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Review by Dennis Carr
A Surviving Legacy in Spanish America: Seven­teenth- and Eighteenth-Century Furniture from the Viceroyalty of Peru

María Campos Carlés de Peña. A Surviving Legacy in Spanish America:  Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Furniture from the Viceroyalty of Peru.  Madrid:  Ediciones El Viso, 2013.  xv + 443 pp.; 300+ color illus., appendixes, glossary, bibliography.  $75.00.

Latin America remains, for those of us north of the border who study furniture, among the least understood regions of the colonial Americas. The original Spanish viceroyalties, founded in the sixteenth century, occupied a vast territory: New Spain (which encompassed Mexico, Central America, the Southwest of the modern-day United States, Florida, much of the Caribbean, and, after 1565, the Spanish Philippines) and Peru (which stretched the length of the Andes of western South America, to present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina, later subdivided into smaller viceroyalties and captaincies). These were among the richest and most culturally diverse areas of the Americas. Peru boasted the first university in the hemisphere, the University of San Marcos, founded in Lima in 1551, and large, cosmopolitan cities that exceeded in population many of those elsewhere in the Americas, including those of the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard.

Even among Latin American furniture scholars, the furniture of viceregal Peru (1532–1824) has long been something of a mystery. The most authoritative and comprehensive book on Peruvian furniture has remained for generations the 1944 publication on South American furniture, El mueble colonial sudamericano by Alfredo Taullard. A more recent work is Sara Bomchil and Virginia Carreño’s El mueble colonial de las Américas y circunstancia histórica (1987). Other books have treated various aspects of the subject, often tangentially, such as Las misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos (1995) by Pedro Querejazu and Misiones Jesuítas (1996) by Jaime Cisneros, which survey a broad range of artistic traditions from the Jesuit missions of Alto Peru (Highland Peru), now modern-day Bolivia, including some furniture. In English, a group of recent landmark museum exhibition catalogues have greatly advanced the scholarly dialogue about Peruvian furniture, namely Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America (1996) and Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 (2013) at the Brooklyn Museum, and The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 (2006) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Enter María Campos Carlés de Peña, an Argentine professor and scholar, who through skill and what must have been a remarkable amount of tenacity, has compiled an impressive compendium of Peruvian furniture of the viceregal period in her lavishly illustrated volume A Surviving Legacy in Spanish America: Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Furniture from the Viceroyalty of Peru. This book first appeared in Spanish under the title Un legado que pervive en Hispanoamérica: El mobiliario del Virreinato del Perú de los siglos XVII y XVIII and now is available in an English translation published by Ediciones El Viso.

Campos Carlés de Peña joins a growing group of Latin American furniture scholars who have begun to examine more closely the remarkable furniture of the Spanish viceroyalties, mining it for rich topics. Such recent publications include, to name only a few, an extraordinary book on the furniture of Puebla de los Ángeles (2009) by Mexican scholar Gustavo Curiel and others; a groundbreaking study of the inlaid furniture of Villa Alta de San Ildefonso in Oaxaca, Taracea Oaxaqueña: El mobiliario virreinal de la Villa Alta de San Ildefonso (2012), by Gustavo Curiel, Carla Aymes, and Hilda Urréchaga; and exciting new research by Jorge Rivas Pérez on the evolution of the so-called butaca (butaque) chair.[1]

Campos Carlés de Peña has unearthed an impressive quantity of previously unpublished material long tucked away in private and church collections and spread across the vast territory of the old viceroyalty of Peru, in the first comprehensive and, I will add, much-needed survey of the region in years. Peru had astonishingly rich and diverse traditions of furniture making during the viceregal period, fueled by the enormous wealth generated by the region’s prodigious silver mines, especially the famous mine at Potosí, as well as extensive missionary activities of the Church and mendicant orders. The Jesuits were especially influential, commissioning large quantities of furniture from indigenous craftsmen for its far-flung missions spread across the countryside.

Her book is organized into eleven chapters divided into broadly defined styles and techniques, in which she explores such topics as “Mannerist-Baroque Furniture with Italian and Spanish Influences”; “Baroque-Style Furniture with Flemish and Italian Influences”; baroque furniture with carved, gilded, and inlaid decoration; rococo furniture of the French Bourbon period; and ending with neoclassical furniture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book also contains an appendix, which provides information on the political and historic periods of pre-Hispanic and viceregal Peru, and a glossary of relevant terms. An introductory chapter lays out the basic history of the region and the importance of regional and geographic diversity, which becomes relevant in later chapters. Several cities and towns take a starring role in this study, such as Lima, the colonial capital of Peru; Cusco, a colonial city built on the foundations of a former Inka capital; Arequipa, an important trading post that linked the Altiplano Highlands to the coastal plains; and Trujillo, a wealthy city on the northern coast.

The study surveys both secular and ecclesiastical forms and shows Peru to have produced the full complement of furniture for use in Catholic worship, most carved and decorated in full Counter-Reformation splendor: bishop’s chairs (cathedras), book stands, lecterns, altars, pulpits, retables, choir stalls, sacristy chests, and screens. Although Peru is not unique in this variety as compared with other parts of Latin America, such as New Spain, Portuguese Brazil, or even Nouvelle-France, the level of ornamentation and sheer quantity of surviving objects is awe-inspiring. Many of these forms were found in both religious and domestic contexts. The ubiquitous frailero (friar’s chair), an austere chair with straight arms and legs, was made in large numbers, sometimes with elaborately embossed and painted leather backs and seats in the manner of the Moorish-influenced designs of southern Spain. Some examples survive with elaborate coats of arms of the original, aristocratic owners. Peruvian furniture makers also created elaborately embossed leather trunks, called petacas, and heavily carved armarios (wardrobes) with eye-catching polychrome decoration.

Although Peru produced the full range of the international styles from the late Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the neoclassical of the eighteenth and nineteenth, it embraced the baroque for the longest period and with the most full-throated enthusiasm. Some scholars, such as Gauvin Alexander Bailey, have termed this style the “Andean Hybrid Baroque,” a unique mixture of European and local artistic traditions, salted with influences from Africa and Asia.[2] The Spanish reliance on indigenous artists, already highly skilled in metalworking, stone carving, and textile weaving, among other crafts from the pre-Hispanic period, to make much of this furniture resulted in a syncretism in which European taste and native belief systems coexisted. Campos Carlés de Peña shows frequently throughout the book how indigenous motifs inserted themselves into European-styled furniture, where native flora and fauna, such as corncobs, cantutas (an indigenous flower), and viscachas (a silky-furred Andean rodent) inhabit the spaces alongside European crowned lions, Hapsburg eagles, and foliate designs. The metaphorical qualities of this furniture are endless.

Among the most exciting chapters in this book is one that explores the Asian-inspired furniture called enconchado, which literally is encrusted with intricate inlays of mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell. Peru was receiving large quantities of Asian luxury export goods by the sixteenth century, and these imports of lacquer ware and other finely inlaid objects inspired a wide variety of imitations in the viceroyalty. Period inventories describe rooms in aristocratic Peruvian households filled with encochado furniture, including desks and bookcases, tables and chairs, precious boxes, and cabinets of drawers, which are stacked as many as three high. In this chapter, Campos Carlés de Peña has brought together a large body of this furniture, never examined before in quite this much depth, and firmly establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that this furniture was one of the fine artistic products of the viceroyalty, rather than originating in Europe or even Asia as some scholars had previously assumed.

Reading this book makes evident the frustrating lack of primary archival material in Peru. One wished that the author had delved more deeply into the historical context of the furniture and the furniture makers, elucidating the connections between craftsmen and patrons and beginning to establish cabinetmaking shop traditions that have long eluded scholars. This book, as awe-inspiringly comprehensive and groundbreaking as it is, still feels at times as if it skims the surface. The author’s primary concern is with the hard-won task of assembling bodies of material from far-flung places and collections, and for that we are grateful.

As scholarly attention has turned global in recent years and with increased interest in transatlantic and transpacific trade, as well as important issues of hybridity and syncretism, colonial Peru serves as a remarkable case study. The furniture made there has a rare ability to speak in a multitude of visual languages and provides fertile ground for further study. As more and more museums in the United States are beginning to collect Spanish colonial decorative arts and paintings, or realizing what they have in their storerooms, and as the market for Spanish colonial material continues to heat up, this work deserves our attention. Campos Carlés de Peña has added an important chapter to our understanding of another aspect of the rich, complex, and multilayered culture of the colonial Americas.

Dennis Carr
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2014

Contents
  • [1]

    Transforming Status: The Genesis of the New World Butaca,” in Festivals and Daily Life in the Arts of Colonial Latin America: Papers from the 2012 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum, edited by Donna Pierce (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2014), pp. 111–28.

  • [2]

    Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Andean Hybrid Baroque: Convergent Cultures in the Churches of Colonial Peru (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).