This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Ecce Mono phenomenon. It seems to be a good reason to remember the funny story of the “worst restoration” in history and take stock of its cultural impact.
History of Ecce Mono
So, Borja is a small Spanish town with a population of ~ 5 thousand people, which is located 300 km northeast of Madrid. At the beginning of the 20th century, the little-known artist Elias Garcia Martinez liked to spend time in Borja. Around 1930, on the inner wall of a small local church, he painted a fresco “Ecce Homo”, which in Latin means “Here is a man.”
It should be noted that Ecce Homo is a popular subject in Catholicism for paintings and frescoes depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. The creation of Martinez was one of many similar ones and, according to art historians, was not in any way outstanding, and therefore did not have great cultural value. Fresco size – 66 x 40 cm.
For many decades, no one looked after the fresco, and because of the dampness in the room, the paint gradually peeled off and fell off. This continued until 2010, when 81-year-old local resident Cecilia Jimenez decided to take matters into her own hands. She agreed with the rector and began to restore the fresco in her free time. Having no experience in the restoration of works of art, she did not come up with anything better than simply painting a new one on top of the old fresco, which was supposed to repeat the look of the original.
The restoration process dragged on, and by 2012 the fresco was still in the process of being “restored”. However, except for the rector and Cecilia herself, no one knew about the work being done. Meanwhile, Martinez’s granddaughter, who only knew of the poor condition of the original fresco, invited restoration experts to Borja to assess the complexity and cost of professionally restoring the fresco.
They arrived in Borja in August 2012 and were very surprised when they saw what looked like “a pencil sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic” at the site of Martinez’s creation. This is how the BBC Europe correspondent described Cecilia’s work. Photos of the updated fresco immediately hit the Internet, where a new name was firmly established behind it – “Ecce Mono”. This is already a mixture of Latin and Spanish, and translates as “this is a monkey.”
Impact of Ecce Mono on society
While some scoffed at Cecilia’s work, others expressed admiration, comparing Ecce Mono to the works of famous primitive artists such as Henri Rousseau and Niko Pirosmani. Some considered Ecce Mono an act of vandalism and demanded that the original fresco be restored. In opposition to them, the defenders of Ecce Mono appeared almost immediately, who, demanding to save Cecilia’s creation, created a petition that collected 23,000 signatures.
The dispute between opponents and defenders was ended when professional restorers said that the original fresco was painted on a plaster wall that had not undergone the necessary pre-treatment. Because of this, it is not possible to remove the top layer of paint without damaging the bottom one.
Ecce Mono was destined for success, it spawned a huge number of memes, and Borja faced unprecedented popularity. Until 2012, about 6,000 tourists a year visited Borja, and in the first year and a half, ~ 90,000 people from 110 countries came to see Ecce Mono. Due to the high popularity, it was decided to charge a fee of 3 euros for the opportunity to see the fresco and visit a specially equipped center for the interpretation of contemporary art. It is known that 57 thousand tourists visited Borja in 2016.
In the future, the tourist flow decreased, but even now it is 10-11 thousand tourists a year, which is 75% more than before 2012. Not bad for a town located 3-4 hours from Barcelona and Madrid, the nearest major tourist cities. 49% of the proceeds from the sale of souvenirs goes to Cecilia Jimenez, and 51% goes to the leadership of the church. However, almost all this money in any case is spent on charity and the development of the city.
Ecce Mono in culture
The influence of the most unsuccessful restoration on culture is difficult to overestimate. The matter was not limited to a ton of memes and a couple of documentaries. Ecce Mono has become one of the best selling Halloween costumes of the last 10 years in the US, plus:
2012 – Ecce Homo became a trademark, now its image can be found even on wine bottles;
2015 – Ecce Mono appeared in Knights of Pen & Paper 2 as an NPC named Ecce Martinez;
2016 – an opera in Spain was dedicated to the history of this fresco;
2017 – Art Info magazine ranked “Ecce Homo” as the 52nd most iconic piece of art created in the world between 2007 and 2012;
2018 – the premiere of another comic opera took place in the USA;
2020 – Ecce Mono became one of the opponents in Rock of Ages 3: Make and Break. Players encounter him in the Planet of the Monkeys level;
2021 – an Easter egg with a reference to Ecce Mono was found in Hitman 3. Earlier in 2018, a similar Easter egg
Its been a little over 2 years since the Hitman Sapienza level was released. Its however just now that people have discovered this little easter egg. https://t.co/ZhEdzb6iB9#Hitman pic.twitter.com/LAMS7Z0Tz5— Morten Elgaard (@Morten_Elgaard) October 20, 2018
Ecce Homo is a success story not because of, but in spite of. The creation of a Spanish pensioner turned out to be ridiculous to such an extent that it turned into a pop icon. Her story is somewhat reminiscent of the 2003 film “The Room”. But if the latter became a cult only a decade later, then Cecilia was more fortunate, because she literally “mapped” her city and gained worldwide fame after only 2 years after starting her work.