our most canonical 18th century plays, Leandro Fernandez de Moratin's La comedia nueva o el cafe. It premiered in the Principe in February 1792. Traditionally we take the Fonda de San Sebastian, near the Principe, as the inspiration for Moratin's set, but his play takes place in a cafe "al inmediato de un teatro," which could mean either near or contiguous to a theater. (9) I am not here suggesting the Cafe del Principe as a new model for Moratin's set, though that seems possible. (10) What might be more fascinating to consider though, is that Moratin influenced Villanueva's Cafe project; that his play had a civic or urban impact we previously have not recognized. However, we should not rule out the possibility as well, that both Moratin and Villanueva independently gave us a generic theater cafe. If this were the case we should be no less interested in the drawings and related documents; they can help bring to life for students the stage set of Moratin's famous comedy. For this I propose--and have begun work on--a digital 3D model of the Cafe. With that we might even project how such a cafe would have aged in the 35 years or so following its construction, when it became the home of the Parnasillo.


Ms. Archivo de Villa (Madrid). 0,59-31-52.

--. 3-101-1, expediente 2.

--. 3-101-1 expediente 4.

Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnologia de Espana. Madrid Historico. Web. April 10, 2016.

Allen, John Jay. The Reconstruction of a Spanish Golden Age Playhouse. El Corral del Principe (1583-1744). Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1983.

Alvarez Barrientos, Joaquin. "Introduccion." Leandro Fernandez de Moratin. La comedia nueva o el cafe. Ed. intro., notas Joaquin Alvarez Barrientos. Orientacion para el montaje Jose L. Alonso de Santos. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2000.

Alvarez Barrientos, Joaquin. "Sociabilidad literaria: Tertulias y cafes en el siglo XVIII." Espacios de la comunicacion literaria. Madrid: CSIC, 2002. 129-47.

Baker, Edward. Materiales para escribir Madrid: Literatura y espacio urbano de Moratin a Galdos. Madrid: Siglo XXI, 1991.

Escobar, Jose. "Fin de El Duende Satirico del Dia y comienzo de El Parnasillo: testimonios contemporaneos." Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. Web. April 9, 2016.

Mesonero Romanos, Ramon de. Memorias de un setenton, natural y vecino de Madrid. Tomo segundo. 1824-1850. Madrid: La ilustracion espanola y americana, 1881. Google Books. Web. April 9, 2016.

Moleon Gavilanes, Pedro. Juan de Villanueva. Madrid: Akal, 1998.

Teson, Nuria. "Una testaferro promovio negocios inmobiliarios en Madrid y Murcia." El Pais. April 5, 2006. Web. April 10, 2016.

Thomason, Phillip B., ed. El coliseo de la Cruz, 1736-1860: Estudio y documentos. Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2005.


East Carolina University

(5) We do, however, have studies about the Parnasillo in which writers in passing briefly refer to the Cafe; but the information is scant. See, for example, Escobar's article.

(6) Madrid's Archivo de Villa has granted permission for publication of these drawings. I am grateful to Laurie Godwin, Tech Support Specialist in the Department of Academic Technologies at East Carolina University for her assistance in producing this poster.

(7) The Teatro del Principe burned down in 1802. Both Moleon Gavilanes and Thomason believe the Cafe was built during the reconstruction of the theater. It is likely, however, that what they thought was a transaction to take over the land next to the Principe for the Cafe was really for space behind the Cafe to further expand the stage area out toward Calle de la Visitacion, to the north of the theater, in the direction of the Carrera de San Jeronimo in today's Madrid.

(8) Preliminary calculations as of this writing suggest the original Cafe consisted of approximately 1000 square feet of space (measuring 1 imperial foot as .914 of a Castilian foot). This could have changed over time, as a result of alterations to the building, especially with the reconstruction after the fire of 1802 in the theater.

(9) The Fonda de San Sebastian was at the Plazuela del Angel. On period maps it appears to be nearly equidistant between the Teatro de la Cruz and the Teatro del Principe. This especially appears to be the case when we note that the front entry to the Cruz was at the furthest point facing away from the Fonda. In the same general period of the Cafe del Principe's construction, the Conde de Tepa replaced the Fonda with his mansion. His building, now renovated, remains as a hotel and is a protected, historic property. We have little scholarly information about the Palacio de Tepa, but some web sites that speak of it state that the Count took control of the property that housed the Fonda in 1792, coincidentally in the same year Moratin premiered his play. His redevelopment of the site, however, did not begin until around 1797 and it was not completed until the first decade of the 19th century. The architect for the project was Jorge Duran, but it is likely that Villanueva became involved at some point. Even if he did not participate in the construction, as the court's chief architect he probably assessed and approved Duran's plans. (Madrid Historico; El Pais) The overlap of the two projects in the same period--the demise of the Fonda de San Sebastian and the building of the Cafe del Principe--leaves room for speculation that perhaps there was a relationship between them. This could have just been coincidence. The work on both took place at a time of important building ventures in Madrid. As we know from Joaquin Alvarez Barrientos, cafes were an increasingly popular novelty and new ones opened all around the city (see both publications by Alvarez Barrientos in the list of Works Cited; see also Baker).

(10) Aside from its location, next to a theater, there are several features of Villanueva's drawings that are reminiscent of Moratin's set, as we may assume it to have been, based on the play's action and stage notes: "La escena es en un cafe de Madrid, inmediato a un teatro. El teatro representa una sala con mesas, sillas y aparador de cafe; en el foro, una puerta con escalera a la habitacion principal, y otra puerta a un lado, que da paso a la calle." For example, in the drawing there is the stairway in the rear of the entry-level floor that leads to a room on the main floor. Villanueva's "mostrador," a 12-foot-long counter built into or along a wall that divided the original two houses that became the Cafe, could have been where Moratin located the "aparador de cafe," the coffee service mentioned in the stage notes. There are also easy explanations for some of the differences we see between the set and the drawings. The clearest one is the door to the Cafe in the play, which is to the side of the entry-level floor. In reality it could not have been there. On its south side the Cafe was adjacent to the theater and, on its north, structures existed between it and the Calle de la Visitacion. If one assumes the play is based on the drawings, Moratin could not have placed the entry to the Cafe at the front of the room, as Villanueva had it. The facade of the building had to be cut away and he had to place it elsewhere so the theatergoing public in the audience could peer into the set and view its action. Further comparison of the stage set and the drawings is reserved for a future, lengthier discussion of Moratin's play.

Caption: Plate 1: The entry level and main floor of the Cafe del Principe. Juan de Villanueva's signature is in the lower right hand corner. The camera that photographed the original document produced the ruler at the bottom of the image. (0,59-31-52)

Caption: Plate 2: Structural drawing of the Cafe del Principe. (0,59-31-52)

Caption: Plate 3: The two houses--numbers 2 and 7--that became the Cafe, adjacent to the Golden Age Corral del Principe. The circled numbers indicate the properties surrounding the Corral corresponding to the names of their 17th century owners in the right hand margin, according to John Jay Allen's The Reconstruction ...
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Author:Schinasi, Michael
Publication:Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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