The three arches in the Mission campanile or bell tower facing the plaza have become iconic for our region. You can even see the arches already etched into entrance markers for the Los Osos Valley Road bridge being built over Highway 101.
Our Mission’s campanile is unique among the 21 California Missions. The five bells, each hung in its own arch, including two on the side, are above a large arched entrance.
We know that the campanile was added between 1812 and 1820 by Father Luis Antonio Martinez who served at the mission from 1798 to 1830. Did Fr. Luis have any architectural training? Probably not.
What he did possess was an 18th century reprinting of a book from ancient Rome that was rediscovered in the Renaissance. He also may have had a strong recollection of a beautiful church in his native Asturias, Spain.
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The book, De architectura, was composed by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Vitruvius was a Roman writer who lived about the time of Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus. As an architect and engineer, he placed in written form many of the architectural principles and designs used to build the roads, aqueducts, fortifications and cities and towns of the Roman world.
His De architectura, known today as The Ten Books of Architecture, was copied in both Latin and Greeks and used almost continuously for 1,800 years.
Today, scholars of the Jesuit and Franciscan missions in the American Southwest acknowledge that the designs for most of the missions came from Renaissance editions of the Ten Books, reprinted and given to each missionary team.
But while Mission San Luis Obispo combines features of Vitruvius’s designs, we couldn’t find a structure with the three arches over the vestibule.
Mike Campbell, a reader of this column, recently phoned me. Mike was a journalist for a major newspaper in Contra Costa County. He had been teaching at the San Francisco-based Heald College until it closed in 2014. He says that he now has lots of time on his hands.
He has a website named, “The Marble Orchard — Where trivia goes to die,” and writes under the pseudonym Padre Narciso Duran. Father Duran was in charge of Mission San José located in what is now Fremont. He was known for teaching music later becoming the father-Presidente of the California missions and moving to Mission Santa Barbara.
Mike’s spare time paid dividends for our knowledge of Mission San Luis Obispo. He paid close attention to the details of a World Heritage site: The church of Santa Maria del Naranco, near Oviedo, Asturias in northwest Spain. It’s a fine example of Asturian Pre-Romanesque architecture, dating from 848 C.E.
The church was constructed as a royal palace for Ramiro I of Asturias. Three hundred years later it was converted to a church.
Mike had come across the famous Carlton Watkins’ image of the campanile at Mission San Luis Obispo. Dating from either his 1865 or 1875 visit, it shows the structure before the quake-damaged entrance was demolished in the late 1880s. It was rebuilt by Father John Harnett in 1936.
Mike writes, “When the image was taken, the roof line of the church had no overhang, offering an easier comparison with Santa Maria del Naranco, whose stone exterior also had no overhang.”
Then Michael, by reading his copy of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s multi-volume History of California, noted that Father Luis Antonio Martinez was born in 1771 in Briebes, Asturias. The town of modern-day Brieves is 55 miles from Oviedo, the largest nearby city of the region. The church of Santa Maria Del Naranco is just three miles from Oviedo.
Could Father Martinez have grown up in Asturias without traveling through Oviedo? ** Some tickets remain for “La Mesa de las Padres,” “the table of the padres” served in the gardens and restored Mission Hall. The event supports the conservation of the historic features of our mission. It’s on Saturday, Aug. 22 at 6p.m. Call 781-8220 for tickets.