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The silver years.

Although tales abound of the Spanish conquerors' lust for gold, silver was truly the treasure of the Americas. From the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, the Spanish colonial silversmiths turned out pieces of rare beauty that are highly collectible today.

Yet Spanish colonial silver has never been as publicized or appreciated as its English, European or New England counterparts. Few pieces exist and those are generally hidden away in private collections or museum vaults. Interest is growing thanks to the inclusion of silver works in the recent blockbuster exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries as well as in some of this year's quincentennial exhibitions such as Cambios: the Spirit of Transformation in Spanish Colonial Art, which opens in December, 1992, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Connoisseurs speak of the remarkable weight, texture, patina and color of Spanish colonial silver - distinctions that sometimes elude people who have not examined and handled large numbers of specimens. The specialist's vocabulary, too, can frustrate newcomers, for the words that appear in books and auctioneers' catalogues are not always defined in regular dictionaries. For example, the word "plate," which is bandied about by insiders, refers to solid silver, not to silverware manufactured with the modern process of electroplating involving the fusing of a thin skin of silver onto a base metal. By contrast, the sheer mass and weight of Spanish colonial silver plate is unmistakable.

Another telltale sign is the technique of hammering. Most plate was made by pounding a sheet of thick, soft metal into the desired form, then smoothing it with a small flat-faced tool. Less skilled artisans left dents while masters achieved velvety smooth surfaces whose slight textures give pieces their signatorial shimmer. Rims, beaded borders and other edges were most often tooled directly on the piece, but accessory parts such as feet, handles, spouts and finials tended to be cast separately and attached by soldering. Often the more complicated pieces disassemble for easy cleaning or so that the parts can be used separately.

The thickness and pure silver content of the Spanish colonial pieces reflect the abundance of raw materials in the Americas. Like colonial buildings and furniture of adobe, clap-board, walnut or mahogany, the so-called "strong surfaces" of old silver plate contrast markedly with the "weak surfaces" of European pieces of the same period. In the Old World, technical facility and a scarcity of resources led to veneered furniture and Sheffield plate, in which silver was fused to copper. Whereas, silversmiths there had to make precious materials like silver go a long way, colonial silversmiths in the New World had no such constraints.

Today it is difficult to imagine the sheer quantities of silver at the disposal of the early silversmiths. Hundreds of mines were opened and chunks of pure silver weighing as much as 400 pounds were lifted at a time. The riches of mines in Mexico, Central and South America created a wealthy leisure class able to appreciate the craft as well as pay the price for plates, bowls, vases, candlesticks, knives, forks, spoons and other household items. Wealthy landowners also ornamented their clothing, weapons and horse trappings with silver and furnished their private chapels with ecclesiastical objects.

But the silversmiths' biggest client was the Catholic church. Zealous clergymen conquering the New World under the banner of God and King built churches and missions which needed chalices, ciboriums, monstrances, alter bells, prayer frames and other silver items. Vestments were richly ornamented as well with paddle-size stick pins and silver loops. The clergy were responsible for introducing some secular objects as well. The mat cup, popular throughout South America, was first used by Jesuit missionaries who drank this herbal tea through the straw known as a bombilla. Both items challenged the imaginations of silversmiths.

Whatever the object, most ornamentation is in the style of baroque art or its less virile descendent, rococo - the two orthodox styles of church ornament throughout the Catholic empire. Although the Spanish colonial silversmiths attempted to duplicate stylish European precedents, their works remained distinct. Lawrence Anderson in his monumental study Art of the Silversmith in Mexico explains why: "Even in plate completely covered by decoration such as that produced in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, we see none of the intense craving for glory, none of the near madness felt in similar forms of Continental Europe. It seemed impossible for the Mexican silversmith to violate canons of good taste ... With a complete command of technique, they achieved even in their most earnest attempts to reproduce current European forms an almost Franciscan directness and simplicity."

Unlike other art forms, colonial silversmithing was entirely dominated by the Spanish who passed laws stating clearly that no one of "broken color" could practice this craft. The art of the Aztecs and other Indian silversmiths was not absorbed but destroyed. This changed during the Republic period (1820-1860) with the popularization of indigenous motifs. Suddenly plate began to sport new world animals such as llamas, jaguars, bears and turkeys. Unhappily such innovations coincided with the invasion of the French "boudoir style," a development that connoisseurs consider fatal to the naive yet regal colonial style that reigned.

The nineteenth century revolutions also meant the death of most old colonial silver. Although some families sought to be au courant by having their ancestral plate reworked into the new more fashionable styles, most old silver was melted down for coinage during times of need. In the New World as in the Old, families had long believed that having silver plate on hand was better than money in the bank. The more that was on show in the house, the wealthier the family. But if money was needed, the silver could always be melted down. Because both plate and coins had the same silver content, conversion was simple. So simple that widespread destruction of Spanish Colonial silver pieces has made it extremely rare and valuable today.

Collectors are often concerned about "hallmarks," a term referring to the initials or symbols that have been stamped on gold and silver objects since Byzantine and Roman times. Hallmarks represent guarantees of the standard of metal used and may also indicate when, where and by whom an object was made. Few pieces are marked with the name of the craftsman himself. At best we might learn the name of the shop. The most common mark found on Spanish Colonial Silver proves that the "Royal Fifth," a 20 percent tax, was paid to the crown. But many fine pieces of genuine silver escaped the process of marking for reasons both legitimate and illegitimate.

Even the marks that do exist might have been forged, transposed or altered to suit the purposes of unscrupulous dealers. Worn marks, for instance, might be the result of intentional snares or caused by heavy use or overzealous polishing. Spurious marks - sometimes made with antique colonial punches - were often added to genuinely old but unmarked pieces by dealers who believed they could attain a higher price for hallmarked wares. Occasional assayers' marks were removed from small or damaged plate to be soldered onto a larger piece. Such transpositions were a means of avoiding payment of the heavy taxes that were assayed on large, valuable items.

Burilladas, the word given for the zigzag markings made by a burin when the assayer took some metal to test for the standard of purity, is often regarded as proof of authenticity. But some genuine pieces with full sets of hallmarks have no burilladas and some modern silversmiths imitate the zigzags in order to foist off their reproductions as genuine. Consequently verification of colonial plate must be based on stylistic analysis as well as hallmarks, making its dating and attributing a uniquely challenging and perilous business.

Luckily, viewers need possess no such specialized knowledge to appreciate Spanish colonial silver. Such glorious weight, texture, color and patina are unique to silver from the Americas and the deceptively simple forms speak eloquently to our modern sensibilities.
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Title Annotation:Spanish colonial-era silver works
Author:Eauclaire, Sally
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:On the tightrope to conservation.
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