Patricia Zalamea`s lecture on Humanist Culture and Painted Cycles in Tunja: A Case of Global Renessaince

November 14, 2014

Professor Zalamea’s lecture focused on three painted cycles from the second half of the 16th century–beginning of the 17th century, which decorated the private homes of colonial elites from Tunja, a major economic, artistic, and political center in the Spanish territory of the Nuevo Reino de Granada, modern-day Colombia. The case study is part of her broader book project, tentatively entitled “Cultural exchange and the circulation of images in the art of Nueva Granada: Comparative studies from the perspective of a global Renaissance.” The project as a whole proposes that the historiographical engagement with printed images in the context of the global Renaissance has to be revised on various levels.

First, keenly aware of the problematic use of the term global Renaissance in the context of Latin America, professor Zalamea suggested that although it might run the risk of appearing to homogenize the European context (also a problem in Europe itself because of the overwhelming focus on the Italian Renaissance), discussing the global Renaissance from the perspective of the geography of art allows one to emphasize connections and parallels based on shared visual and material culture in the period of the early globalization, when the circulation of print played a central role; to analyze cases of translation; and to bring into discussion the issue of “quotations.” Professor Zalamea emphasized that the project’s focus is therefore no longer on stylistic issues in a conventional sense, but on the ways in which forms are translated and resignified in a particular context; instead of a derivative account of colonial art, we are now faced with multiplicities, second, third, and forth transmissions.

Second, the issue of center and periphery also becomes complicated when one begins to think of objects in context, within a global framework, and starts asking, for instance, what happens if you think of Tunja as a new center, or about connecting peripheries? Third, the issue of nostalgia typical of Renaissance humanism takes on a new meaning as well, considering that we are faced with a case of longing for a past non-existent in that particular culture.

The three painted cycles analyzed in the lecture belonged to members of the Spanish colonial elite settled in Tunja after its founding in 1539; they were situated in close proximity to one another, in the heart of colonial Tunja, and placed on the second floor of each house, in the main rooms. The cycles were also clearly related in terms of iconography, combining and translating a variety of European sources, and containing references to classical gods such as Jupiter and Diana; Christian monographs in the center of each painting; native flora, but also animals foreign to the Americas. They suggest an attentive and self-conscious re-elaboration of European sources in a new geographical, social, and political context, which points to sophisticated strategies in the use of images as ways of knowing the world, while placing their owners in a privileged position and constituting a new cultural center and site of humanist culture. The question posed by Professor Zalamea is not only if it is possible to speak of a Renaissance in colonial Latin America, but how the Renaissance might be defined in an extended context such as that of Tunja—outside of the core of the Renaissance geographically, and well into the 17th century. The more specific question would then be: what did it mean to be a humanist in early colonial Tunja?

Whereas previous scholarship on the painted cycles has focused mainly on the identification of iconographic sources and on the interpretation of the paintings as allegorical renderings in which a set of symbols coexist and each of them is given a separate reading (for instance, the significance of the rhinoceros has been traced back to fantastic animals and special powers; Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting is thought to represent chastity and nobility), Professor Zalamea proposed a more comprehensive analysis of the cycles in the cultural context of a global Renaissance. This entails extending the analysis of the cycles to examine the circulation, consumption, and adaptation of images as a cultural strategy in the context of a global humanist culture.

Offering a parallel between the visual disposition of the motifs in the painted cycles and the genre of colonial epics (narratives centered on the colonization of the Spanish Americas, of a hybrid style, combining historical chronicles and romance poetry, and filled with quotations from classical and medieval authors), Professor Zalamea suggested that the cycles could be interpreted not as sets of disparate symbols, but in terms of their “narrative structure.” What is interesting about the cycles is not only that the motifs were taken from various sources, but that both the figures and the surroundings in the paintings were purposely dislocated and recontextualized, the result being a good example of “combined aesthetic.” The hybridity and recombination of sources might also lend the cycles comparable to the Wunderkammern, images thus becoming a way of knowing and possessing the world.

One fascinating question that arose from the analysis of the painted cycles in Tunja is why the patrons chose to represent nonnative animals, which seems a particularly odd choice considering that the chroniclers wrote extensive descriptions of native animals, albeit in terms of medieval descriptions of wondrous animals. There has been suggested that the inclusion of “exotic animals” might be a way of identifying nostalgically with other “exotic, non-European locations,” such as Africa. Yet it is clear from their writings and patronage that the Tunjan humanists saw themselves as Spanish and in that sense built Tunja as an extension of Spain. Professor Zalamea proposed that for the colonial elites such as Juan de Castellanos and Juan de Vargas, born in Spain but having spent most of their lives in Tunja, the most important connection to the old world depended on the circulation of books. The representations in the painted cycles suggest a form of nostalgia and an attempt to capture and translate the experience of both the old and the new worlds, albeit through once-removed sources. Thus it is not so much that these representations are exotic as previously emphasized, but rather that the appropriation of motifs is in itself a strategy and a second-hand version of the old world and its past, which would seem to invert the traditional paradigm of old versus new worlds, whereby Tunja becomes a new center from which to observe and collect the rest of the world.