José López de Nerva (Nerva, Huelva, 1940) is the last link in a chain of Andalusian cabinetmakers that was forged in Andalusia in the 11th century, when the famous poet-king Al-Mutamid was preparing to magnify the history of Seville under the crisp coffered ceilings of the Real Alcázar of the city. They were woods, many times, that the so-called riverbank carpenters – so called because they work on the banks of the Guadalquivir – “collected in the same river as the ballasts that were released by ships arriving from Central Europe and coming, mostly, from Scandinavian territories.” Pepe López – as he prefers to be called – explains it from the wisdom that seven decades of profession give him. At 81, this cabinetmaker was already retired, but Velázquez’s call, two now ago, made him take up the gouge again.
Disciple of one of the most famous image makers in the recent history of Seville, Antonio Castillo Lastrucci (1878-1967), López has worked with wood since his stepfather, Manuel Cabrera de Figueroa, taught him the trade and, at the age of 11, “ angry with him ”, he went to Lastrucci’s workshop as an apprentice. At 18 he was ready to be sent to restore the doors of the Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra in Granada. “A Franco minister came to visit the works one day and he wanted to throw me out of there because I seemed like a child to him and he thought he could spoil that,” he jokes between memories.
“A Franco minister came to visit the works one day and he wanted to kick me out of there because I seemed like a child to him and he thought I could spoil that,” López jokes between memories
After an intense life bending the wood in the most outstanding heritage spaces of the Andalusian capital (from the Cathedral to the Palace of Dueñas), López has found himself with the challenge of returning his deep knowledge to Seville. This is how he felt when, in the summer of 2019, while walking through the city, he came across a theatrical performance that commemorated the day of the birth of Diego de Silva y Velázquez (around June 6, 1599), at the gates of the native house of the Sevillian painter. “I was unaware of the house recovery project and I wanted to go in to see what conditions that place was in, just out of curiosity,” he recalls.
There he found what for López can be described as a treasure. Of the 28 doors that the house had at the time of purchase in 2018, about eight are original from the seventeenth century, “and even the sixteenth.” “That does not mean that they were in the house at that time, but quite possibly they were transferred there from another place,” explains the teacher who, in the throes of the restoration of what is to become the interpretation and dissemination center of Velázquez’s life and work, he feared “that a crime might be committed.”
“There were already some that were so touched that I was outraged and spoke with the director of Casa Velázquez, Enrique Bocanegra. I made a commitment and took on the job ”, explains the cabinetmaker from his workshop in the Palmete neighborhood, where he works with his ancestral techniques, fleeing from modern methods and, above all, from the application of varnishes that, he claims, denature these pieces. “Varnish and shellac do not reach Spain until later centuries, you have to know the history,” protests López.
“Velázquez is the only painter capable of endowing everything he paints with eternity,” explains the cabinetmaker in his workshop as he piles up slats that carry centuries of history. In one of them he even shows the whims of those riverside carpenters who rescued logs in the Guadalquivir. On the doors of the Casa de Velázquez there are, in fact, signs of what could be “signature” of those riverine artisans: incisions with a knife that draw ships and thus leave a record of the origin of the piece. “All this would have been lost and I know I can do it well,” notes this man who laments the loss of a profession in a world “increasingly industrialized, unable to reach the soul of an old piece of furniture, that they have it.” You just have to contemplate Pepe López in the gloom of his workshop and confirm that it is true.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.