Made in Peru.

Tapestry displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

Detail of one of the sirens represented in the tapestry. Victoria & Albert Museum. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

The crowned lion refers to Spain. Tapestry detail. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

Irina Podgorny

(Quilmes, Argentina, 1963).

Historian of science. She has a doctorate in Natural Sciences (National University of La Plata, Argentina). Principal Investigator of CONICET in the Historical Archive of the Museum of La Plata. Guest Professor at universities and other national and international institutions. President of the Earth Science History Society (2019-2020), since 2021 she is a member of the Council of the History of Science Society (HSS), where she is in charge of its Meetings and Congresses committee.

She is the author of numerous books, this year she published Florentino Ameghino y Hermanos. Empresa argentina de paleontología ilimitada (Edhasa, Buenos Aires, 2021) and Los Argentinos vienen de los peces. Ensayo de filogenia nacional (Beatriz Viterbo, 2021). His articles have been published among other journals in Osiris, Science in Context, Redes, Asclepio, Trabajos de Prehistoria, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, British Journal for the History of Science, Nuncius, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Museum History Journal, Journal of Global History, Revista Hispánica Moderna, etc.

A regular contributor to the Ñ Magazine, she directs the "History of Science" Collection at the Prohistoria de Rosario publishing house, where the Diccionario Histórico de las Ciencias de la Tierra en la Argentina was published in 2016, thanks to a scientific dissemination project of CONICET.

Her publications can be consulted: HERE

By Irina Podgorny *

January 2019. Victoria & Albert Museum. Friday night in London, departure from the European Union, party –sad, melancholy– in the entrance hall.

A quick tour. Almost as you leave, in a room to the left of the entrance, full of snail-shaped porcelain and furniture with animal inlays, in shell, tortoise and mother-of-pearl. On the right wall, below, half hidden, with the Inventory number 933-190 corresponding to the WS Box of Room 7, dedicated to Europe between 1600 and 1815, in a gallery whose name celebrates the protection of Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani, from the house of the Qatari monarchs – those who are putting a price on world art – a red fabric with motifs in shades of blue and yellow.



Unknown author

Colored wool, silk and golden threads, woven tapestry

This tapestry was made with Chinese silk imported to Mexico through Manila.

The red color was obtained from cochineal, crushed insects

originating from the American continent.

The bird in the center is the mythical Asian phoenix, whose wings

show the amplitude of those of the Andean condor.

Two sirens play the lute.

The flowers are reminiscent of Chinese chrysanthemums.

Made in Peru

The piece was acquired in 1901 from Vitall Benguiat (1865-1937), an importer of old embroideries, brocades, lace, velvets, fine rugs, jewellery, works of art. A house based at 11 Savile Row in Bond Street, the street of the tailors, that of the rich neighbors and the luxury goods stores, an address visited by connoisseurs of antiques.

In June 1901, the acquisitions committee of the Victoria and Albert Museum – established in 1852 in South Kensington as a dedicated repository of applied arts for use in the education of craftsmen and industrialists – would approve the purchase of 33 pieces from a larger lot. offered by the Benguiats, including this sample of tapestry from Goa, carefully renovated, washed and appraised at £80, although it appears to have been bought for £23. By then, this museum and its imitators on the mainland had turned to the decorative arts, but not before educating dealers about the pieces they were willing to acquire.

The five Benguiat brothers were a guarantee and not much more was investigated. Since the end of the 19th century, they supplied antique upholstery and exotic fabrics to the most important museums in London, Paris and New York, where demand grew so much that a special shipment was auctioned off every year in that city. Efraín, the oldest of the Benguiat brothers, decided to settle on this side of the Atlantic. David and Leopoldo kept the premises in London and Paris for a time; Vitall and Benjamin, well into the 20th century, would choose to move to the United States, but not before prosecuting, suing, and plundering each other. Of remote Spanish Sephardic origin, the family had settled in the Near East, primarily in Smyrna and Alexandria, becoming expert in the art of sourcing and trading Persian and Renaissance tapestry, as well as aging modern rugs and transforming them into antique ones through a pumice stone and the correct application of a saffron-based tincture.

The Benguiats enjoyed great prestige among American millionaires and their architects. They sold them the rarest and most remarkable collections of textiles and rugs. In both New York and London, they also forged excellent links with collectors, auction houses and connoisseurs' associations who, for their part, promoted their auctions and promoted them in their magazines. Among them, the Burlington Magazine, established in London in 1903, cradle and tribune of critics and historians such as Roger Fry and Herbert Read, receptacle of the studies of the guardians of the collections of the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert and other institutions related to the tastes of the time. The magazine, in May 2022, has just published number 1430 of volume 164.

For its part, in Manhattan, the American Art Association, founded in 1883, in the 1920s promoted the sales of the Benguiat, setting the bases and conditions. The Association survives today incorporated into the most important houses in the business of selling ancient, modern, decorative, degenerate art or whatever: dinosaurs, Aztec idols, colonial images, posters from May 1968...

David Benguiat had made a name for himself as one of the world's foremost textile experts: based in London since 1878, he was consulted by leading museums in England and on the continent for English embroideries from the Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian eras. He also for the ruby ​​and crimson Genoese velvets of the 16th century, the fabrics of the Italian and Spanish Renaissance, as well as the banners, canopies and embroideries of China, the Near East and the rest of Europe. Mesoamerica, the Amazon, the Andes were not part of the territories or styles that they dominated or produced, but Portugal and Spain were, so it is likely that the Goa piece came from the Iberian Peninsula.

The exuberance of the fauna and flora in a detail of the tapestry. Victoria & Albert Museum. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Benguiats were never picky when it came to declaring origins and the names of the brothers gradually disappeared not only from the market but also from the histories of the pieces published in Burlington Magazine. In that magazine, in June 1913, the British anthropologist Thomas Athol Joyce (1878-1942) wrote a note on a Peruvian tapestry presumably from the 17th century. Joyce, an Oxford alumnus, had joined the British Museum in 1902 to work as an assistant to archaeologist Charles Hercules Read (1857-1929), responsible for British, medieval and ethnographic antiquities, a division that included fields later split off: the cultures from ethnographic peoples and oriental collections beyond Egypt and the Near East, ceramics, glass and post-medieval European objects. Early on, Joyce devoted himself to collecting ethnographic artifacts, becoming increasingly interested in American anthropology. Like most of his contemporaries and colleagues, he was invited to write in the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, where he had the unfortunate idea of ​​summarizing the research that discussed the potentialities of the black population and the racial conflicts arising from the current law. in United States.

The tapestry that was the object of his interest was part of the Ethnography collections under his charge at the British Museum, a lot that came thanks to Louis Colville Gray Clarke (1881-1960), an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who had acquired it in Cuzco. , Peru. It was rare, never seen. Strident colors, characteristic of Peruvian dyes. A coat of arms in the center, surrounded by trees with flowers and fruits, birds, beasts and sirens, many sirens, playing harps and vihuelas. Two other panels showed rows of male and female characters that Joyce assimilated to Inca figures. The coat of arms was crowned by the motto "If God is for us, who will be against us", unknown in the Spanish noble houses, absent among the conquerors who arrived in Peru in the 16th century. It was a verse from the epistle to the Romans of the New Testament, attributed to the apostle Paul, something that the Protestant Joyce nor any of the colleagues of the British or the Victoria & Albert Museum could identify. These, on the other hand, helped him find emblems, motifs, coats of arms of the Iberian houses of the 16th and 17th centuries among the pieces purchased, among others, from the Benguiat. Thus, Albert van de Put (1876-1951), an assistant to the manager of the Victoria & Albert collections, an expert in Hispano-Moorish ceramics, in the Crown of Aragon and author, in 1914, of the catalog of existing tapestries, He suggested comparing it with the coats of arms of the houses of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa and they stayed with it. The technique, however, was typically pre-Columbian. Joyce did not go much further, barely suggesting a date—the seventeenth century—an interval that would have given the artist time to incorporate European motifs, while still maintaining the weaving techniques of his ancestors.

Joyce, in parallel, became famous with the description of a totem from the North American West Coast and with his work on the Maya of Belize and the Aztecs of Mexico. The Encyclopedia Britannica and the Peruvian tapestry were forgotten.

It would take more than a decade for the historian Albert Frank Kendrick (1872-1954), keeper of the Textiles department of the Victoria & Albert Museum (1897-1924), to unearth this work to compare it with the piece purchased in 1901 – the tapestry. of Goa—until then, outside all catalogues. For Kendrick, the entire ensemble was Peruvian and, moreover, had been woven in the same locality, the argument of a brief but fundamental piece of work to understand that the history of Cuzco could not be separated from that of the commerce and industry that it connected, from very early, the most dissimilar geographies creating hybrids: a term widely used in England and Mexico, among the conservatives, scholars and guardians of the 1920s who did not know where to locate the things they found under their care and which today is attributed to the first thing that happens or arrives.

Tapestry detail. Victoria & Albert Museum. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

Kendrick put together the group taking as its axis the piece acquired in 1901 from the Benguiat: the Goa tapestry, that is, Joyce's Peruvian tapestry. According to Kendrick, the central bird, flowers and other details in the tapestry at the Victoria & Albert Museum spoke of China. The lion, the unicorn and the sirens, for their part, referred to Spain, to Europe. The sirens in this piece, in turn, built a bridge with those of the tapestry described by Joyce in 1913 (the one purchased by Clarke in Cuzco) which, at the same time, was related to another from the Kelekian collection published in its fabric catalog Venetians and the East as a specimen of Indo-Portuguese Art of the 16th century. The series, however, did not end here: other fragments had to be added and the future would bring a few more that were exhibited in Los Andes coloniales, an exhibition held in 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Once again the mermaid in Peruvian popular art. Here playing a charango on a chua plate. Trichrome majolica. Pucara, Puno. Image: in The Arts of Peru, by Francisco Stastny. Continental Bank Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture.

Kendrick confirmed the character or the sacred-profane use of the same, which were now beginning to be seen as part of a series that existed distributed among five or six public and private repositories in the northern hemisphere and on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, thanks to the investigations of Elena Phillps, we know that there were many more. They are awarded to the same workshop, the result of weaving a combination of Andean, Chinese and European materials, techniques and motifs.

The Victoria & Albert Museum piece is primarily woven from silk with colored wools and gilt silver thread and would probably have been used as a pendant or curtain. Although woven in Peru, the design displays a fusion of indigenous techniques and colors with motifs and images imported from Europe and the Spanish colonies in East Asia, suggesting that the tapestry was made by Peruvian artisans. The reasons continue to generate doubts and reflection. However, nobody questions that the design represents a variety of creatures and flowers of Asian origin. In particular, the one-horned xiezhai of Chinese mythology and the unicorn, which seem to have no mythological parallels in the Andes. The string instruments played by marine beings are similar to the lutes used in Spain. The color palette, especially the deep red of the cochineal, is typically Andean, a dye abundant in both Peru and Mexico, where threads would have been dyed red. The silk threads would have arrived in Mexico in the Manila galleon. They came from Asia and were probably treated in Mexico before being shipped to Peru. The gilded silver thread is another element of extra-Andean origin: made of a metallic sheet wound around a central thread, they respond to a method that suggests European manufacture, probably imported from Spain, but composed of silver extracted in America. 

The representation of the unicorn. Tapestry detail. London. Photograph: Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum.

Bird feathers, fish-scaled tails, and lions' crowns are woven from silk threads. All the white animals are made of silk, except the unicorn, which is made of wool. Of the unicorn's mane, only the warp threads remain, suggesting that it may have been woven with golden or other threads that are now lost. In the center of the design is a large bird, probably a phoenix depicted as looking similar to a peacock. This bird is surrounded by flowers, leaves of different shapes and sizes, and various fruit-bearing stems. In the midst of these forms are numerous creatures: besides the sirens, a crowned lion, parrots and other birds with multicolored plumage; a unicorn with its head lowered, dog-like animals, one of which wears a golden collar.

Mermaid engraved on a horn. Vase decorated with different motifs. Dated 1872. Lower Mantaro. Image: in The Arts of Peru, by Francisco Stastny. Continental Bank Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture.

Religious art made in Cuzco with Chinese motifs that have no meaning in Cuzco, ready to be combined according to demand, skills and local colors. An unexpected warp, resulting from political events, distant and violent, apparently impossible to affect the Andean heights, a shock that, however, would manage to pile up on the same surface, in the same plots, the insignia of the officers and the ladies of the Ming, the emblems of European neo-humanism, the symbols of universal Christianity, the tastes of a friar or bishop and the interpretation of the Andean weavers thanks to whom a wing becomes a sleeve and the harp becomes a charango.


* Preview of her book “Desubicados”, Beatriz Viterbo, Rosario, June 2022.

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