Curiosity: 2 miniature portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte
Artist: Maestro di Pavia
Measurements: Full-length portrait: 183×118 mm
Head portrait: 74×62 mm
These two miniature portraits have come to the University museum’s collection through the bequest of George Powell of Nanteos. As with so many of his objects, we have unfortunately no idea how, when and where he bought them. Holland and Meyrick explain that “Powell was very taken with Romantic struggles for liberty and nationhood. Like many other collectors in the 19th century he collected material associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.” This and the exquisite execution of the portraits might have been his reasons for acquiring them.
Both pictures depict Napoleon (1769-1821). Although they could pass as etchings, they are actually ink calligraphy drawings. The minuscule writing recounts the battle of Waterloo in the head portrait, and in the full-length one Napoleon’s last will and testament. They were created by the ‘Maestro di Pavia’, who had been involved in the unsuccessful revolt in Piedmont, 1821, and subsequently been imprisoned. It took him apparently three years to complete the works. I could not find any further information about said artist; nothing seems to come up online; I could not find a book or journal article that mentions him so far. Hint: In case you have any information, it would be great if you could get in touch.
I might not have any further details about the Maestro, but I am still asking myself why somebody would produce two portraits of a recently deceased French emperor whilst sitting in an Italian prison. Well, I had to brush up my knowledge about Napoleon and the history of Italy to figure out a possible motive. As commander-in-chief of the French army, Bonaparte started a successful campaign against the various kingdoms and duchies of Italy, including Piedmont in March 1796. Although the kingdom was supported by the Austrians, Napoleon beat them and continued conquering other parts such as Lombardy and the Republic of Venice, too. Under Napoleon, Northern Italy became a republic in 1802. However, only a few years later, in 1805, he crowned himself ‘King of Italy’ in Milan Cathedral; the parts he had conquered became an administrative monarchy. In Piedmont, the French conquest meant the end of the absolute reign of the House of Savoy, rulers of Sardinia-Piedmont. The code civil or code Napoleon that Bonaparte decreed in 1804 came into effect. The code civil prescribed equal rights for all in front of the law, freedom of contract and the division between church and state. Hence, military or administrative careers, for example, were now based on merit rather than social status.
However, after the defeat of Napoleon, the assembled powers, such as Russia, Prussia and Austria at the Congress of Vienna (1815), restored Piedmont to the House of Savoy. Victor Emmanuel I (Duke of Savoy, 1759-1824), who had been restricted to rule Sardinia only during the French occupation of Piedmont, reinstated the customs and laws of the ancient regime with its privileges for the aristocracy and power of the church. Although many welcomed the liberation from the French, having suffered from “heavy taxation, conscription, and anticlericalism born of Jacobinism” as John A. Davies explains, others were less happy with the reestablishment of the old rulers. These were those who had had the chance of creating a career during the French administration and liberals who favoured a democratic constitution. Certain secret societies, foremost the Carboneria, were also dissatisfied with the developments; they were anticlerical and forerunners of the Risorgimento, the movement endeavouring the unification of Italy. Discontent not only grew in Piedmont but also in Naples where parts of the army, the Carboneria and their allies started a revolt in November 1820. By March1821 the unrest had spread to Piedmont’s capital Turin, and Victor Emmanuel I abdicated in favour of his brother Charles Felix (1765-1831). The new regent did not hesitate to ask Austria for support with the result that the rebellion was crushed in the Battle of Novara in May. Many liberals fled into exile, or, as our Maestro di Pavia, were thrown into prison. Tim Chapman explains that the insurrection in Piedmont failed because the mainly middle and upper class rebels did not have the support of the peasantry. To cut a long story short, further revolts followed over the next decades across Italy with the result that Victor Emmanuel II (1820-78) was crowned king of Italy in 1861 with the Piedmontese constitution becoming the constitution of the whole country.
Let’s have a closer look at the images themselves: The full-length portrait shows Napoleon wearing his Imperial robes and a laurel wreath. He is holding another laurel wreath in his right hand and a staff topped with an eagle in his left. He stands next to a small plinth that is decorated with a figure. My guess is that this is the Roman goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology). She was the not only goddess of wisdom but also of (strategic/victory in) war and ally to heroic warriors. An admirer would have had no qualms associating Napoleon with this deity. The laurels are symbols of Apollo, Greek god of the sun and music. The winners of the Pythian Games that were held every three years at Delphi in honour of the god, were crowned with laurels; as were the victors of the ancient Olympics. The custom was adopted by the Roman victorious imperators and emperors.
Around his neck, Napoleon wears the medal insignia of the National Order of the Legion of Honour which Napoleon himself had founded in 1802. The eagle on the staff is another emblem that originated in Greek and Roman mythology; the majestic bird was accessory of chief god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek). According to Michael Ferber, it was chosen by Gaius Marius (ca. 157-86 BC) in 104 BC as a “special badge” for the Roman legions and subsequently the Roman Empire.
The robe is decorated with bees, an animal that Jörg-Uwe Albig describes as an ancient symbol of immortality that Napoleon chose himself. Ferber writes that the bee had already been adapted by the French kings much earlier, as it was believed that the strictly hierarchically organised bee hive was ruled by a male bee, a king. However, Jan Swammerdam (1637-80) discovered that hives are actually ruled by a female, a queen. According to Ferber that discovery must have caused some embarrassment in France, but it seems, not enough to get rid of the emblem entirely. Those are two opinions on the matter of the bees; I am sure there might be other explanations elsewhere, but I will leave it at that.
I would suggest that the portrait resembles mostly the painting by François Gérard, but with the plinth depicting the Minerva and Napoleon flashing a well-shaped calf from underneath his cloak, the Maestro has added his individual touch to the composition.
The head portrait was apparently copied from a medal or coin, possibly such as the one on the photo below. Showing Napoleon in profile, crowned as well with the laurel wreath, it is reminiscent of ancient Roman coins with their depictions of emperors.
The School of Art curator, Neil Holland, and I tried to scan and enlarge the images to be able to decipher the calligraphy, but unfortunately our technical facilities are limited. Eventually, we got as far as to just being able to read the signature, but the rest of the text were still illegible ‘squiggles’, blurred by the attempt to enlarge the portraits. However, an article in the University College Wales Magazine (Vol. 5, 1882-82, published March 20 1883) explains that “on microscopic inspection” those squiggles can definitely be identified as words.
Given the attitude that early 19th century kings of Sardinia-Piedmont had towards Napoleon Bonaparte and France in general, I would imagine that the Maestro di Pavia had to be very careful when he created the two portraits of his French hero. I can see him furtively working on them, always in danger of being discovered. I suppose that this secrecy, in addition to the effort of writing in such tiny hand, probably in bad light as well, is the reason why it took him three years to finish the images.
Beales, Derek and Biagini, Eugenio F. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Pearson Education Ltd., 2002.
Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century History, edited by John Belchem et al, Penguin, 1996.
Brinkley, Richard. “George Powell of Nanteos: A Further Appreciation.” The Anglo-Welsh Review pp. 130-34. n.d.
Broers, Michael. “Revolution as Vendetta: Patriotism if Piedmont, 1794-1821.” The Historical Journal, vol. 33, no. 3, 1990, ppp. 573-597. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2639731. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.
Ceramist Billy Adams’ work is held in numerous private collections around the world. He is a Fellow of the Craft Potters Association. His work deals with exploring and experimenting with aspects of landscape: “The rock-like surfaces of my ceramic forms are alive with the vivid colours and nature and textured to appear weathered and eroded. My main inspiration is the countryside and the standing stones of my native Ireland and West Wales. I would like to think that my work forms a material link to /with our elusive mystical ancestry.” Billy Adams will give a talk and demonstration during the exhibition period. Please check the Arts Centre diary or www.ceramics-aberystwyth.com for notifications.
The School of Art Gallery is open Monday – Friday, 10am – 5pm. Admission is free.
An exhibition of Jane Joseph’s suites of etchings for Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ and ‘The Truce’ shown alongside her own personal collection of works by artists including Paul Cezanne, Prunella Clough, Edgar Degas, Robert Medley and Anthony Stevens. She writes “My interest is in what artists make and in what they look at. I believe it is through sharing the latter that one is brought closest to the work that they make. Having the work around me of artists that I admire is an encouragement to my own endeavours.”
Terry Bell Hughes
Gallery talk and demonstration
Thursday 11th January 2018 2.00–4.30 pm
Meet in the Ceramics Gallery, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2.00pm
Followed by the demonstration in the Ceramic Studio. FREE
For more information about the artist and the exhibition click here.
Frederick William Rudler (8th July 1840 – 23rd January 1915)
Frederick William Rudler was born in London in 1840. He studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic where he attended Science and Art classes. During this time, he was awarded two gold medals in one year. In 1861, he was appointed Assistant Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London. He remained there until, in 1876, he was offered to become a lecturer in Natural Sciences at the University College of Wales (now Aberystwyth University “AU”). He taught Chemistry and also became one of the AU’s earliest Geology Professors. In addition, he founded the university’s museum and was its first Curator. When the Curator of the Museum of Practically Geology, Trenham Reeks (1823-1879), died Rudler took Reeks’s position and the roles as Librarian of the museum and the Registrar of the Royal School of Mines, now part of Imperial College, as well. He remained Curator at Jermyn Street until his retirement in 1902. The same year he received the Imperial Service Order from King Edward VII for his services to science.
(Click on ‘Contemporary museum report’ to open a larger PDF.)
Rudler was an assiduous writer. He was assistant editor to Ure’s Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures (1875 edition) and contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Thorpe’s Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, Muir’s Dictionary of Chemistry and the Anthenaeum. In addition, he wrote the Guide to the Museum of Practical Geology and the Catalogue of Pottery and Porcelain. His lectures were very popular and he presented a series, for example, for the Society for the Extension of University Teaching. His friend Edward Brabrook comments in Rudler’s obituary that he had “a clear voice, a distinct enunciation and a marvellous memory.” Another obituary mentions that “as a mineralogist Mr Rudler was most accomplished, being able to identify and name any mineral specimen at sight, and could state its properties and locality with wonderful precision.”
Apart from his jobs, Rudler held a great number of positions in various organisations. I did my best to put them in the correct order and not to get mixed up with the very similar names. I might have omitted some roles, but all in all, I think the following list gives a very good idea of just how busy Rudler must have been:
1869 Assistant Secretary and sub-editor for Journal, Ethnological Society, London; joined the British Association (1872-79 Secretary of the Association’s Anthropological Department and 1880 President of the same)
1870 Fellow of the Geological Society (Lyell Medal 1903)
1871 Fellow of the Anthropological Institute (1873 elected Council member; 1875 Director, jointly with Edward Brabrook; 1880-81 Vice President, 1898-99 President)
1874 Joined the Geologists’ Association (1887-89 President)
1888 Honorary Treasurer at the Fourth Session of the International Geological Congress, London
1901 Chairman of the Conference of Delegates of Corresponding Societies, British Association
1903 President of the Essex Field Club
1904 President of the S E Union of Scientific Societies
F.W. Rudler had expert knowledge in and lectured not only on Chemistry and Geology, but also in Physics, Botany and Zoology. Further interests included the history of British and Japanese pottery making, and he established an important collection of British ceramic art. His aim was to found a Welsh national museum in Aberystwyth, and with the help of donations and exchanges with other museums, he managed to gather a great number of botanical, mineral and paleontological material. The mining industry was a matter he particularly focused on, and he collected many specimens of copper, iron, lead, silver and tin. In addiction, Bryce Wright of London contributed ethnological items such as clubs, spears and paddles from Polynesia and Africa. In 1879, the year Rudler left AU, George Powell of Nanteos started giving objects of his collection to the museum as well. Even after taking up his role as Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology back in London, he stayed in touch with AU, and when he died in 1915 (in Tatsfield, Kent), his own collection was offered to the university to purchase.
Professor O. T. Jones’s report of Rudler’s collection is included in the university’s annual report (probably 1915-16). Together with Mr. Alfred T. Davies of the Welsh Department of the Board of Education, he travelled to Tatsfield to meet Rudler’s brother, Mr. S. G. Rudler, and go through the vast amount of material to find out whether it would be useful for the AU museum. It comprised mineral specimens, gemstones, coins, medals, plaster casts of coins and medallions, hundreds of archaeological pieces, maps, pamphlets, journals, books and scientific instruments. It seems that Rudler was quite an obsessive collector and curious about everything. Jones recommended in his report that the collection should definitely be bought, as it included many interesting and valuable objects; his advice was duly followed.
Among the acquired objects was a large number of, what Professor Jones listed in his report as ‘Curios’. I suppose that included our assortment of little boxes we still have in our ‘treasure trove’ at the School of Art today. My learned colleagues, Head of the School of Art and Keeper of Art Professor Robert Meyrick and Senior Curator Neil Holland, assume that Professor Rudler collected them as examples of different materials and processes of manufacture. Exemplars are made, for example, from wood, horn, celluloid, lacquer and raffia work. To specify each of them would take pages and pages, so I decided to zoom in on some of them that seem to have the most interesting stories to tell.
Relic of the HMS Royal George
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
This booked-shaped piece of iron was apparently salvaged from the 18th century warship the HMS Royal George. Built at Woolwich Dockyard, the first-rate ship was launched on the 18th February 1856 right in time for the start of the Seven Years’ War against France and its allies. It had originally been laid down as the Royal Anne, but in honour of the reigning King George II, it was renamed. Exceeding 2000 tons burden, it was the largest warship in the world at the time and had 100 cannons. It served in the Battle of Quiberon (November 1759) and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (January 1780).
In August 1782, she was moored at Spithead and supposed to undergo maintenance before taking provisions and ammunition to Gibraltar. On the morning of the 29th, many workmen, such as shipwrights and plumbers, were on board, and families were visiting the sailors. Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82) and her Captain, Matthew Waghorn, were also on board. In order to execute the repairs, the ship was heeled, slightly leaned over to one side. It was noticed some time after that water came in through the gunports with the result that the ship capsized and sunk rapidly. The majority of people on board could not be saved; between 900-1200 lost their lives, including about 300 women and 60 children. The story goes that one little boy survived by clinging to a sheep. It is difficult to establish an exact number due to the innumerable visitors and workers on board. An eyewitness, an officer on board the Fleet, wrote a sad letter to an acquaintance in town on the day describing the heart-breaking scene:
“Admiral Kempenfelt was on board, and we are not certain yet whether he was saved. The Beach, and Houses about the Point, are now filling with the dying and the dead, Men and Women promiscuously tumbling in a Heap; nothing is to be seen but Objects of Woe, and Images of Dejection; and as the Benefit of the humane Society is little known or practiced here, few of the Sufferers, it is feared, will be save, beside the Loss of so fine a First-Rate in so simple a Way, I am now in great Haste and Confusion, having been for these two hours assisting the unhappy Sufferers.”
The cause of the Royal George’s sinking as mentioned above is assumed to be correct; however, the subsequent court-martial decided that the ‘general state of decay of her timbers’ was the reason, thus exonerating the officers and crew, most of whom had died in the disaster.
The masts of the ship were still visible afterwards, just outside the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour; a lasting reminder of the tragedy. Many proposals were put forward for salvaging the Royal George. Diving pioneers Charles Anthony (1796-1848) and John Deane (1800-1884) undertook a series of dives between 1834-36 and managed to recover 30 guns and many other objects from the vessel. (During that time, they also discovered the remains of Henry VIII’s famous flagship, the Mary Rose, which had sunk on the 19th July 1545.) The salvaged warship objects were exhibited in Regent Street, London, in 1835. The wreck was finally cleared and blown up by Colonel Sir Charles William Pasley (1780-1861) between 1839-1844. (The collection’s relic’s plaque states that the iron was recovered in 1839.) Pasley salvaged many bronze cannon, some of which were melted down to form the base of Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Other recovered objects and timbers were also turned into relics, such as snuffboxes, commemorative coins, and sold. It is still possible to find some of them today on online auction websites.
Relic of the HMS Victory
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
Just like the HMS Royal George, the HMS Victory was a first-rate warship with over 100 guns (The sources I used for this blog entry are quoting anything between 100 and 116 guns.) and designed by Sir Thomas Slade (1773/4-1771). She was built in at Chatham Dockyard from 1759 onwards and launched in May 1765. Apparently, over 2000 oak trees were needed for her construction, she had 27 miles of rigging and four acres of sail; the total cost was over £63,000 (over £50 million today). However, she first experienced active service only in 1778 during the War of American Independence (1775-83) against the French fleet in the Battles of Ushant (Brittany, France), in 1778 as the flagship of Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725-86) and in 1881 as that of Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82).
During a period of peace, the Victory had some repairs made and was commissioned again in 1793, this time in the Mediterranean and was involved in the sieges of Toulon (1793) and Calvi (1794). During the battle of Cape St. Vincent (February 1797) she was badly damaged and sent home. She was converted into a hospital ship and would have almost ended her days as a prison hulk. However, the loss of the first-rate ship HMS Impregnable in 1799 saved her from that sad lot. She had a major refit at Chatham Docks between 1800 and 1803. It was then that she received her famous black and yellow striped coat.
On the 14th May 1803 Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, two days before war was declared against France; on the 18th, Nelson hoisted his flag in the HMS Victory. On the morning of the 21st October 1805, the Victory hoisted her famous legendary signal ‘England expects every man will do his duty.’ and the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and allied Spanish fleet commenced. Nelson was badly wounded by a musket-ball shot from the French Redoubtable whilst walking the quarterdeck in the early afternoon and died a few hours later below deck in the cockpit. The Victory had been badly damaged fighting the French flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable and was towed to Gibraltar after the battle. However, the crew insisted on taking Nelson’s body home to England. He lay in state in Greenwich Hospital and was finally buried on the 6th January 1806 at St. Paul’s, London. His crew of the HMS Victory carried her battle ensigns and, when he was laid to rest below the dome of the cathedral, they tore them to pieces to keep as mementos rather than placing them with the coffin.
The HMS Victory was repaired again and served until 1812 when she was put into reserve in Portsmouth. Another major repair took place between 1814 and 1816. From 1823 she lay permanently at Portsmouth and became the flagship of the Port Admiral in 1824 and from 1889 of the Commander-in-Chief. She was permanently moved to a dry dock at Portsmouth in January 1922, and restoration works were carried out. Due to her connection with Nelson, she has always had a great place in people’s hearts and been kept in good order. The Ministry of Defence transferred the custodianship to the HMS Victory Preservation Trust in 2012. Still a tourist attraction, she is, according to the Royal Navy website, still flagship of the First Sea Lord & Chief of Naval Staff, and thus the oldest commissioned warship in the world. She is staffed by Royal Navy seamen and staff of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
As with the relic of the Royal George, we have no way of knowing whether this object was really made from the wood of the warship. Souvenirs of both were very popular, and enterprising ‘men of business’ most certainly jumped on the bandwagon and produced fake relics which they sold as mementos to an eager clientele.
Copper snuffbox of Christmas Evans
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Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was born the parish of Llandysul, Cardiganshire on Christmas Day. His father died when he was only about nine years old, and he went to live with an uncle in Carmarthenshire. Four years later he became a farmhand and workedfor David Davis (1745-1827), who was an Arian minister of the Arminian congregation at Llwynrhydown. Evans converted and became a member of the church in 1783. He was educated by Davis and learnt to read Welsh and to speak some English. In addition he learnt some Greek, Hebrew and Latin during his life, and knew sufficient English to preach in the language and read texts that were important for his role. He started preaching at cottage meetings but lacking an academic education, he could not become part of the Presbyterian ministry. Thus, he joined the Baptists and was baptized in 1788 in the river Duar in Carmarthenshire by Timothy Thomas (1754-1840) and became a member of the Baptists in Aberdyar.
1789 proved a very important year for Evans; he was ordained at Salem, Ty’ndonnen, married Catherine Jones and had a spiritual revelation about the wonder of the Grace of God that caused him to preach more passionately and livelier than before. He became a very influential preacherwho drew in large crowds. Having a great imagination and a talent for observing people, he would turn his sermons into dramas that would spellbind his congregations. An accident had cost Evans an eye, but fellow Baptist minister Robert Hall (1764-1831) said the remaining one ‘could light an army through a wilderness on a dark night.’ Throughout his career, he also published, for example, sermons and Welsh hymns.
In 1791, he moved to Angelsey and was minister to all Baptist local churches. During his time there he built chapels and went on preaching tours, but the Angelsey churches resented his authoritative and orthodox ways so in 1826 he moved to Caerphilly, Glamorgan, when he was offered the ministry of Tonyfelin Chapel. Whilst in Caerphilly, he married his second wife, Mary Jones, his first wife having died in 1823. After problems with his parishhe relocated to Cardiff in 1828, but again, his dominating ways were not met with approval. Hence, he moved to Caernarfon in 1832. He died unexpectedly in July 1838 during a tour in south Wales and was buried on the cemetery of Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel, Swansea.
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
The term ‘celluloid’ was coined by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), who, with the help of his brother Isaiah, had successfully created and patented an urgently needed substitute for ivory in 1869. He based his research on earlier finds by the English chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) who had experimented with cellulose nitrate in order to find a better insulator for the electrical industry. Cellulose nitrate was (and of course still is) highly inflammable, a danger that he reduced by including camphor in the process. Parkes called his invention ‘parkesine’ and patented it. However, he failed to commercialize his idea with his Parkesine Company, founded in 1866 in association with George Spill & Co. (a company producing waterproof textiles in East London), already being liquidated in 1868.
Hyatt, on the other hand, managed to develop and successfully market a process with cellulose nitrate and camphor that would create a material suitable for all kinds of objects, such as knife handles, toys, false teeth, piano keys and billiard balls. The last two in particular had been made from ivory in the past, which even in those days was becoming already more scarce due to the incredible high demand for it. Hyatt and his brother set up the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870, and a year later the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was founded. Parkes and his new firm British Xylonite Company Ltd, also backed by George Spill & Co, sued the Americans, because Parkes had put in patents before them for his inventions – without success.
When other forms of plastic where developed celluloid lost its significance, because the new products were less flammable. These days, it’s apparently only used in the manufacture of table tennis balls.
I leave the last word to Frederick William Rudler who wrote in the March 1882 issue of the AU College Magazine:
“Horace Walpole defined a museum as a “hospital for everything that is singular”. But many an object, without being in any way singular, is yet well worthy of a place in a museum. It is the educational value, rather than the singularity, of a specimen which recommends it to the attention of an enlightened curator. […] Far be it from me to advocate the accumulation of miscellaneous curiosities, like Captain Grose’s “auld nick-nackets”. And yet I believe that there is scarcely any object from which, if properly studied, instruction may not be evolved. The old coin, the autograph, or the potsherd may teach more of real vivid history than an ordinary student can learn from many pages of his text-book.” (College Magazine, Vol. IV, March 1882)
Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997. Print.
Country of origin: South America (most likely Peru or Bolivia)
Created: possibly late 19th or early 20th century
Material: armadillo shell, wood and metal
The charango is a small string instrument belonging to the lute family. It is a typical and popular instrument in the Andes of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and parts of Argentina. It most likely derives from the early guitars that the Europeans, especially the Spanish conquistadors, brought with them from the 16th century onwards. Before, indigenous instruments included the panpipe, notched flutes and double-headed drums but not strings. With its high pitch and smaller size than a guitar, the charango is more in line with the musical aesthetics of the indigenous people and can be carried around more easily.
Since its first conception, the charango has played an important part in the traditions of the campensinos, the indigenous Quechua or Aymara- speaking peasants of the Andes who earn their living mainly with herding llamas and sheep or cultivating barley and potatoes. There is for example the papa tarpuy, the potato-planting ceremony of Canas, a province in Cusco, Peru, during which the charango would be played. In northern Potosí, in the Bolivian Andes, the instrument is associated with the dry winter season (April-September). Agricultural and cultural calendars are published by a variety of organisations indicating the appropriate instrument for each season. Henry Stobard points out that there are rural areas in which up to 12 different instruments are played in the course of the year.
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
In the above-mentioned areas, the charango is also hugely important during courtship. A young man would come into town, typically on market or feast days, dressed in his Sunday best and woo the girls with his musical skills. He would decorate his instrument with colourful ribbons and mirrors to attract the opposite sex. Legend has it that each ribbon represents a conquered girl; interpreted as such, they are very much a sign of machismo. The charango acts as a kind of intermediary between the young man and the target of his affection; talking is not an obligation. A popular tune for courtship, for example in Cusco, is called the tuta kashwa (night dance). If she likes his musical advances, she might simply indicate this with a smile or glance of encouragement. After a while, she will join him, singing along the charango. A group of young couples might get together to dance and sing and, well, take it from there…. To put it bluntly: A young man out and about with his charango is certainly out on the pull. On the other hand, if a boy can’t play the charango, his chances with the girls are slim. Once a man is married, traditionally, he would put his instrument aside as he might be seen as a bohemio, a womaniser and general rake, if he carried on playing.
In order to get the best out of a young man’s charango, he often follows a century-old ritual after its purchase: At night, preferably during a full moon, he places the instrument near a lake, spring or waterfall. He leaves it there overnight together with gifts such as little ornaments, alcohol, coins or coca for the resident sirena. Sirenas are commonly portrayed as beautiful women with fishtails. Probably evolved from combining legends of local water spirits and Greco-Roman mermaids, these creatures are said to be particularly prevalent around the area of Lake Titicaca. Just like the sirens that lured sailors with their sweet songs in Greek mythology, the sirenas possess great musical powers, which they can transfer onto the charango. They will play and tune the instrument, and the next morning the charanguista will reclaim a powerful weapon for courtship. It is said that its sound will be so seductive that no woman can resist it. However, it is important not to interfere with the sirena as her music could also drive you insane if overheard. It is possible that the sirena/mermaid is so strongly associated with the charango, because the stories about these specific enchantresses arrived in South America at the same time as the guitars and mandolins. Hence, the indigenous people might have automatically connected one with the other in their minds.
Traditionally, men would play the instruments and women would sing. Although, rather than seeing this as a subordinate role, they are well respected for their songs and fine voices. The charango is in fact often seen as an accompaniment to the singing rather than the other way around. There are also again certain beliefs as to why a woman should not play the charango: In Tomaycuri, a rural community in northern Potosí, a woman playing the charango might cause dry fields. In nearby Kalankira, she might lose her weaving skills, and a pregnant woman might lose her child if she played the pinkillu (a kind of flute).
Although a typical instrument of the more rural areas of the Andes, the charango would make its way into cities such as Cusco and Puno, south-eastern Peru, during the early decades of the 20th century. Young middle-class mestizos (originally people of mixed European and indigenous parentage) would learn how to play the instrument from campensinos and then take their skills with them when their families moved into town to find work and adapt a more urban lifestyle. Often, the parents would not be particularly enthusiastic about their offspring’s musical taste as the charango was seen as an instrument of the baja pueblo, the ‘lower class people’ – something they would have liked to distance themselves from. Mandolins and guitars were more respected. However, at the same time a new ideology evolved, called indigenismo, among Peruvian artists and intellectuals. The rights of the Andean Indians and indigenous culture became focus of this movement, and its supporters condemned ‘foreign’ and ‘colonial’ values. Consequently, the charango became more respectable and an urban tradition of charango playing developed. The mestizo charanguistas would perform the long-established wanyo (song-dance) of the central Andes and add different genres such as the waltz to their repertoire. That way, they catered towards an urban, elite audience and raised the status of the charango. They also created a new style of playing the charango. Originally, the strings would be strummed, but the mestizos started plucking them instead.
In the past, the charango was generally made from the dried shell (carapace) of an armadillo, just like our curiosity. These days they are usually made from wood. They normally have five pairs of strings, but there are variations, and this one seems to have had only four sets of strings; unfortunately, they are missing. Strings are usually made from nylon or metal, depending on which playing style (strumming or plucking) and sound the charango player prefers. They are often richly decorated with carvings and/or inlays. The only ornamentation our charango has is a bridge in form of a lizard or salamander.
(Click in images to enlarge them.)
Some of the articles and books I read about the charango during my research go back to the early 1980s. The newest was published in 2008. Maybe a some of the above-mentioned traditions and beliefs have diminished or even vanished since then, and it is already indicated in the Henry Stobart’s 2008 article that women play the charango and that men sing these days, too. However, as the charango has such a tradition and now popular status in many Latin American areas, I thought it important and rather fascinating to include some old beliefs and superstitions as well.
It is just a shame that our charango won’t woo anybody anymore as its missing strings have condemned it to everlasting silence…
These youtube links show a great variety of charango players: