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Treasured chests of history.

IT IS FITTING, as we mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Jesus, to celebrate a little known but inspired manifestation of that order, namely the barguenos associated with the missions of southeastern Bolivia. Barguenos (also sometimes called papeleros) were portable desks with drop fronts and a grid work of drawers inside. Most were used by the priests themselves, but some may have been sold to colonists for additional income. Regardless, they were an integral part of the commerce and good organization for which the Jesuits were famous. In that way they are curiously emblematic of the practical, "corporate" spirit which sustained Ignatius of Loyala's farflung compania.

Until their expulsion from South America in 1767, the Jesuits maintained a network of fifteen missions in the Mojos and Chiquitos regions, hundreds of kilometers north and east of Santa Cruz. These hinterlands, named for the Indians of the area, were so remote that few Europeans, not even the Spanish soldiers, dared explore them. Nonetheless, at the peak of the Jesuit missionary effort, as many as 23 dedicted priests celebrated mass and taught the catechism there, while also supervising an efficient system of cattle ranches, cocoa and sugar cane plantations and artisan workshops. There was even an administrative hub, the port of Paila near Santa Cruz, with a college for novitiates, warehouses, and stockyards. Through this small window to the outside world, they exported their products and maintained contact with the Jesuit headquarters in Cordoba, Argentina.

The reducciones (the term comes from the verb, reducir, meaning to concentrate) represented the official policy of the Spanish Crown to bring the Indians into townships where they could be instructed in a Christian way of life. The Jesuits, on the front line of this effort, believed that missions in remote areas, physically separated from European settlements, offered the best defense against corrupting influences, not to mention marauding slavers. They sought to create self-sufficent communities which provided the Indians basic religious and academic education, as well as training in an array of practical skills, including stone cutting, carpentry, blacksmithing, printing, painting and calligraphy. The missions were laid out with great care, equipped with sanitation facilities that were quite advanced for their day, and defended by native militia who were carefully trained by the priests. Europeans were only allowed to visit for very brief periods of time, and even then, they were restricted to the guest houses. According to the Chilean historian Gabriel Rene-Moreno, who carefully examined the archives for Chiquitos and Mojos, in 1767 there were 18,535 neophyte Indians in a region of approximately 540 square miles. Furthermore, the Jesuits had managed to build up their herds to 54,345 head of cattle and 26,371 horses.

Records, accounts, inventories: that is what the barguenos were all about. Throughout Iberoamerica, these practical pieces of furniture served military officers, civilian administrators and clerics alike--people on the move and in need of a portable office. According to Manuel Toussaint, a Mexican authority on Hispanic art and architecture, these chests derived their name from Bargas, a province of Toledo, Spain where they were first made. The Portuguese favored barguenos made of imported hardwoods, such as jacaranda, with thin strips of inlaid ivory. The Spanish, on the other hand, preferred the more flamboyant, baroque style, with ornate carving, polychromy, gold leaf and lacquer work. But for the priests of far-off Mojos and Chiquitos, confronted by a very different reality, a new hybrid style would emerge. It would celebrate the flora and fauna of the region, even life in the mission, in a visual language drawn from Europe.

The first wave of Jesuit missionaries in South America were Spanish. Since they were competing with Dominicans, Augustinians, and other orders which had staked their claims earlier, they often had to settle for turf far from populated centers. Possessing a single-minded devotion to their role as soldiers for Christ, they marched into the remotest reaches of Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia to set up their well-organized missions. Although these Spanish Jesuits were successful, their numbers were insufficient to man the new outposts of their expanding domain. At first they recruited reinforcements from Naples and the Spanish Netherlands, and when still more were needed, Jesuit priests from the Hapsburg Empire were pressed into service. Priests with names like Mesner, Ott, Gletle and Brunner, Paucke, Sepp and Berger ran many reducciones. Silesia, Bavaria, Bohemia, and the Tirol were transported to South America.

One of the priests particularly active in the Chiquitos Region was named Martin Schmid. He was born in 1694 in Baar, Switzerland and would die back in his homeland six years after the Jesuit expulsion. Typical of his countrymen, he respected hardwork and practical skills. But he was also a cultured man, the product of an education at the Jesuit seminary in Landsberg, Bavaria. Schmid, like other outstanding musicians produced by this school, had a keen interest in fine woodworking, especially the construction of all sorts of musical instruments. Determined to have quality pipe organs for his missions, he actually took leave of his regular duties in Chiquitos to study the craft of organ building in Potosi. In time, he and his colleagues taught the Indians how to build a broad range of musical instruments using sophisticated joinery and marquetry techniques. They applied these same methods to the manufacture of fine furniture.

Marquetry, the art of inlaid wood, and its close cousin, intarsia, literally "mosaic in wood," were popular in Renaissance Italy. Gradually these techniques gained favor in the alpine regions of Europe where the "busyness" of the surface appealed to the Germanic folk esthetic which abhored empty spaces. Cradles, armoirs, chests, even dining tables with replicas of food and utensils, all done in inlaid wood, delighted their owners, not to mention the craftsmen who filled long winters executing the painstaking process. It was not uncommon for young men of school age to learn basic inlay techniques as part of carpentry class (this was the case for the author's great grandfather as late as the 19th century), particularly in the Jesuit order which placed great stock in practical, hands-on skills.

It is little wonder then that when these priests, like Schmid, arrived at their new posts, they carried with them not only technical know-how but also the stylistic traits of their homeland: intricate floral motifs, fanciful animals, figurative narratives guaranteed to make the eye dance. There in the wilds of Bolivia, as incongruous as it may seem, they began to embellish the basic Spanish mission structure with painted flowers, sunbursts, stiff Romanesque angels and fantastic architectural detailing right out of Bohemia, Bavaria, and the Tirol. A similar treatment was given to the interiors, including ceiling beams, alters, pulpit, and Lenten curtains (the latter resemble the Danish and Flemish curtains).

But it was the furniture, particularly the barguenos, which received the full force of Germanic whimsy, perhaps because their purpose was largely secular. The clerics, in concert with their native colleagues, laid out surprising uninhibited scenes in contrasting natural woods: comical mermaids strumming lyres and frock coated hunters blowing their horns, an unconscious reference perhaps, to the music that was central to mission life. Other scenes featured a great tangle of vines and tropical blossoms magically flowing from a vase balanced on a woman's head. In this verdant "hair" parrots and owls squawked and hopped from limb to limb while cows grazed far below.

It is fair to ask whether there was an indigenous ingredient in all of this and the answer is a resounding "yes." Despite patronizing comments on the part of some priests who claimed the Indians could only immitate, never innovate, quietly the latter left their own indelible mark on these pieces. The compositions often had much in common with the complex Andean textiles and the inlaid work found on the wooden drinking vessels, queros, of the altiplano. The scenes themselves featured Indian caciques, dressed much like Inca emperors, or natives hunting game in the bush or proding livestock. In one touching scene, obviously a funeral for a child, two priests wait by the chapel to administer last rites while bells toll and bearers carry the deceased. The situation is timeless and universal as mourners or perhaps just curious onlookers peek through the fence of the churchyard.

As in Europe, within the Mojos and Chiquitos region there were several variations on the basic bargueno. A free standing type called a papelero had short, stubby legs, whereas others had a front panel which opened like a door with the hinge to the side. A smaller, stouter version, with handles on the end, a sturdy lock, and a hidden compartment clearly was used as a money box. The much taller contadores stacked in a modular fashion, three tiers high, often sporting the Hapsburg coat-of-arms, the double-headed eagle. Yet another style, fashioned from the harder cocobolo wood, featured a combination of inlaid work on the drop front only with ornately carved drawers inside. These chests had a strong churrigueresque flavor to them, influenced by the Andean highland styles. Finally, in the adjoining reducciones of Paraguay, a related but simpler style of barguenos evolved, with cursory floral motifs but rarely any pictorial treatment. Almost always they had some inlaid work in freshwater shell which gave them a distinctly Oriental quality.

With the demise of the reducciones in South America, the production of the Jesuit style bargueno ceased almost immediately. The raison d'etre for these chests evaporated as quickly as the priests, who were unceremoniously packed off to Europe. Undoubtedly some barguenos found new owners--the Indians themselves and colonists who were attracted to their undeniable charm--but it is equally true that many simply perished like the missions. Today the most representative selection resides in the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernandez Blanco on Calle Suipacha in downtown Buenos Aires. Other examples can be found in the Museo Historico Provincial Marques de Sobremonte in Cordoba, Argentina and the Complejo Museografico Enrique Udaondo in Lujan (province of Buenos Aires). In Bolivia, the chests are found both in private collections and notably in the museum of the University of Chiquisaca in Sucre.

There is something magical about these survivors in the way they instantly engage the eye and demand close inspection. They can't help but conjur in the imagination that fleeting encounter between central Europeans and native Americans in one of the remotest corners of the world. The barguenos evoke a sense of harmony between two very disparate peoples and in that, they symbolize a tiny episode in the "holy experiment" which began four and one-half centuries ago.

Caleb Bach teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He is a freelance writer and researcher.
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Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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