The Latin American Dome

While browsing an art newspaper a familiar image jumped out at me - the interior of a colonial church in the Andean town of Andahuaylas. I have passed through several times; it lies on the road between Cuzco and Ayacucho. Though I am atheist to my rational core, in Peru a great joy has been to sit quietly in ancient musty Baroque churches adorned inside and out with mestizo imagery (a blend of Spanish Catholic Baroque and the native Inca art forms of Peruvians who labored for Spanish masters). The article reminded me that when I saw this church the beauty of its interior was “dulled by centuries of grime, bat droppings, earthquakes and dodgy restorations”. Now the little San Pedro Apóstol church is restored, and they are grandly calling it The Sistine Chapel of the Andes.

Even such a tiny church has its Baroque dome. A smooth circular shaped dome was probably beyond the skill of local craftsmen. The photos [here and here] show a crude vaulted ceiling of wood beams. But the intention was to recreate the awe-inspiring impression of a dome.

I was straight away reminded of a book -- The New World Of The Gothic Fox -- written by the Chilean liberal economic historian Claudio Véliz in which the dome is a symbol for the centralizing and authoritarian Baroque political culture of Latin America -- “concentric, symmetrical, intolerant of impediments and formal imperfections … the dome embraces and connects all parts under it”. Véliz joined the concepts of Isaiah Berlin with the architectural symbolism of John Ruskin and spun a gripping history of the developmental differences between the lands of English ‘gothic’ foxes and Spanish ‘baroque’ hedgehogs.

Véliz wrote that the Counter-Reformation, Inquisition, and crusade against Protestant heresy gave Spain and her colonial administrators a sense of security about the spiritual wellbeing of empire. The confidence was manifested in Baroque ornamental pomp and ceremony (“glorification of obstinacy” since the Spanish treasury was bankrupt for much of the colonial period). Spanish Baroque architecture in remote parts of the empire was a literal metaphor for the mode of social, political, and economic organization which -- like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog -- valued “one idea”, one purpose or “single, universal principle”.

Véliz cites José Antonio Maravall’s description of the four elements of Spanish Baroque culture -- centrally directed, mass, urban, and conservative. Any movement or change in the organization might unleash anarchy and disorder (a preoccupation that endured long after the end of Spanish rule). Baroque “reality was bound up with a solid, immovable structure in which nothing could be changed without loss”. The ordered world reflected the virtues accorded to sosiego, the “aloof calmness” of absolute monarchs. Heinrich Wolfflin said that in Baroque architecture and society “absolute unity became the rule, subordinate parts were sacrificed”. Communication between parts of an edifice was discouraged: “self-contained, subordinate spaces made way for one single overwhelming central space”.

I have just looked in Gombrich’s classic The Story of Art and find support for Véliz’s metaphor. The emotional theatrical pomp and display of the Baroque were mere details imposed on a severe restrained structure. Gombrich wrote: “the vast cupola, the flanking towers, the façade … curved as if it had been modeled in clay”. The “dazzling pageantry” was as much political as religious -- “The more the Protestants preached against outward show in the churches, the more eager was the Roman Church to enlist the power the artist [creating] show-pieces whose splendor and vision nearly swept you off your feet. It is not so much the details that matter in these interiors as the general effect of the whole, and the ritual”. The individuality of Baroque artists gradually disappeared. They were increasingly enlisted together in the achievement of one huge effect, such as the painted ceilings that burst their boundaries and were designed to “confuse and overwhelm us, so that we no longer know what is real and what is illusion”, wrote Gombrich.

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Historian David Brading notes that independence patriots in 18th century Spanish America rejected Baroque as imperial design redolent with decadent efflorescence and corruption. The overloaded decoration really disguised the absence of order and system. Mexico’s colonial elite was “immersed in a cycle of theatrical devotion [with] massed banks of candles [and] polyphonic crescendos”. Independence, when it came, “was but a prelude to the destruction of the entire Baroque culture on which the monarchy had based its power”.

Véliz would disagree. The Baroque spirit persists even now, exemplified by the centralist political and legal tradition, and symbolized by the great curved dome, which, in the style of Spanish America’s all-encompassing absolutist styles of governance, moulds disparate parts in one structure, one overarching idea, intolerance of imperfections or disproportion, and an emphasis on optical or cognitive deception. Compared with the polished symmetry and unifying nature of Spanish Baroque, the Gothic spirit of English-speakers was (Véliz quotes 19th century art historian and social critic John Ruskin), a “soaring individuality of mind and deed” combined with “humility”, “prickly independence”, “frosty fortitude”, “independence of character”, “impatience of undue control”, “that general tendency to set individual reason against authority” and to assert the “individual deed against destiny”.

The sturdiness of Gothic buildings lies in an individualistic assemblage of rustic, wild, and restless asymmetry reflecting the “rudeness” of the builder. The individual workman enjoyed freedoms to adapt designs (but then so, apparently, did the Peruvian builders working for Spanish architects). Rules, Ruskin insisted, would have destroyed Gothic art. Change was embraced: “Out of fragments of imperfection they raise up a stately whole”.

Language describing Gothic forms might seem to have affinity with the language of democracy, civil society, free enterprise: “pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses … which when used together gave a new impression of airiness and grace … increased by the use of windows”. Gombrich said: “One might call it a technical invention, but in its effect it became much more. It was the discovery of the method of vaulting a church by means of crosswise arches … then all the massive walls between the pillars were really superfluous … all that were needed were slim pillars and narrow ribs. Anything between could be left out without danger of the scaffolding collapsing”. Instead of heavy stone walls one could put in large windows “overspread by these interlacing lines known as tracery”.

Openness, light, growth, risk, calculation, unobtrusive institutional scaffolding. It certainly could sound like decentralized democracy with flexible rules and thrusting networks of associations. You can almost imagine busy Schumpeterian entrepreneurs swarming around the challenges and opportunities of building these systems that Ruskin admired. Gombrich: “the whole interior seems to be woven out of thin shafts and ribs; their network covers the vault, and runs down along the walls of the nave to be gathered up by the pillars, which are formed by a bundle of stone rods”. Can we see the minimal state and the constitutional framework, the creative tension of checks and balances “gathered up” by the pluralist state, “conceived on such a bold and magnificent scale that few, if any, were ever completed exactly as planned … Their dimension seem to dwarf anything that is merely human and petty ... new cathedrals gave the faithful a glimpse of a different world”.

Véliz adopted the Gothic “love of change” as a metaphor for the adaptive capacity of the English ‘foxes’ who pursue many ends simultaneously. Writing in 1994, he argued that the disinclination to change is still a paradoxical characteristic of Latin America:

“Since the nineteenth century, the rest of the world has grown accustomed to thinking of Latin American countries as singularly prone to rapid and unexpected changes; ‘volatility’ became a favourite epithet, and instability was invariably paraded as a main obstacle to progress. This perception has resulted in a fundamental misunderstanding, because in spite of its reputation for frequent and violent political upheaval, the principal feature of modern Latin America is its overwhelming stability. There exists in the region a resilient structure of institutions, hierarchical arrangements, and attitudes that qualifies every aspect of behavior and that has survived centuries of colonial government, movements for independence, foreign wars and invasions, domestic revolutions, and a confusingly large number of lesser palace revolts. In our time, Latin America has not only successfully resisted the initial impact of technological innovation and industrialization but appears to have been strengthened by it.”

So, Véliz tried to find a historical foundation for political centralism and absence of change in Latin America’s “Baroque” bureaucratic and legalistic traditions, which he attributed to the “fear of dispersal and disorder, or of the unexpected [that] made for a climate of pragmatic bureaucratic prudence that found comfort in carefully filed official documents”. His analysis of Latin American legalistic tradition is interesting. I may come back to it one day. However, today’s excursus on the Baroque underpinning of architecture and politics is complete.

Personally, I am never convinced by cultural explanations of economic development. I enjoy reading them for the insights and flavor. When I travelled that road to Andahuaylas by bus the red banners of the brutalizing Maoist group Sendero Luminoso were often strung visibly on wires across narrow gorges. It took a Samurai warrior to finally conquer them. One should never forget that in Latin America the struggle for and against capitalism has been long and often bloody. In his final chapter Claudio Véliz speaks of his homeland -- Chile, like Britain and Japan, is physically insulated from the neighborhood -- as Latin America’s “exception” to the Baroque style, “the country that led the exodus to the promised prosperities of the free market”. 

Then he writes: “The task at hand is not to discover ways of restoring a crumbling dome to its former glory but to clear the rubble as expeditiously as possible”. I do sympathize, I really do, but still ... I’m so glad to know that lovely little Baroque church in Andahuaylas is now restored to its former glory. 

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