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Crossing bridges and climbing slopes: Antoni Miró’s visions of alcoi

Armand Alberola

Alcoi has been and remains a city with a rough epidermis that, from the bottom of a deep riverbed, strove to make its way towards a gentler surface, smoothing out unevenness and trying to bring together the scattered fragments of land. This unique combat against its surroundings has left its mark on Alcoi’s urban development and the character of its inhabitants; in a certain way, it urges the visitor to find out more about a historical evolution dating back millennia, as evidenced by the archaeological sites found in high and flat areas.

Still, the past that is an integral part of the city’s population inevitably leads to the industrialisation period. It was then that, drawing on Alcoi’s artisanal textile tradition, large-scale cloth manufacturing started in the city, which gained prominence in the early 19th century. It had a suitable natural environment and a hard-working population, in addition to the required funding.

For centuries, the banks of the Barxell, Benisaidó and Molinar rivers, and certainly those of the Serpis river, had supplied water power to flour, paper and fulling mills, as well as to manufacturing establishments. These are the origins of Alcoi’s (and, by extension, the Valencia Region’s) industrialisation. In the late 18th century, the botanist Cavanilles estimated that over 30 hydraulic facilities were proof of the enterprising spirit of Alcoi’s inhabitants. From this rough land, with complex orography and water-powered engines that generated energy and drove production, it was necessary to reach flat areas and find spaces where these elements could be transformed into wealth, spaces linked to trade and communications. It was no easy feat.

That landscape, sunken and full of ravines, where the rivers could easily become devastating torrents following frequent, intense and destructive rainfall in autumn, posed a permanent threat of disaster. Quite a few times, the violent waters of the Molinar, Barxell and Serpis rivers destroyed the hydraulic facilities, flooded the area and caused deaths and incalculable economic losses. Such was the case on 7 September 1793 when, after much of the Valencia Region had been hit by a unique atmospheric disturbance, comparable to a cut-off low, the floodwaters of the Serpis destroyed everything.

The obstacles found in this rough and rugged area could only be overcome if its unevenness was smoothed out and productive and urban areas were connected. The construction of bridges and the smoothing of steep slopes, which would later become streets, constitute a unique process that over history has left a deep mark on Alcoi, rightly dubbed “the city of bridges”.

Antoni Miró is Alcoi through and through. He is also a universal artist. But both characteristics are not incompatible when it comes to expressing feelings on a canvas. The artist has created many series and this one, devoted to the bridges and slopes of his hometown, sheds light on a new facet of a painter full of surprises. Precisely because he is always willing to reveal new interpretations of common spaces that we, obsessed with routine, pay no attention to as we walk past ? these spaces are abandoned, at risk of being emptied of content for ordinary people. And Miró shows up to remind us of their existence, their raison d’être, their meaning and opportunity when they were created, asking us not to forget what is ours, forcing us to look at them with different eyes – more generous, less prejudiced.

Bridges are said to be a substantial part of Alcoi’s urban fabric; otherwise, the city would be isolated, split into unconnected areas. It is absolutely true: Alcoi’s bridges, from older to more recent ones, are nexuses that help build the identity of the city. Antoni Miró takes his own “stroll over the bridges” Alcoi’s inhabitants are so fond of to suggest, and give rise to, a new, deeper look at soundly built and wisely applied engineering works. Miró makes us observe strong pillars from a bold perspective, or arches and half-arches set against the sky we see through the span, or vanishing in the surrounding mist, towering over nature and the city’s hustle and bustle.

Bridges like the Pont Nou or Pont de San Jordi, which, horizontally stressed, spans the wide Barxell riverbed to connect the immemorially old district with the expansion area built during the industrial boom. The bridge is broken down into pieces by Antoni Miró, who looks at it from previously unimagined visual angles of its arches and foundations. I am familiar with a magnificent study where Professor Picó Silvestre discusses the construction of this symbol of Alcoi and I openly confess that Miró has visually enriched its academic contents, making me understand why this is an extraordinary bridge. It is, he highlights, a distinctive landmark of Alcoi, deeply rooted in the subconscious of its inhabitants: when two people say they will meet at the “Pont”, it is understood that they can only mean the Pont Nou or Pont de Sant Jordi. As is typical of Miró, he is almost always right.

Bridges to connect isolated and steep areas that this time, on the canvas of the Sopalmo-based painter and poet, become the only protagonists in the absence of humans (other than a few exceptions). The artist wishes to emphasise their astounding beauty, enhanced by the contrast with a nature that smooths out the rocky roughness of the structure – a structure aware that its main purpose is to be useful. But it should be none the less beautiful for that, Miró seems to say, always finding the right treatment for his models. This case is no exception.

We need only look at the old Alcassares and Buidaoli bridges, whose evocative toponyms and the painter’s hand, skilfully and subtly combining nature and building works, take us back to the centuries in which they were created. Or the “long and winding” (in the words of an old Beatles song) Paco Aura bridge, connecting the Viaducto and Zona Norte neighbourhoods. This bridge ? curved, high, eternally long ? is masterfully recreated on the canvas by Miró, who also describes it as “long and winding”, and as “low”.

Viewers will certainly notice the contrasts between Miró’s visual treatment of more traditional bridges (Set Llunes, for railway use; Maria Cristina, Sant Roc, La Petxina, El Tossal or Fernando Reig) and that of more recent ones (which, other than the Barranc de la Batalla, are floating and slender bridges that run through the tunnels linking the sections of the A-7 road from Alcoi and Alicante). But, no doubt, it is in the equally symbolic Viaducto de Canalejas over the Molinar river that we can find Antoni Miró’s ability to fascinate us with his shapes and colours.

Regarded as one of the most remarkable engineering works of its time, this bridge, 200 m long and up to 55 m high, is something special. The Viaducto de Canalejas, designed by Próspero Lafarga, was built between 1901 and 1907 and provides a representative example of Alcoi’s Modernisme. Notoriously, many have committed suicide from this bridge. Antoni Miró, in his interpretation, adds the slender Torre del Campanar on the strong foundation pillar, rising up into the blue sky. This contrast becomes even starker when he forces us to look at the pillar from below, shrouded in a greyish mist that brings to mind industrial smokes, set against a pale cloudy sky. Miró, in the end, adds his special touch to this urban landmark when, after colouring it red (a colour that is deep inside him), he makes it human ? 50 metres above the viewer, the watchful eyes of the bridge try to dissuade us from the worst or, perhaps, welcome us to this unique “stroll over the bridges”, a most appropriate gift from the ever inquisitive Antoni Miró.