San Francisco

Gold of the Andes: Treasures of Peru

M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

A special exhibition of works of art from the collection of Senor Miguel Muhica Gallo, presented through the courtesy of the Republic of Peru, and containing more than 500 gold objects dating from 200 B.C. to the 16th century.

This exhibition, equipped with acoustiguide service, is, speaking generally, arranged in a categorical manner which robs it of some emotional quality, but does lay it out for chronological study, and allows for speculation on individual items of jewelry, idols of many kinds, funeral masks, weapons, ceremonial vessels, and crowns and other accessories worn by priests and high officials during ritual observances. Yet, since the artisans who created these pieces were anonymous, and since, as in all art of this type, the work was communal in both content and purpose, to regard a piece as “individual” is to miss the point.

In the east gallery, however, one does catch, for a fleeting, breathless moment, something of the wonder which spellbound the questing Spaniards when they discovered the lncan Empire and the treasures of Coricancha. Even though it contains only an infinitesimal part of the total treasure stripped from the golden bowels of the Andes, the imagination staggers at thoughts of the captive Inca king, Atahualpa, filling his cell to the roof-beams with items such as these to ransom his life from Pizarro. (He was brutally murdered anyway, his golden treasure melted down into ingots to swell the coffers of warring Spain.)

The term “Inca” has always caused a certain amount of confusion: it originally applied to the tribe which exercised short but paramount rule (14th to 16th centuries) over the western Atlantic slope of South America, from Ecuador to where Valparaiso stands today. It is also often applied to a dynasty of 13 emperors, abruptly terminated by the arrival of the Spaniards.

The prior Chimu civilization (13th to 15th centuries) overlapped the lncan, and since the potentates of Cuzco, the lncan capital, habitually extorted precious works from the captured Chimus, there has been until recently a free attribution of much Chimu art work to the Incas. When the dead emperors of the Chimu went to meet their gods, they did so with their hands sumptuously gloved in gold—indeed, their whole bodies often so clothed. The de Young show includes a magnificent pair of such gloves. Of 22 carat gold, the forearms decorated with relief ornaments and traces of silver still on the nails, these gloves bear mute testimony to Chimu workmanship and mortuary practices. They date from the 12th or 13th century and are among the greatest finds in Peruvian archeology.

The high level of Chimu artwork is also shown in an especially fine funerary mask in this collection. It is of thin, hammered gold, with reddish polychrome emerald and turquoise inlay, pendant earrings, fluttering nose ornaments, and is crowned with an elaborate gold plume. Seventeen inches across at its widest point, its purpose was to protect the mummified face of the dead emperor against jarring accidents.

For it was important to the Chimu that the remains of their monarchs should not be sealed in a tomb for all time. They were brought out periodically and displayed with great pomp and circumstance, among other reasons to play upon the superstitious awe of the people. With the slanting rays of the sun glinting off their shining raiment, the desired effect was probably immediate and lasting, especially since, unlike the Eskimo and Melanesian masks, there are no mischievous smiles on these faces, only a cold and somber stare.

Because they possessed such an abundance of gold items, the Incas are associated in history with a golden culture, but they did not invent the techniques for treating gold. It was the Mochicans, inhabiting the northern coast of Peru during the 4th to 8th centuries A.D., who mastered the techniques of welding, hammering, melting, repoussage, gilding, enameling and ciré-perdu. The exhibition is rich in examples of their craftsmanship. The Incas, however, are not without their own contributions, although very few items of their workmanship are shown here. Much of the splendid gold work that so dazzled the Spaniards came from the vast stores of treasures discovered in lncan palaces, it being the custom to seal the abode of each dying king with its furnishings left intact, thus forcing the successor to build his own fortune. Some of these personal riches lay buried in tombs until fairly recent excavations, thus escaping the ravaging Conquistadores.

It would be a grave error to discuss this show without mentioning its reproductions of the drawings of Poma de Ayala. There are no first-hand accounts of pre-Spanish Inca history, except for descriptions of contemporary Inca life left by a few of Pizarro’s Spanish soldiers. 16th and 17th-century Spanish sources relied on the testimony of Indians whose remembrance of the past grew dimmer with the years. Various Indians of the 17th century wrote of Inca culture, in Spanish intermingled with Quechua phrases often impossible to translate. Ayala was foremost of these Indian recorders. His text is not too reliable, but his full-page drawings provide revealing illustrations of earlier Inca life, and are strong, direct statements in their own right.

E. M. Polley