Much ado about Torre: Rizal asked only for cross on tombstone
(Editor’s note: The columnist is the former chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, then called National Historical Institute.)
By the time the Supreme Court issued an order temporarily stopping the construction of the Torre de Manila condominium, 19 of a projected 46 floors had risen on Taft Avenue and appeared within the sight line of the Rizal Monument. Torre had scraped more than sky, reaping a hailstorm of protest from critics who claimed that seeing it in the background of the iconic monument would ruin their souvenir photos.
Worse, according to the Knights of Rizal, the Torre de Manila was a “national photobomber,” disrespectful to the memory of the national hero. Social media went viral, renaming the Torre de Manila the “Terror de Manila.”
Looking back on the background of the Rizal Monument should put the controversy in context.
Contrary to popular belief, the Rizal Monument is not the exact spot where Rizal was felled by a bullet on the morning of Dec. 30, 1896. Rizal fell some 100 meters away, northwest of the monument, on the side of Rizal Park toward the corner of Roxas Boulevard and P. Burgos.
Neither is the Rizal monument Kilometer Zero, the point from which all geographical distances on highway markers in the Philippines are reckoned.
The Rizal Monument is not merely a structure built to commemorate the life and death of a man who inspired the emergence of the Filipino nation, it is a tomb, the final resting place of the national hero’s mortal remains.
Burial at Luneta
After Rizal’s execution in 1896, his corpse was not turned over to his family for a proper funeral and burial. Rizal was interred in an unmarked grave at Paco Cemetery, which one of Rizal’s sisters located only after bribing one of the undertakers. She marked the grave with a simple tombstone with the letters “RPJ,” the initials of Jose P. Rizal in reverse.
In August 1898, a few days after Spanish Manila surrendered to the Americans, the Rizal family exhumed the body of Rizal and discovered rotting papers hidden in his pockets and shoes. We will never know what those writings were all about. Perhaps Rizal’s last will and testament? His thoughts before death? All disintegrated and lost to history.
Rizal’s remains were stored in an ornate urn of rare Philippine hardwood and ivory carved by Romualdo de Jesus and venerated in the Rizal home in Binondo. Here Teodora Alonso, the hero’s mother, would sometimes take out Rizal’s skull to show curious visitors.
On Dec. 29, 1912, after lying in state in the Ayuntamiento, Rizal’s remains were brought in a solemn procession to Luneta where they were buried on the base of a monument to be constructed above them.
Simpler design wins
The Italian Carlo Nicoli won over 39 other entries in an international competition for the design of the Rizal monument, but his complicated and ornate wedding-cake design was never executed. Some sources say Nicoli was not able to post the required bond to implement the project. Others say the organizers had second thoughts about the projected cost and gave the commission to the second-prize winner, a simpler monument in granite and bronze by the Swiss artist Richard Kissling. Assembled in Switzerland and shipped to the Philippines, Kissling’s monument was unveiled on Dec. 30, 1913.
Kissling titled his work “Motto Stella” [Guiding Star]. It consists of a granite base built over Rizal’s grave topped by an obelisk in three parts, and capped by three golden stars lined up to form a triangle taken by many to signify Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. Rizal’s face was modeled from a photograph taken in Madrid in 1890, in which the hero is shown holding a book and wearing an overcoat that is out of place in the tropics.
The Rizal figure faces the Quirino Grandstand and the Manila Bay, to gaze upon the setting rather than the rising sun. Arranged around the obelisk are other bronze figures: on one side is a mother rearing a child, on the opposite side two boys reading to underscore Rizal’s love for family or the motherland caring for her citizens, and education. Behind the monument is a still life composed of: a banana tree, an earthenware jar and a plow to suggest industry and the natural resources of the Philippines.
While the Rizal Monument is the focal point of two national commemorations—the June 12th Independence Day and Rizal Day on Dec. 30—and while visiting foreign dignitaries offer wreaths on Rizal’s grave, Filipinos should ask themselves what Rizal would have thought about the monument and the controversy over the Torre de Manila.
True to his nom de guerre “Laong Laan” [Ever Prepared], Rizal scribbled an undated letter in Fort Santiago before his death giving his family specific instructions regarding his burial:
“Bury me in the ground, place a stone and a cross over it. My name, the date of my birth and of my death. Nothing more. If you later wish to surround my grave with a fence, you may do so. No anniversaries. I prefer Paang Bundok [the area where the Manila North and Chinese Cemeteries now stand].”
All but one of these last wishes were followed. Instead of a simple cross and tombstone, a monument in granite and bronze was built over Rizal’s grave. Instead of Paang Bundok, he now rests in Luneta. Each year on Dec. 30, the President of the Philippines lays a wreath on the monument and leads the nation in commemorating Rizal’s death, when he specified “no anniversaries.”
Rizal might well be amused about the honor and respect we accord him, manifested in the fierce defense of a monument and a sight line. God forbid that Rizal comments with the title of Shakespeare’s play: “Much ado about nothing.” (To be continued)