By Dana Micucci
Photography by Bruce Buck
The colonial elegance and grand style of a storied historical island is rediscovered in a new book
For many Americans, especially those in the post-World War II generation, the island of Cuba stirs up mostly unpleasant memories of revolution, political fiascoes, and a missile crisis that put the United States and the former Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war.
But here is another, vastly different Cuba that few Americans have ever seen or even know about. This is the Cuba that has long beguiled visitors with its tropical beauty and exotic culture, rooted in a centuries-old Spanish, Moorish, and African heritage that finds expression in its elegant colonial architecture, interiors, and furniture.
Presiding majestically along the twisting cobblestone streets and grand plazas of Old Havana (the capital city’s historic quarter, settled by Spain in 1519) are the restored mansions and palaces of former Spanish merchants, plantation owners, and government officials, who from the 16th to 19th centuries transformed Cuba into the wealthiest and most sophisticated island in the West Indies. The late afternoon sunlight casts a golden glow on their pastel-colored façades, revealing an amalgam of architectural styles ranging from Romanesque and Renaissance to Baroque, Rococo, and neoclassical, all blending seamlessly with later Art Nouveau and Art Deco structures.
In the midst of a 30-year restoration, Old Havana stands in stark contrast to the more familiar image of Cuba as a country of decaying buildings and peeling paint. Despite its socioeconomic woes, this sultry city is still infused with the air of intrigue and movie-set drama that lured celebrities, mobsters, and writers such as Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway here in the middle decades of the 20th century.
But beyond the powdered beaches and royal palms lies a more exclusive Cuba, where arched doorways lead to hidden courtyards, colonnaded arcades, and exquisitely furnished rooms that offer an inside glimpse into an opulent colonial lifestyle.
“With more than 500 years of written history, Cuba has the oldest continuous colonial heritage and most important material culture in the Western Hemisphere”, says Michael Connors, a Manhattan-based connoisseur, dealer, and collector of West Indian antiques and author of Cuban Elegance (Abrams, $40), published this spring with the help of Fundacicón Amistad, a New York-based organization that facilitates cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba. “For Spain, Cuba was the key to the New World, generating unprecedented wealth from trade in gold and silver followed by tobacco, coffee, and sugar, which enabled aristocratic colonists to build elegant residences filled with both imported and beautiful locally crafted furniture.”
Cuba’s first cabinetmakers were Spanish shipbuilders and carpenters who replicated furniture imported from Spain in the 16thcentury. The earliest furnishings, as well as the aristocratic colonial houses they adorned, imitated Spanish ecclesiastical sytyles and Mudejar construction techniques. Mudejar was a Moorish architectural style then popular in southern Spain that incorporated Spanish Christian and Arabic influences. Furniture forms from this period included the cedar trunk or chest, displaying the Mudejar zigzag dovetails that are unique to Cuban colonial furniture; cedar and leather friar’s armchairs; and rustic armoires and writing desks.
Cuban colonial furniture designs mirrored the stylistic evolution of Cuban colonial architecture, as cabinetmakers continued to copy and reinterpret European models. “In the early 18th century, curvilinear as opposed to rectilinear geometric carving, and intricate turning on chair and table legs and bedposts, signaled the arrival of the Spanish Baroque,” says Connors. “During the English occupation of Cuba in 1762 and thereafter, Cuban furniture became more Georgian in appearance. Later in the 18th century it was crafted in the opulent Rococo style in imitation of furniture imported from France. Different styles coexisted and were sometimes combined in single pieces of furniture.”
Baroque serpentine-shaped mahogany sacristy chests, for example, were influenced by the English chest of drawers and the French Rococo-style commode. A quintessential Cuban furniture forml the sacristy chest historically functioned as an architectural fitting in churches and held accessories for the Mass. During the 18th century, elite Cubans commissioned local cabinetmakers to create smaller freestanding versions for their mansions that became more sumptuous in design as the fashion for French Rococo became more popular. Examples of both ecclesiastical and domestic sacristy chests still adorn churches, museums, and private residences in Cuba, including the famous Baroque Havana Cathedral. Another distinctive Cuban furniture form thought to have originated in the 18th century is the lolling armchair, often referred to as a Cuban planter’s or campeche chair (referring to the Mexican state of Campeche, where examples are also found). It is usually made of mahogany with a Spanish-derived curule base and leather sling-seat.
By the 19th century, late Baroque and Rococo furniture styles gave way to a new taste for the symmetry of neo-classicism, expressed in such furniture forms as the mahogany-and-cane rocking chair, which is found throughout the West Indies. During this period, caned furniture, designed to facilitate air-flow in the tropical climate, became increasingly common in the West Indies.
As the 19th century progressed, the Cuban elite decorated their homes with heavy mahogany Empire-style furniture, as well as locally mass-produced machine-made pieces in the fashionable Renaissance-, Gothic-, and Rococo Revival styles imported from Europe and North America. Suites of Rococo Revival settees and chairs with carved and caned oval-shaped backs were especially popular. They were often integrated in interiors with older hand-crafted Cuban furniture and European antiques ranging from Louis XV commodes and Sèvres porcelain to Chippendale armchairs and 18th century English silver. The evolution of Cuban colonial interiors can be seen to dramatic effect in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the late 18th century Baroque neoclassical residence of Cuba’s colonial governors that is typical of the palatial townhouses built by the Cuban aristocracy.
But it is on the streets of Old Havana that colonial Cuba most immediately captures the imagination. “The city and each building should be read as a document of our past,” says Rafael Hutado de Mendoza, head of urban planning for Old Havana. “Our restoration project not only preserves our rich cultural heritage but brings a renewed sense of beauty and elegance to the Cuban people.”