The Hispanic Society of America at the Prado

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

I CAUGHT up with the Prado Museum’s Treasures of the Hispanic Society in America (Tesoros del Hispanic Society de America). It is a blockbuster. Two floors of a multitude of artifacts, from Celtiberian ceramics, metal jewelry (alloys of copper and gold), to paintings, books, documents, maps, textiles. Everything that is Spain through the ages is there and seeing it all in one visit was mind-blowing. It includes a film on the Hispanic Society of America and its founder Archer Huntington which depicts his interest, acquisition philosophy, scholarship and vision for a museum of the Hispanic world. In Huntington’s vision, this world included all colonies of Spain or countries influenced by Spain. And the Philippines is included. It makes for an interesting experience for a Filipino to compare the ways and the influences of Spanish colonization in the Philippines vis-a-vis other colonies like Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Chile, the gamut of Spanish South America. Uncannily, Huntington can now be credited for having foreseen the vestiges, maybe more—the real presence of Hispanism in the New World which is America. He started his collection in the 19th century and the Hispanic Society Museum is more than 100 years old.

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Artifacts from Spanish pre-history like the clay pots with linear and triangular line decorations to the jewelry (mostly necklaces) of gold, copper, zinc alloys, move on to medieval times of early textiles, glazed pottery, elaborate ironwork (there is a large wall displaying a range of door knockers in anthropomorphic shapes that can only be called amazing). There is also much about Spain’s Islamic past where its civilization reached heights of scholarship, sciences and art. Also, its Jewish antecedents where Jews played an influential role in its history and civilized arts. With the Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula by the Catholic Kings (Isabel and Ferdinand), both these peoples were physically expelled but they have stayed in many ways.

Eventually, the exhibit moves on to the Siglo de Oro, Spain’s Golden Age, starting with the 15th century with the discovery and colonization of the New World and here Spain’s Pacific possessions like the Philippines and Guam must be included. In the wealth of portraits, textiles, maps, etc. there was only one mention of Filipinas, and this was in a document with drawings by a certain Joaquin Antonio Basaras titled Origen. Mostly it depicts a supposed Indian wedding. I couldn’t tell whether it was Indian as in Indio, or Indian as in India. The wedding details did not ring a bell and neither did the other figures depicted with a house, and other activities. Someone with a trained eye might see more and better. As some may recall, the earliest photographs of the Philippines dating from the 1840s have been recently discovered at the Hispanic Society archives. In New York, it also had on exhibit of some Philippine furniture. I expect there are documents in its library that touch on the Philippines or even be directly focused on it.

The Hispanic Society’s collection is so extensive that it has never been fully exhibited. The New York Hispanic Society building (currently under renovation), while beautiful, has not enough exhibition space. The Prado exhibit I would guess is the largest of the Hispanic Society’s collection. The Hispanic Society is not only a museum but a library, having thousands upon thousands of documents, particularly pre-700s. The Prado exhibit showed beautiful ancient books from a Hebrew Torah to Islamic manuscripts. It also showed a fascinating range of Hidalguia Awards (ascent to nobility documents) with beautiful painted figures and landscapes showing the awardees, the king who gave the awards, contemporary landscapes of castles and nature.

The exhibit ends with a series of portraits of prominent turn-of-the century Spanish intelligentsia figures that were personal acquaintances of Huntington by renowned Spanish painters. It must also be mentioned that the Hispanic Society owns three Velasquez portraits, a wealth of Velasquez paintings few major museums (except fittingly the Prado) have. They were on display here.

The Prado has done honor to the Hispanic Society of America with this beautifully and extensively mounted exhibit bringing attention to one of the world’s best focused collections.

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