In previous posts we have travelled to the heritage sites to the east, the centre and the north of Spain, and now it is Merida’s turn – a UNESCO World Heritage city to the west of the country. More specifically, we will discover the Temple of Diana, known as such since the 17th century although we now know that it had actually been dedicated to the goddess Roma and the Emperor Augustus.
The Temple of Diana, which dates back to the 1st century BCE, stood at the centre of a sacred space enclosed by a wall that served as a public tribune from which public authorities addressed the citizenry.
Granite ashlars and stones were used for its construction. It has a rectangular plan – it is a peripteral temple (surrounded by a colonnade) and has a hexastyle portico (six columns). These columns have fluted shafts and are topped by Corinthian capitals which were stuccoed and painted red at one point. The Temple of Diana sits on top of a three-meter high podium (base) and was reached by a stairway that no longer exists. It was flanked by two ponds.
Between the 8th and the 9th centuries an Islamic building was built where the stairway used to be. This new building was part of an Islamic palace (perhaps the residence of a Muslim governor until the Alcazaba was built in 835) along with the refurbished temple.
The Temple without its staircase acquired a defensive character given the height of the podium and its strategic location (a high and central point in the city). Towards the end of the 15th century, and in accordance with the taste of the times for vestiges of antiquity (a “vintage” fad), Don Alfonso Mexía, a knight of the Order of Saint James, built his palace over the remains of the Roman temple.
In 1972, the building was expropriated with the idea of recovering the old Roman temple, although it was later decided to maintain part of the Palacio de los Corbos because of the architectural value of some of its components (such as the entrance portico and the gothic-like window).
Moreover, the palace is part of the Temple’s history – if it hadn’t been reused, it might have disappeared altogether. At present, a visitor’s centre to the temple and the forum is being finished.
The last restoration of the temple (1986-1992) was carried out by the architect Hernández Gil. This enabled the partial reconstruction of the building thanks to the remains gathered over successive archaeological campaigns. In seeing the pictures, it seems normal to ask how it is possible for something that was built 2000 years ago to be better preserved than something that was built a mere 30 years ago.
When restoring, we should pay more attention to historical materials rather than modern ones (in this case concrete) which we insist on introducing to our monuments but that often quickly presents weaknesses in the building structure.
ADAPTATION OF THE SPACE AROUND OF THE TEMPLE OF DIANA
In 2007, not without controversy, the space around the Temple of Diana was refurbished. Yet again, we can see just how difficult it is to find the middle ground between historic architecture and contemporary expression.
The new structure, designed by José María Sánchez García, serves as a backdrop to the Temple. The main objective was to recover the central space of the forum, the Sacred Enclosure, recreating the original square around which the space was constructed. In the words of the architect himself:
“the concrete structure (white cement with local sand and gravel), with its L-shape, is attached to the irregular, built perimeter of the buildings that shape the open space. Hence, a second level is established for the observation of the archaeological remains and to put the square to use.”
Even though the townspeople of Merida still prefer to gather in the Plaza de España, the space around the Temple of Diana is becoming ever-more popular among the citizenry.
For example, during the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Verano (International Classical Theatre Summer Festival), the space is used for different, simultaneous productions to those that take place at the Roman Theatre.
In mid-June, it becomes the central space of the “Emerita Ludica,” a festival that is characterised by historical recreations, the aim of which is to spread knowledge about the classical Roman period. During this time, it is highly recommended to browse the Roman market-stands that surround the square, watch Roman soldiers parade along the front of the temple, or enjoy the nightly Roman-inspired fashion shows with the exquisite lighting of the Temple of Diana as a backdrop.
However, if there is ever a time when the Temple of Diana and its surroundings acquire a magical atmosphere it is during Holy Week, at which time numerous processions parade by it during both the day and at night.
Keep this secret ;-): Try entering the square from the right-hand side of the Temple’s back façade – it is amazing!
Hurray for the best of Heritage!!! 😉
Until the next post,
Sources: panels within the venue (Consorcio de Mérida), the news site Hoy.es, Museo de arte Romano, Experimenta.es.
Original version of this article was published on reharq.com