Blog Post

The Grand Dream of a Grand Woman

My work as a journalist specialized in traveling throughout Peru, and with a candid eye discovering nuances by the thousand in those regions that blend nature, history and living culture – regions that could be the main source of wealth and development for our country, given adequate restoration –this work leads me to a paradoxical conclusion. I’ve seen so very much in thirteen years of traveling professionally, to this place and that, however, I find that I have come to know an area the size of an ocean, but barely a millimeter in depth. The energy required of me to produce two TV shows a month, each a half-hour long, in places generally far from my home (Peru has an area of one million sq. km., with the diversity of one jigsaw puzzle mixed with another), prevents me from delving further, as I wish I could, into certain locations, communities, monuments, or natural heritage sites, which often have exceptional value, provided one knows how to discover them. Because of this, any time an opportunity presents itself for me to explore some interesting cultural heritage in depth, I savor it down to the last drop.

Some three years ago (or more, since memory plays tricks on me) I was spending a summer weekend at the beach house of some friends. Late in the evening, around ten o’clock, I get a call on my cell phone. A woman’s voice, very friendly and cool, identified herself as Marcela Temple de Pérez de Cuéllar, adding, “you don’t know me, but I do know you from television.” We both laughed at the irony, since Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and his wife, Marcela (now deceased), belong to the group of Peruvians most universally respected in Peru. After this amusing initial protocol, Marcela got to the point. She had been appointed President of World Monuments Fund in Peru, and she was very flattered by this, and had a great desire to take charge and do what she needed to do, in the best way possible. That, she explained, meant having good sources of information about our country, reliable sources that could provide help informally, through a friendly arrangement, to her and her team in order to make good decisions. From our first meeting, which took place a few days later, Marcela and I forged a unique friendship, marked by a common interest in benefitting our beloved country through the recovery and restoration of some of the innumerable heritage assets that we possess. But what attracted me to Marcela’s vision was something that I hold as a permanent working principle: every project of recovery, conservation, and restoration, must be linked from the very beginning to the local communities. We had, in that sense, the same understanding: if the recovered asset does not have a favorable impact on the quality of life of the local residents – who are ultimately the symbolic owners of the asset – then the project will not be sustained over time. Only through its appropriation by the people, will it be ensured its validity for today and times to come. Education, training, participation in conservation efforts, generation of employment, tourism revenues, affirmation of the role of women, but above all, increased self-esteem, which is the best antidote against poverty. Marcela and her excellent team, made up of the attorney Juan Pablo de la Puente, and communications expert Mariella Cafferata, who has since left the institution, dedicated many hours, wonderful hours, discussing WMF projects – those already completed, those which were ongoing, and those to come. I value many things from those meetings, which Marcela called “sweet coffees” but what I remember best is Marcela’s remarkable personality: always discreet, always seeking consensus, always open, democratic, and always with a brilliant sense of humor, essential to countering the many obstacles she must have faced in her position. Another thing that I treasure is the fact that banality was scarce, if not entirely absent, during those meetings. Banality is part of the atmosphere in journalism (and life in Lima, let’s face it), and is something that produces an allergic reaction in me. And so, the ‘sweet coffees’ were privileged occasions for me to regain a sense of thinking, analysis, reflection, and the launching of ideas into projects. Sadly, Marcela died just a few weeks ago, and has already become irreplaceable in so many ways.

However, Marcela had already advanced certain steps towards addressing a monument of very special importance, located in Lima. It is a villa known as Quinta de Presa, which is located in the Rímac, a rather appalling neighborhood today, but which had much traditional character up until the 1920s, and especially during the time of the Viceroyalty. In a wide area filled with orchards and farms, the aristocrat Pedro Carrillo de Albornoz, Count of Montemar – a very rich man from the sugarcane he produced near the capital – built the villa in 1780, in a refined Rococo style. Among other indicators, the fortune of Don Pedro was measured by the number of black slaves he owned: six hundred, to work on two haciendas. This man had the villa built as a recreational house, not a primary residence (it has no bedrooms, just one for taking siestas, among other examples of well-being). It was what was known as a folie, a place to hold picnics and parties, to perform theater and music. So very Fragonard. The house is a delight. Not too large, in order to leave room for gardens and, in particular, for the aqueducts and fountains, which are everywhere. It has two floors, and in the rear a large balcony with balustrades, which originally continued to a staircase leading down to the flower gardens, although an earthquake has destroyed that. Inside there is a hall of mirrors, a games room, dining rooms, the siesta room, and a beautiful chapel that closes up and disappears, with painted images of St. Peter and St. Joseph, that the descendant of Carrillo de Albornoz, who had them done, called Peter Joseph. That remains intact. The exterior walls of the house have a horrible trompe l'oeil, a very bad imitation marble. For its kitsch factor alone, it is worth leaving as is.

A long and complex history resulted in Quinta de Presa ending up in the hands of the Peruvian government, specifically, the National Police, who on more than one occasion have tried to demolish it. Currently it is owned by the Ministry of Culture. Today it is given respect, but the gardens are entirely surrounded by buildings, including a police station, a hospital, office buildings, and soccer stadiums. Nevertheless, when one visits the Quinta de Presa, a stream of fantasies comes to mind. It is urgent that it be recovered and restored in a way that respects its heritage character, but also as a living space, and not simply a lifeless museum. The house had some furniture and decorative objects, not much apparently, nor particularly valuable, which now is stored elsewhere. The first temptation, the most obvious, would be perhaps to create a Viceregal museum for Lima, which it certainly does not have. But Lima has too many museums, and those owned by the state are poorly preserved, even with the treasures they contain. Quinta de Presa inspires us to do something more far-reaching. It occurred to me, for example – probably a dumb idea, as I have only a layman’s knowledge of restoration issues – but I thought it could be a wonderful interpretive center of all our UNESCO heritage sites, an interactive place with holographs, events, objects, videos, etc. No one in Peru knows that we have twelve (or thirteen?) UNESCO heritage sites, and it would be so important to have a place to learn about them, but in an exciting way, and not just passively.

When I talk about my visit to the Quinta, I mean that the good Juan Pablo de la Puente took me on a foray that he had scheduled for this past week, which was to include him, the historian Paul Rizo Patrón, who knows more about the villa than anyone, and eventually, the Deputy Minister of Heritage, of the Ministry of Culture. Just that day, however, the Minister of Culture, Luis Peirano, resigned from his position and with him, his trusted officials. In the place of Deputy Minister Rafael Varón, was a brilliant young historian, Juan Carlos Estensoro, a Peruvian but living in Paris. And of course, Elías Mujica, an archaeologist of my generation (I am 62) who stands out as one of the most important promoters of culture in the country, and very close to WMF. The visit was a treat for me since I heard them talk, not just about the villa, its significance, the history of Lima and such, but most importantly, about an issue on which Marcela would have been in absolute agreement. The neighborhood where the villa is located is badly degraded, and in the midst of the deterioration, remnants survive – along with those here, or from the Alameda de los Descalzos or the Paseo de Aguas – of the great message of the viceroyalty. But they are now completely rundown, looted. The Quinta is very close, a ten-minute walk, to the Historic Center of Lima, which itself has been sufficiently recovered and is visited by national and receptive tourists. But there is a gulf between this center and the Rímac, which is marked by urban blight, poverty, and lack of safety. The consensus among the group of visitors is that it would be meaningless to restore Quinta de Presa as if it had no context. And that it would be important to develop a strategy to strengthen the relationship between the current inhabitants of the neighborhood and this group of monuments that sooner or later, given their value, will be rescued. But in an integrated manner, so that everything would be alive and bustling, with people of the 21st century, from the Rímac, from all of Lima, all of Peru, and from the whole world.

Another important detail is that the Quinta de Presa is one of the few examples of Viceregal civil architecture in Lima. As for religious architecture, Lima is full of wonders, like no other city in the Americas. But apart from the Torre Tagle Palace, the House of Osambela, the House of Pilates, and a few others, the message of the former civil society is not present. The Quinta de Presa, recovered and restored, can contribute to conveying that, along with the delightful component of sensory gratification. Through my work I have had the opportunity to hear the opinions of many tourists who visit the center of our capital, and they find themselves saturated with so much religious imagery, so many churches, and so much baroque martyrdom. They wonder: where were pleasure, sensuality, and joyfulness? – in Quinta de Presa, for example.