Historical Review of Caceres
By José Julio García Arranz
Panoramic view of Caceres
The Old Town of Caceres is an exceptional monumental enclave that preserves evidences from differents peoples and cultures settled in its territory. From Upper Paleolithic period to the 20th-century great urban expansion, the Capital of Upper Extremadura proudly holds a rich cultural patrimony. Its high degree of preservation contributed to being declared as a Spanish National Monument in 1949, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
The early human occupation of its surroundings is shown by the paleolithic cave paintings from Maltravieso Cave. Nowadays fitted in the metropolitan area, its negative handprints keep the secret of primitive initiation rites. Also there are traces of population in Metal Age like the small El Conejar Cave located, like the previous one, near to El Calerizo area.
But the first quite outstanding remains in Caceres belong to the Roman Times. It's deemed that the former urban core of the town arose from the Roman colony of Norba Caesarina, founded by the consul Lucio Cornelio Balbo around 25 BC, with veterans coming from several nearby Roman camps. There are several gravestones from that time –some of them are still embedded in building's walls of the old town–, sculptural pieces as well as some sections of the wall, built between 3th and 4th Centuries AD, including its eastern gate, also known as Christ's Arch, that still remains in use.
Palace of Weathervanes and view of the Mountain of Caceres
After a probable period of depopulation and abandonment of the Roman colony, the town came back with the arrival of the Arabs. The new Muslim population rebuilt the intramural core as well as its new rammed-earth walls and towers over the sturdy Roman granite blocks. The surviving remains of this time –the majority of the citadel wall and the remarkable cistern of the old fortress, nowadays known as Palace of Weathervanes– belong to the Almohad period, specifically to the last third of the 12th Century, when the threatening advance of the Christian troops caused a political and military instability. This stunning wall demonstrates the strategic importance that Cáceres had as a key stronghold to access to the Guadiana basin.
With the final Christian Reconquest of the place, which occurred in 1127 or 1129 after many years of fighting, Cáceres became a free borough, maintaining that status until 1882, when Alfonso XII granted it the status of city. During the 13th and 14th centuries, several noble families coming from the northern territories began building their manor houses within the city walls, over the Muslim substratum, resulting in the characteristic architecture of the old town of Cáceres: austere buildings of defensive nature, with plain walls made with both ruble and ashlar masonry. The majority of the religious and civil buildings belonging the Old Town of Cáceres date back to late 14th Century, specially from refurbishments, extensions and newly constructed buildings made between 15th and 16th Centuries. Its numerous towers –many of them clipped in mid 15th Century according to the order by the Catholic Monarchs as shameful punishment to the aristocratic factions for opposing their cause– are a silent witness to the nobility conflicts that plagued Extremadura in the late Middle Age.
St James' Church
The great constructive activity of these centuries is a clear sign of an economic growth phase, due to the agricultural economy and the American conquest, which finally resulted in a significant population growth. The city overflew the old walls and neighborhoods were made outside it on the western side of the Main Square –which replaced the old St Mary's Square in its economic and municipal functions–. It also grew inside by means of the so called judería, the Jewish Quarter which is hanging over the steep eastern side of the Old Town. Extramural churches –which formed new parishes such as St James and St John of the Shepherds, linked to the Mesta– and palaces around the Main Square –proudly showing features of its Renaissance constructive style– were also built.
After a century of deep recession, the 17th, faint signs of recovery were observed during the 18th, when some urban reforms were made: the main entrance to the Old Town, Arch of the Star, was rebuilt; some large constructive endeavours, Church and School of the Society of Jesus, were started and several palaces, convents and hermitages were reformed. Other major attempts to modernize the city of Cáceres were the establishment of the Royal Court in the late 18th century, or its conversion into capital of Upper Extremadura in 1833.
However, these new administrative functions did not boost the city, whose urban layout remained virtually unchanged until late 19th century, when the first urban expansion plans were designed and developed: the street that connects the Main Square with the St John's Square, or the future Paseo de Cánovas. In addition, the discovery of deposits of phosphates near the city, Aldea Moret, and the opening of the railway in 1881, allowed the extension of the city southwards during the first third of the 20th century. Also the Royal Court Palace and the Bullring became urban centers of attraction. These expansion areas allow the development of a pseudo-modernist architecture as well as the renovation of the agricultural and commercial bourgeoisie, representing the last period of constructive flourishing of the city.
View of Cáceres from the Mountain
Cáceres is currently an university and service centre, with a growing cultural activity which includes medieval festivals and literary contests, consolidated since its declaration as a World Heritage Site. It is, in short, a city learning how to combine modernity with an exceptional cultural heritage in order to offer at the same time premium travel services as well as one of the most evocative and authentic backward time travel in Spain.
José Julio García Arranz is Doctor in History of Art and Associate Professor of the Department of History of Art of the University of Extremadura.