Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Arequipa: the White City

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

the Convent of Santa Catalina
       After the conquest of the Inca Empire, Francisco Pizarro sent delegations across Peru to establish new cities and consolidate his acquisitions.  On 15 August 1540, a group of Spanish colonists under Garcí Manuel de Carbajal, established the new city of Arequipa in the far south of Peru.  It was partly a relocation of a coastal town called Villa Herosa de Carnana that had not been successful.  Settlers there suffered from fever and other illnesses and so sought a healthier, more hospitable location.
       Lying in a broad river valley at 2328 meters altitude, the new site was only sparsely settled by Native Americans and the Spanish had no trouble evicting then to make room for themselves.  Dominating the northeast skyline 17 km away was the 5825 meters-high mountain they called El Misti, a still-active volcano (last eruption 1985) in a near perfect conical shape.
the founding of Arequipa
       The original houses were made of mud mixed with sticks and had thatched roofs.  The first residents were nearly all Spanish, who viewed their city as an outpost of Spanish civilization, of which the Catholic religion was a key ingredient.  In fact, they founded the city on Assumption Day, an important date in the Catholic calendar.  With that in mind, the city’s settlers began constructing the Basilica Cathedral the same year of the city’s foundation.
       Besides the rich agricultural lands in the vicinity, Arequipa enjoyed a cool, temperate climate, with daytime temperatures all year in the low 20s C. and nights 12-15 degrees cooler.  It was also close to mines that were just beginning to be exploited.  Arequipa’s location put it on the trade routes to Bolivia and Chile and when the colonial silver trade developed the city began to prosper.  In that sense, it was a good site for an ambitious town.  But what its founders probably didn’t know is that it is also in a seismically active zone.  El Misti and the other volcanoes in the vicinity never erupted often enough or forcefully enough to threaten the city.  But earthquakes have wrecked Arequipa many times throughout its history.
Plaza de Armas, central Arequipa
       The first devastating quake struck young Arequipa in 1583, knocking down practically every building in the city.  Construction of the Cathedral had to start all over again.  Two more earthquakes in the first years of the 17th century impeded reconstruction and the Cathedral was not finally completed until 1656.  It survived the next major quake in 1687.
       With its obvious vulnerability to seismic disturbances, Arequipa needed a different building material.  From then on churches, public buildings and private homes began using sillar, a sturdy volcanic stone; soft, lightweight and weatherproof.  Because sillar has a white color, Arequipa became known as the White City.  Sometimes it is a cream color, other times nearly pink or a gray-white, and some buildings in more modern times have been painted red, orange and other colors.  But in bright, sunny weather, and Arequipa gets more than 300 such days a year, it’s the white buildings, in all shades, that dominate urban architecture.
carved church facade
Plaza de Armas building
       The Spanish designed the city as a checkerboard grid of 56 blocks.  The original layout is still in place in downtown Arequipa.  A few blocks were given over entirely to churches, monasteries and convents and became miniature cities within the city.  The Plaza de Armas dominated the urban center and today is still one of Arequipa’s main attractions.  It also makes a convenient landmark, for other sites in the city can be reckoned as so many blocks in a certain direction from the Plaza de Armas.
lanterns at Plaza de Armas
      Flanked on one side by the Basilica Cathedral and on the other three sides by two-story buildings in the classic colonial style, with arched colonnades, the Plaza is an open-air park in the middle of the city.   Its decorations include tall palm trees, a garden, a three-tiered fountain and ornamental street lanterns.  A few of the buildings are restaurants, where diners can indulge in their meal while enjoying the view from a balcony table
       Arequipa’s colonial-era buildings, while in the general Spanish style, differ from those of other cities in the country.  The high, vaulted roofs are rounder, more open space is incorporated into the design and more decoration on the exterior facades, for the volcanic stone was easy to carve.  The result was what became known as the “Arequipa School” of Peruvian architecture.
the Monastery of San Francisco
       This was not the only element distinguishing Arequipa from the rest of the colony.  It was also a bastion of stalwart support for the Spanish Crown.  Even as anti-colonial sentiment began spreading in South America, Arequipa remained loyal.  In 1805 the Spanish monarchy recognized this and awarded it the title City of the Faithful. Its distance from other Peruvian cities insulated it from the propaganda of the liberation movements.  And when José de San Martín’s army took Lima in 1821 and declared Peru’s independence, Arequipa remained under Spanish colonial administration until the Battle of Ayacucho in December 1824 destroyed the imperial army and confirmed Peru’s independence.
typical iron door on an Arequipa church
the Church of La Merced
       Loyalty to the Crown and the Spanish version of civilization also implied a strong and fervent commitment to the Catholic religion.  Pious pioneer residents began building the Basilica Cathedral right after the city’s foundation.  In the second half of the 16th century they erected more—the Church of St Augustine, the Church of La Merced, the Church of Santa Marta (Arequipa’s patron saint), the Monastery of San Francisco and the Convent of Santa Catalina.   When earthquakes damaged all or part of these churches, the people patiently restored them.
Catholic procession in Arequipa
       Unlike Cusco, Arequipa was not previously an Inca town and so it didn’t have leftover foundations of interlocking stone boulders that the Incas had used to stabilize their buildings against earth tremors.  Cusco architects originally ignored these foundations and built on fresh grounds in the European style.  After a major earthquake leveled an important church, they rebuilt it over the foundations of the original Inca temple.  It survived all subsequent earthquakes.
       Arequipa didn’t have that option and didn’t import the Inca idea.  The people simply reconstructed the churches in the way that they originally stood.  And they continued building more churches.  When the Jesuits (Society of the Company of Jesus) arrived in the early 17th century they commissioned their own Church of the Company, close to the Plaza de Armas.  Other churches went up in the following century, like the Church of Yanahuara and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.
nun's residence, Convent of SantaCatalina
       Common to all these churches was the use of the white volcanic stone sillar.  Mud-brick like that used in some of the poorer houses was unacceptable for a House of God anyway, while wood was scarce in this part of Peru.  While the towers and steeples varied in size and shape, they all had high, vaulted ceilings, with walls sometimes decorated with religious paintings.  A couple of churches became famous for details of their interiors, like the altar of the Church of the Company, entirely encrusted with gold leaf, and the lifelike, graceful statue of the Virgin of Mercedes in the Church of La Merced.
chapel courtyard, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Church exterior walls were also embellished with low-relief carvings of various kinds.  Often these were religious scenes, but could sometimes be ornate royalist imagery, lush vegetation or carved animals.  Sillar’s soft quality made it easy to carve.  And local artisans devoted more of their time and skill to embellish the beauty of the churches than ever they did regarding purely secular buildings.
       In colonial Arequipa, it was the custom for families of the nobility to send their second son to a monastery or their second daughter to a convent for a life of religious service to the Church.  Sons generally went to San Francisco Monastery, while the most prestigious place for the daughters was the Convent of Santa Catalina.  A rich Arequipa widow, Maria de Guzman, founded the convent in 1579.  It was enlarged the following century to an area of 20,000 square meters, filling the entire block. 
       With its residential quarters, colonnaded walkways, gardens, fountains, parks, museum, library and dining halls, it was like a miniature city inside Arequipa.  And it was a Forbidden City as well, off-limits to outsiders until 1970.  The convent’s restrictions extended to what kind of people they allowed to enroll.  Santa Catalina was only for the rich nobility.  Each family had to pay a dowry of 2400 silver pesos, today equivalent to about $150,000, for the daughter to enroll.  The woman had to bring with her a statue, a painting, a lamp and some clothes.  (They weren’t required to wear nun’s habits.)
dining hall, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Their principal duty was the daily recitation of the Divine Office.  Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, this entailed attendance in the chapel to recite or chant prayers considered appropriate for that particular hour of the day or night.  They wore a black veil at such sessions.
       Other than that, they were free to enjoy the convent’s facilities, admire the paintings, browse in the library, walk in the parks and dine in style.  They just had to stay within the walls of the compound and not wander the streets of the city.  Being upper-class women, they made their residence as comfortable as possible.  Besides the required items, they brought with them imported china, rugs and silk curtains, as well as servants and slaves.  At its peak, Santa Catalina Convent had 450 residents.  But only a third were nuns; the rest servants and slaves.
       Because it was sealed off from normal communications with the rest of the city, the convent aroused intense speculation about what really went on within its walls.  People alleged the nuns were not celibate and even got pregnant.  Lady Rumor insisted that the skeleton of an infant had been found inside a wall during a post-earthquake renovation.  That it wasn’t true didn’t stop people believing it.
colonial-era building in the historic center
       In 1871 Pope Pius IX appointed an abbess to reform the convent.  The dowries went back to Spain and all the servants and slaves were freed and given the option to stay as nuns or to leave.  By now, though, well into the Republican era, the tradition of committing the second son or daughter to a religious life was weak.  The convent never regained its colonial-era status and by the time it opened its gates to tourists and the outside world, only 20 nuns lived in a small, still-secluded part of the compound.
       Arequipa in the Republican era played a very different role in the country than in colonial times.  It always felt itself to be in cultural and political competition with Lima, founded five and a half years earlier.  Due to the twists and turns of post-Independence politics, Arequipa actually served as Peru’s capital 1835-1883.  Thereafter it promoted regionalism and tried to carve out its own way into the future.  Resistance to the dictates of Lima even led to occasional insurrections.
       By this time the silver trade had finished.  Arequipa’s new prosperity became based on camelid products:  rugs, ponchos, scarves, sweaters and so on from the wool of upland alpacas and vicuñas.  It suffered another major earthquake in 1863 but, as before, the people repaired the damage and carried on.  A railway opened in 1871 and the city began to grow beyond the original 56 blocks. 
       Even after the capital reverted to Lima, Arequipa continued to make its own distinct cultural achievements.  Noted Peruvian scientists, like Pedro Paulet, one of the first to study rocket propulsion, hailed from Arequipa.  So did many painters, composers, poets and writers, the most famous being novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Prize winner. 
modern house in Arequipa
       Several city institutions promote cultural activities.  The Symphonic Orchestra of Arequipa, set up in 1939, performs the compositions of its native sons and preserves the local musical traditions, both classical and vernacular.  Universities frequently host cultural events ranging from painting and photography exhibitions to indigenous folk music shows.  The city remains as strongly conscious of its cultural heritage as it is of its architectural achievements.
       Politically and culturally, the city still maintains its rivalry with Lima, though the capital is now several times larger than Arequipa.  With a population approaching 900,000, Arequipa is Peru’s second biggest city, as well as its second most industrialized and commercialized.  Steel and cement production are the dominant industries.  The wool trade is still going strong and in recent decades tourism has played a growing role in the local economy.  In 2000 Arequipa’s historic center won recognition as a World Heritage Site.  After Cusco and Lima, Arequipa is the third most visited destination in the country.
       With majestic El Misti in plain view, Arequipa’s location alone would draw tourists.  (They can even take a two-day hike to the top of the crater.)  Yet the city itself is full of beautiful buildings, old and new.  And the churches, emblems of its society’s religious fervor, particularly stand out; painstakingly and lovingly restored after every earthquake, and as white as the hosts of Holy Communion.

El Misti volcano
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