Struggling town gets tourism boost from art restoration cock-up

Borja's 16th century town hall. Image: Ecelan, via Wikimedia Commons.

We've spent a lot of this year pondering the vexed question of how to sort out the economies of struggling towns. Is it better transport links that they need? Better skills? Tax breaks?

One possibility we've never considered is that vandalism-based-tourism might be the answer. And yet, here's Borja, a little town in Spain whose only distinguishing feature is a fresco of Jesus, which an elderly local of great goodwill but limited skill attempted to restore to greatness. The results attained a measure of notoriety in August 2012, because they looked like this:

Before and after. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, the artist in question, Cecilia Giménez, was widely mocked for her attempts at restoration. And yet, according to the New York Times:

Grief has turned to gratitude for divine intervention — the blessing of free publicity — that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.

(...)

Since the makeover, the image has attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world — Japan, Brazil, the United States — to the gothic 16th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy on a mountain overlooking Borja.

Visitors pay one euro, or about $1.25, to study the fresco, encased on a flaking wall behind a clear, bolted cover worthy of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.

Let's think about those figures a moment. The portrait rose to notoreity in late August 2012, so roughly 850 days ago. That means roughly 176 people have been visiting the fresco every day. Assuming the church is open for 10 hours a day, that's about one every three and a half minutes.

And this, remember, is not in the heart of Seville or Barcelona or some such. This is a church on a hill outside a tiny town a 40 mile drive from the nearest major city. 

The fresco has been such a draw that:

...Nearby vineyards are squabbling over rights to splash the image on their wine labels... A comic opera is in the works in the United States, the story of how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town.

(...)

In the economic crisis of the last six years, 300 jobs vanished, [the town's mayor Miguel Arilla] said, but with the tourism boom, restaurants remained stable. Local museums, he added, also benefited. The nearby Museum of Colegiata, housed in a 16th century Renaissance mansion, experienced a rise in annual visits to 70,000 from 7,000 for its religious, medieval art.

So, if you’re looking for ways of livening up the economy of your town, there's your answer: trash something. Just remember to call a press conference afterwards.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.