Buenos Aires Cultural Battles

By Rob Packer

Three blocks from Buenos Aires’ Retiro station, and round the corner from a couturier for polo, lies a beautiful colonial-style palace that immediately stands out from other buildings in the city that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris. Today the Palacio Noel houses the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco” with its collection of Spanish colonial art, seen from the context of a fin de siècle intellectual debate for Argentina’s culture.

Buenos Aires' neo-colonial Palacio Noel, now the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco”

The museum’s introduction paints a picture of a 19th-century Buenos Aires dominated by French-influenced eclecticism and immigration from Europe that was Europeanizing the city’s Spanish colonial cultural influences and by 1914 made up half of the capital’s population, forming a large part of the poorer classes. In the face of these changing circumstances, the creole elite “tried to put a brake on this subjugation”; the museum calls this Hispanicism the “first nationalist movement” and mentions a group of intellectuals around Ricardo Rojas, Rubén Darío and Manuel Ugarte, forming “a counterpoint to the imperialist advance of Europe and the United States”. I am unsure, however, how European immigrants could have been both poor and imperialists.

Ideologies aside, the museum is a repository of colonial art from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and elsewhere, collected by Carlos Martín Noel, the architect who designed the building in its neo-colonial style. The collection includes a lot of silverwork from the mines of Potosí and religious sculptures of Jesus, the Virgin and other saints; however, it also explains Buenos Aires’ colonial history and it’s hard not to come out of the museum with a feeling of awe at the hyper-bureaucracy of Spain’s empire.

Buenos Aires was an anomaly in the Spanish Empire from the city’s foundation in 1580 and until the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776. The city was founded to secure the Río de la Plata against Portuguese expansionism from Brazil that threatened Spain’s hold on its mines in today’s Bolivia. But the city’s location didn’t fit with the empire’s bureaucracy, which had one official trade route: overland through Argentina, Bolivia and Peru to Lima and Callao, by boat up the Pacific coast to Panama, across the isthmus and from there to Seville in Spain. In age where water transport was always the quickest way, this was clearly inconvenient for a city 200km from the Atlantic and some exportation of leather, tallow and wheat was actually allowed. But the unintended, but not entirely unexpected, consequence of this enforced remoteness was smuggling, mainly from Portuguese Brazil (another was the voseoform of Spanish that is now only used in areas remote from the colonial centres).

A silver altarpiece made of Potosí silver.

At the same time, Spanish regulations of ‘pure blood’ meant that Castilians were barred from being merchants, moneylenders or artisans. In other parts of Spanish America, mestizos performed these roles, but the relative lack of natives around Buenos Aires meant that this workforce was imported from France, Italy, Catalonia and the Basque Country, but the largest group came from Portugal. The effect of the city importing its merchants from its main source of contraband was to create a perfect storm for smuggling.

This also added another cosmopolitan facet to the often-surprising worldliness of Spain’s empire. It is often forgotten that the Philippines were governed from Mexico City and that Manila was a warehouse for products from China, Japan, India and Persia (Iran-Philippines-Mexico-Spain is not the quickest route). Illustrating this influence, the museum has a small collection of marble religious figurines from the Philippines, smuggled—sometimes by priests—from Mexico to South America, as direct trade was forbidden and the official route went via Seville.

A Spanish-style portico in the museum.

This lack of contact between Spain’s colonies was still felt nearly a century after independence when Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan poet involved in the intellectual debate that led to the museum’s opening, arrived in Buenos Aires as Colombia’s consul: a largely ceremonial title as there was almost no trade between Argentina and Colombia and very few ex-pat Colombians. Buenos Aires’ Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano provides a fascinating picture of the city’s anomalous position in the Spanish Empire, especially if seen through the prism of the 19th-century argument over European and creole influences. Just don’t expect it to give a balanced picture of that debate.

Azulejos in the Palacio Noel.

One Response to Buenos Aires Cultural Battles

  1. Pingback: Manuel Mujica Lainez’s “Mysterious Buenos Aires” « Rob Packer's Blog

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