Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2016
Paul Barrett Niell Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba: Classicism and Dissonance on the Plaza de Armas of Havana, 1754–1828 Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 344 pp.; 12 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780292766594)

In Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba: Classicism and Dissonance on the Plaza de Armas of Havana, 1754–1828, Paul Niell examines cultural production related to the commemoration of the foundational site of Havana, located on the city’s Plaza de Armas. Legend recounts that the Spanish founded the city there under a ceiba tree. Niell focuses on architecture, urban design, and painting created at three different moments: the 1754–71 construction of a baroque monumental pillar on the Plaza; the 1771–91 classical redesign of the Plaza and creation of two new baroque buildings; and the 1791–1828 fabrication of a neoclassical temple on the Plaza and its program of history paintings. Niell uses the lens of heritage studies in order to probe how mostly Spanish and creole elites used the “past for present purposes” (4). As such, he maintains that using a heritage approach highlights both dominant uses of the past as well as simultaneous dissonant interpretations. Neill positions these heritage processes within the framework of global modernity in order to illuminate how the Spanish Crown, local Spaniards and creoles, and subaltern populations engaged with issues of civic and aesthetic reform, scientific knowledge, and social order at a time of increased racial tension.

In the first chapter, Niell analyzes the reconfiguration of the Plaza de Armas from 1771 to 1791 in the aftermath of the British invasion of Havana in 1762, as a strategy of imperial reform that sought to impose spatial order through increased social surveillance. He inserts the Plaza de Armas (the city’s oldest plaza) into broader colonial Spanish uses of the plaza as key to the construction of policía, the spirit of ordered and Christian urban life. Captain General Felipe de Fodesviela y Ondeano’s proposed reform of the Plaza de Armas was to “extend and regularize portions of the space and install new buildings” (35) that relied on “rigorous” (36) geometry and classicism characteristic of other Bourbon reform projects in the Spanish viceroyalties; one goal was to instill “good taste in the Crown’s subjects” (39). Niell argues that the two buildings actually finished as part of this proposal—the Casa de Correos (ca. 1771–76) and the Casa de Gobierno (ca. 1776–91)—dominated the northwest corner of the Plaza as symbols of “expanded bureaucracy” (42). However, he maintains that the buildings incorporated Spanish and Cuban architectural elements in a hispano-mudéjar, or baroque style, in an effort to incorporate popular local styles in order to create “visual consistency” (46) with existing buildings. Niell ends the chapter by considering two examples of how public rituals unfurled against the backdrop of the newly redesigned Plaza: the 1812 promulgation of the new Spanish constitution and the yearly processions of free and enslaved people of color on Three Kings’ Day. Both served to demonstrate social hierarchies and “visualize social order” (50).

Moving away from the Plaza de Armas, in the second chapter Niell explores the parameters of a broader “new subjectivity” (56) in Havana that resulted in part from the “rational reform” (55) of the Spanish Bourbon Crown across its possessions. He sketches a cultural history of the civic and aesthetic reach of Enlightenment reforms in Cuba for local Spanish and creole elites. For Niell, the emergence of civic associations for these groups, like the Economic Society (mirroring others in Spain), fueled this “new subjectivity” in Havana. The activities of the ruling class forged opportunities for public mutual identification as they promoted agriculture, published newspapers, supported charitable works, and commemorated themselves in portraits. He cites the ca. 1819 writings of the intellectual and professor Félix Varela as integral to how these individuals understood notions of good taste as a “reform of the senses” (88). In a parallel fashion, Spanish Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada y Landa, who arrived to Cuba in 1802, enacted a campaign (with elite support) of good taste and “reformed piety” (82) as a shift away from baroque excessiveness and toward restraint and contemplation through the construction of a new general cemetery (ca. 1802) and changes to the main cathedral of Havana (ca. 1828). Both the general cemetery and cathedral projects involved the implementation of neoclassical structures: a gateway structure of post and lintel with Tuscan pilasters and allegorical imagery for the former and a new main altar with Corinthian columns for the latter. The Italian artist Giuseppe Perovani contributed paintings to the cemetery gateway and began work on frescoes for the cathedral that were finished by French expatriate artist Jean-Baptiste Vermay. Finally, Niell argues that the founding of the Academy of San Alejandro in 1818 (the island’s first fine arts academy), supported by Spanish and creole elites and directed by Vermay, functioned also to instill ideas of good taste in the visual arts and reassert cultural authority, especially as the visual arts had been dominated by black artists.

Niell returns to considerations of the Plaza de Armas in chapter 3, where he explores another effort at fashioning heritage and commemorating the foundation of the city with the construction of the monument known as the Templete. He notes that it resulted from the efforts of a diverse group, including the Spanish state, Bishop Espada, and civic rulers. Rather than serve one agenda, he maintains that it served many and, for the elite, embodied the idea of “flexible citizenship” in which they acknowledged local pride and imperial relationships. The Templete incorporated an earlier monument on the foundational site: a 1754 baroque triangular pillar with an entablature featuring the Virgin and Child. Niell does not address the processes behind the 1754 monument, but he suggests that its existence confirms a relationship between history and collective memory on the Plaza de Armas. In 1827, Captain General Francisco Dionisio Vives Piñón requested another monument on the site. As with the general cemetery, local elites paid toward the construction of the monument as a symbol of their public charity, civic mindedness, and allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Also like the gateway structure of the general cemetery, the Templete evoked Greco-Roman architecture with its Tuscan Doric portico and entablature atop a raised rectangular platform. Niell further asserts that a set of history paintings installed inside the Templete (completed by Vermay) created a “heritage gaze” (141). The three canvases, known as The First Cabildo (ca. 1827–28), The Inauguration of the Templete (ca. 1828–29), and The First Mass (ca. 1827–28), presented scenes of both the past and present of the city and featured colonial elites in a narrative that coalesced into an “allegory of the journey from the natural and primitive to the rational, cultural, and refined” (160) while at the same time affirming the place and gaze of the privileged white male viewer.

In chapter 4, Niell considers “dissonant” interpretations of the Templete monument particularly during a time of revolution in the rest of the Atlantic world and increased slave trade (and fear of slave rebellion) in Cuba. He looks at tensions in the project that reflect how the monument functioned for different audiences. For instance, the centrality of nature also revealed competing interpretations of the monument. He argues that the monument reinforced Spanish rule through the symbolism of the ceiba tree that served as an imperial metaphor and evoked Biblical genealogy. The emphasis on nature underscored the natural order of imperial ideology, especially as the Spanish Crown promoted botanical science in its possessions to promote power and agriculture. However, local creole elites also saw local flora represented in the monument (the ceiba, royal palm, and pineapple) as symbols of local identity and pride. These represent the tension between “imperializing homogeneity and pride of distinctiveness” (183).

In chapter 5, Niell turns to a frame of “disinheriting” to explore other dissonant meanings of the Templete, particularly for the African-descended populations of Havana, which by 1827 were the majority. Niell notes that it is not known if people of African descent were even allowed inside the Templete. He focuses instead on identifying how whiteness, as formulated in the monument, became part of the “reformed subjectivity” it promoted. The Templete and its paintings, as a vision of the “reformed colonial city” (214), reflected a contemporaneous movement in Cuba to establish towns with white settlements via the Council of the White Population (established in 1817). Moreover, Niell says that the visual narrative of the history paintings functioned to remove people of African descent from the “sanctioned history” (214) as only two such figures appear: an enslaved female servant and a free man of color militia member. They are represented in ways that serve white supremacy: the servant in a fixed socioeconomic position that corresponds with her lower status, next to legitimate white families, while the militia man serves as a “civic role model” (225) for people of African descent. Niell also suggests that white elites appropriated the symbolic power of the ceiba tree (associated with the deity known as Changó of the African-inspired religion of Santería) to communicate power to African-descended populations.

Although a central premise of Niell’s argument is tracing how neoclassicism and ideas of good taste were transformed in Cuba, some linkages seem unexplored. He cites a few examples of how these ideas were actually debated and understood, including Varela’s writings and select articles from contemporaneous newspapers. But, for example, Niell does not explain how, or to what extent, Varela participated in the foundation of the Academy of San Alejandro, which seems particularly important as Niell singles him out as such an influential figure. Likewise, if the academy was meant to be a paragon of academic classicism, what kinds of works (beyond drawing exams) did the students there actually produce, and how were they understood to be examples of good taste? Niell does not offer examples or clarify whether such works have survived. Other aspects of this contextual specificity could have been bolstered by the inclusion of stronger archival sources, particularly the colonial Havana town council records in the collection of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, where issues related to public space, order, and monuments are discussed amply.

Overall, Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba is a wonderful contribution to the small amount of existing literature that examines the cultural history of the Enlightenment in Cuba. It is also one of the few books that analyzes the art and architectural history of the Cuban colonial period in depth, while placing it in useful dialogue with works produced in other areas of the Spanish viceroyalties. To date, scholarship on colonial Latin American art has mostly focused on works from viceregal Mexico and Peru. Niell effectively connects important iconographic sources from around the Atlantic world to the typology of the Templete and its visual program in a way that should further inspire similarly compelling studies of the political ramifications of visual culture produced under late colonialism.

Linda Rodriguez
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University