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Three artists of Cuzco: three centuries of colonial art.

The art of colonial Latin America reflects a rich and fascinating age created by a luxury-loving society little understood in our time. Pedro de Vargas, Diego Quispe Tito and Marcos Zapata, three great artists of Cuzco, Peru, were as important to colonial Spanish art as Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci were to the Italian Renaissance. De Vargas, Quispe and Zapata spent their lives creating public art for their community, and their works remain a testament to a unique cultural heritage spanning three centuries. Yet they have been largely and undeservedly ignored by contemporary scholarship.

The story of these artists is closely linked to the history of the great Inca capital city of Cuzco. Like a Florence of the New World, Cuzco was the center of culture for an extensive region of the Spanish colony, isolated from the rest of the world by the Andes Mountains. Sacked and burned three times during the conquest, Cuzco's Inca ruins survived as foundations for the Spanish buildings which rose above the old city. Several major Christian churches were actually built on top of Inca temples to encourage acceptance of the new religion; other impressive mission churches were built throughout the rugged Cuzco region.

Cuzco's art tradition was born in these churches. Intended to promote the cult of the Virgin and Jesus Christ and replace the ancient worship of the gods of the moon and sun, the churches were furnished with spectacular interiors calculated to amaze the Indian population. The altars, paintings and sculptures became a visual language for an Indian audience unschooled in either European religion or history. European artists were imported to ensure that the symbolism and iconography were correct. The artists brought with them the reigning Hispano-Flemish style, typified by high-finish paintings with sharp focus and careful detail.

Pedro de Vargas was one such immigrant artist. Born near Cordoba, Spain in 1553, he became a soldier so he could travel to Peru. By 1574 he had joined the Society of Jesus and was listed as the assistant to the Italian Mannerist painter, Bernardo Bitti. The two young Jesuits travelled throughout Peru supervising the construction of great altar screens--enormous carved wooden frames enclosing sculptures, paintings or relief panels modeled from gesso and the wild rushes growing in Lake Titicaca.

These altar pieces were the focal point of the mission church interiors, and represented the most costly and labor-intensive artistic constructions of the entire Spanish colonial period. Carpenters, joiners, sculptors, painters and gilders created splendid carved walls of burnished gold and brilliant images. Dozens of highly skilled craftsmen would work for years on a single altar.

Like European art centers from the same period--roughly 1500 to 1800--Cuzco's costly art, architecture and high-quality craftsmanship were maintained by guilds which commanded the very best of local talent. As the years passed, the Cuzco guilds elaborated their style, at first reflecting Spanish and European directions, but soon taking pride in their own particular artistic and historical development. Along with Bitti, de Vargas played a major role in the formation of the Cuzco school. His works are characterized by enamel-like finishes, radiant colonial ideal figure types and a decorative use of gold on details--features which greatly influenced later Cuzco painters.

During this same period, Christian images were in great demand by Jesuit missionaries for their campaign in Japan. A versatile artist, de Vargas supplied jewelry-like miniature paintings on wood and copper in both late Flemish and Italian Mannerist styles for this rapidly expanding Oriental market. He also created large portable paintings representing sculptured altars, which could be rolled for shipment to the Philippines and Japan. Vargas' works must have been highly prized in Japan, for many of his lost paintings have reappeared there, mounted and preserved in beautiful Japanese lacquered shrine cases.

In the mid-1600s, Cuzco sparkled as one of the brightest jewels in Spain's colonial crown. An enormous new cathedral dominated the central plaza. Large building complexes, churches, retreat houses, hospitals, cloisters and shrines represented the many monastic orders. Homes and palaces of nobles and rich merchants housed private chapels filled with works of art by local masters. And then, in 1650, the worst earthquake in Cuzco's history demolished most of the city. Towers crumbled, roofs collapsed, fires raged for days and gilded altars splintered into ruin. Cuzco would have to be rebuilt.

It was decided to repair and restore many historic build to their original appearance, but with the addition of decorations in the latest Baroque style. However, the repair and restoration of church interiors and altars became a seething political issue with opinions divided along class lines. Should the altars be rebuilt in the style then fashionable in Madrid and Lima, or should they be restored to their original form? Spanish and creole artists from Lima, representing both the Viceroy and the higher ecclesiastical offices voted to remake Cuzco in the most modern fashion. Local Indian masters, on the other hand, wanted to retain as much of the ancient flavor of the city as possible--to reuse fragments and create a style harmonious with the Hispano-Flemish and Italian Mannerist traditions of the late 16th century. Opinions became so heated that Cuzco's guild of painters was actually split into opposing factions of creoles versus Indians. The local Indian contingent finally won the battle through the leadership of a man of great talent, Diego Quispe Tito.

Signing some of his works with the title "Inca" lest anyone mistake his caste, Diego Quispe Tito founded the Cuzco mestizo school after the earthquake. Between 1650 and 1680, he worked to fill churches and monasteries with large series of canvasses painted in an archaic style. Local landscapes, buildings, popular ceremonies and personalities were featured in the mestizo school paintings. In all of these works the idealized figure types and compositions, derived from prints and engravings after Rafael, Rubens, Bloemart and other European artists, were influenced by former masters Bitti and de Vargas. This "revival" style was decorative and simplified, revealing much of the Indian inspiration of the mestizo school. Details in bright colors were highlighted with gold, which helped illuminate paintings in dark church interiors. However, this technique also often "flattened" the visual impact of the painted subject.

By the middle of the 18th century, Cuzco was reorganized and underwent new expansion. Two large additions were projected for the cathedral--the Church of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to its left and the Church of the Triumph on the right. In addition, a series of semicircular paintings illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin were to be executed under the ceiling vaults throughout the old cathedral and in the new Church of the Triumph. A young Cuzco artist, Marcos Zapata, won the contract to paint more than 70 huge matching canvases.

An Indian himself, Marcos Zapata chose to continue the mestizo style of Diego Quispe Tito, now more than 100 years old. Deeply conscious of the position of the Indians in Peruvian society, he shrewdly arranged to paint portraits of Indian nobility and local community leaders as devoted kneeling "donors" witnessing the events in the Virgin's life. He copied the traditional techniques of the mestizo school so expertly that it is very difficult for scholars to identify the hand of a specific artist or even to identify the works by their proper generation. To complete his many contracts, not only for the cathedral but also for other churches, Zapata relied on a staff of able assistants. They completed his works and continued his personal interpretation of the mestizo style long after his abrupt and mysterious disappearance around 1760. We know that Cypriano Gutierrez y Toledo and Ignacio Chacon were two of his closest friends and students. They continued to work in his style well into the 1780s, relying more and more on a color scheme of red, white and blue. Zapata's followers flooded the market with the last great wave of mestizo-baroque paintings. Later, the lesser talents of subsequent painters and the popularity of Roccoco and neo-classic styles led to the degeneration of the mestizo style into "folk art," ex-votos or tourist copies.

The deliberate and prolonged archaizing of the Cuzco mestizo school had a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it preserved works which might, otherwise have become obsolete in the search for the "new" and "fashionable." On the other, it helped perpetuate the continued obscurity of this school. More recently, earthquakes, civil wars and dismal poverty have all contributed to the neglect of Peru's colonial masterpieces. Two major quakes hit Cuzco in the 1970s, triggering an alarm to save one of the world's most remarkable cities. Dangerous leaning towers and fallen roofs have been rebuilt. That much, at least, has been done for the buildings, but Cuzco's painting legacy remains tom, tattered and unattended.

Since neither the national government nor the church have funds to save the city's artistic treasures, more and more paintings are falling into ruin or are being smuggled into Bolivia, Brazil or Argentina, where they become "family heirlooms." Gobbled up by bargain-hunting European dealers and sold at low prices, they are often completely misrepresented, losing their original age, history and attribution. Thus, much of Cuzco's glorious colonial heritage has fallen into obscurity, and its leading artists are now only vaguely remembered as shadows of a bygone era. The continued pillage and deterioration of this magnificent legacy is truly a tragic loss for our time.

Bob Stroessner is curator of the Denver Art Museum's New World Department. His collection of Mexican and Peruvian colonial art is the most extensive of its kind in the United States. Teddy Dewalt edits the newsletter published by the Rocky Mountain Institute for Precolumbian Studies.
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Author:Stroessner, Bob; Dewalt, Teddy
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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