Pacific Shores From Panama – Lima, City Of The Kings

LIMA is a fiat city whose straight, wide streets are as regular in plan as those of any metropolis of the New World. Pizarro is said to have laid it out, and if he did so he used a T-square and no imagination, merely leaving one empty block in the centre for a Plaza de Armas. Like all cities built upon this checker-board system, it lacks both the picturesqueness and charm of the mediaeval town and the dignity and stateliness of the modern city whose converging streets meet to frame views of important monuments.

Despite this drawback, however, Lima has a physiognomy all its own. Throughout the colonial period it was the capital of the Spanish-American colonies, the residence of the viceroy and of the nobility. Hence it contains, more than any other South American city, notable examples of Hispanic architecture little suspected by the average tourist.

The streets, too, have distinct individuality, imparted to a great extent by the balcones, adaptations of the Oriental moucharaby, or mirador, often elaborately carved, that project from the upper story of almost every house, far out over the sidewalks, some-times occurring uninterruptedly for blocks at a time. They are most practical, allowing the air to pass freely to the rooms within, yet screening the house walls from the direct rays of the sun. The people, especially the women, live upon them, flitting be-hind their long rows of windows as they pass from room to room or leaning over the rail to watch the life in the streets below. The shops, too, are peculiar, being without fronts—wide open during the daytime and closed by long series of folding wooden doors at night.

Much interest is also imparted to these streets by the stately palaces, mostly dating from the viceregal period, that are encountered in all the principal thoroughfares. They present a rather forbidding aspect, with their great walls pierced only by a few barred windows and by their monumental porte-cocheres. But look through one of these vast doorways, and all is gaiety within. In an instant you are transported to Spain and the sunlit courts of Andalusia. Here the same patios, washed with pale pastel tones and paved with tiles or coloured marbles, bask in the sunlight, decked with palms and oleanders screened behind iron gratings of intricate and artistic workmanship. Through pavilions at the rear you catch glimpses of other gardens beyond. The whole scheme, cool, airy, framing the peep of blue sky overhead, seems singularly well adapted to this land of soft sunshine.

The Plaza is a handsome square, well paved, neatly kept, and adorned with beautiful tropical gar-dens set with flowers and stately palms, and ornate lamp-posts supporting arches of lights for festivals. It is surrounded on two sides by portales, or arcades, lined with shops. The third side is occupied by the palace and the fourth by the cathedral.

This last is not as interesting as some of the other great Peruvian churches. It was apparently made over in the last century, when a wave of classic revival swept away many of the picturesque plateresque constructions of the Latin-American churches and substituted cold Roman columns and arches for the elaborate pediments and richly carved surfaces of the Churrigueresque artists. So now the cathedral lacks much of that interest that one expects to find in a building of its age. The interior, too, suffers at first sight from the same cause, yet upon closer investigation the choir and chapels yield notable works of art. There are, for example, the massive silver high altar and the rarely beautiful silleria, rows of richly carved stalls ornamented with good statues of saints and apostles enshrined in ornate canopies or framed in elaborate panelling—all done in cedar wood after the best Hispanic traditions. The Chapel of the Purissima, too, is a fine piece of plateresque not yet debased by the barocco, and we discovered in the sacristy a delightful little Moorish fountain of alabaster, the glint of whose tiles in the penumbra and the splash of whose water in the silence recalled to us some inner court of the Alhambra.

In the Chapel of the Virgen Antigua, under the benign eyes of a placid Virgin and Child sent over from Spain by Charles V, a modest white casket with open glass sides contains the remains of that wonderful ruffian, that intrepid conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. As I looked at his dried bones and mummified flesh exposed thus publicly to the gaze of the curious, lying upon, but in no way shrouded by, a bed of purple velvet, his entrails in a bottle at his feet, I wondered if it was with design that his remains are so displayed. Is it mere chance that this poor tomb is all that marks his final resting-place? Is it by mere neglect that no monument to him (at least to my knowledge) exists in all Peru?

During the last stormy days of his life he occupied the palace that he built across the Plaza. This vast, rambling pile is worthy of a visit, not merely because it is the actual residence of the President, the White House of Peru, but because of its historic associations.

A big doorway, where a company of soldiers always mounts guard, admits to an outer court, vast in scale, across which you reach a stairway that leads to a broad upper corridor, severely chaste, white and fresh, and open to the sky throughout its entire length. A series of apartments leads off on either hand, and sentinels challenge you at each door, for revolutions are frequent. But under the guidance of the President’s chief aide-de-camp, a colonel of distinction and courtly manners, we visited in turn the various reception-rooms, with their ornately gilded furniture of the viceregal period, and saw the viceroy’s throne that still, standing under its baldaquin but shorn of its imperial ornaments, does duty for the President. We admired, too, the proportions and acoustics of the long banquet-hall, a bit shabby, perhaps, but hemmed in between two of the lovely tropical gardens that are incorporated within the palace walls, some of their ancient fig-trees, we were told, dating from the days of Pizarro.

The apartments that he occupied open upon an inner corridor, long and narrow, down which the old lion at bay fought Rada’s men, single-handed, toward the street and safety. At the foot of its last step you are shown a small white stone that is said to mark the spot where he fell, wounded to the death, and where, dipping his finger in a pool of his own blood, he traced a cross upon the ground, expiring as he kissed it.

I had the rare good fortune, while in Lima, to procure as my cicerone a certain police commissioner (that is the best translation I can make of his title) who knew every corner of the capital and apparently every one in it. Whether in the halls of the President’s palace, or the grim corridors of the penitentiary, or the dark aisles of the churches, he seemed equally at home, and every one treated him as a friend. His kindness was of great value to me, for, strange as it may seem, there exists no guide-book to Lima, and it is difficult to ferret out the points of interest.

With him I visited the monasteries, and was certainly surprised by what I found in them. Nothing that I had heard, nothing that I had read, had prepared me for what I saw, for they have been strangely neglected by travellers. Yet to my mind they are among the chief features of the city—of interest both because of their vast extent as well as for the numerous art treasures that they contain.

The finest belongs to the Franciscans and faces upon one of the prettiest little squares of the city, the Plaza of San Francisco. To visit it you enter a sort of vestibule whose lower walls are completely covered with beautiful Mudejar tiles in which little amorini alternate curiously with grim deaths’ heads. Borders of deep lapis blue frame the panels and completely surround the great doorway that occupies one end of the hall. In answer to a knock the little wicket opens, a few words are exchanged, the heavy door swings, a brown friar steps back to let you pass, and you enter another world—a world of seclusion and quiet, of cloister courts with brown monks moving silently about or digging in the flower-beds, of ancient pictures depicting the life of good Saint Francis looking down from their golden frames upon sun-lit gardens filled with the bright bloom of the tropics.

It would be quite impossible to describe the labyrinths of this convent’s courts, the varied features of its trinity of churches and its thirteen chapels with their carved coros and gilded altars. But its chief interest lies in the beautiful azulejos, or glazed tiles, that completely cover the lower walls and pillars of its cloisters. These date mostly from the early years of the seventeenth century and are of great variety. Some are patterned with the rich designs of the high Renaissance; others with figures of brown-cowled monks; others again with heraldic monsters or with those intricate arabesques that the Moors introduced into Spain. Moorish, too, is the beautiful flattened dome that covers the main stairway, a great half-orange of cedar wood, unfortunately now falling to decay, but still retaining enough of its original inlay of ebony and bone to recall its pristine glory.

The Dominicans possess an equally beautiful monastery though not as extensive a one. It is the oldest in Lima, and, like San Francisco, is richly adorned with tiles that date from the second decade of the seventeenth century, many of them evidently de-signed expressly for the convent, depicting scenes in the history of the Dominican order.

Through the upper loggia of one of the inner courts, whose rose-coloured walls act as a foil to a pale-green fountain in the centre, you reach the library, a quiet room divided by arches resting upon slender columns. On the morning of my visit a painter was graining the shafts of these columns to imitate marble. Several brothers in white stood watching him, their shaven heads and intellectual faces (for these Dominicans are of a studious stamp) making an attractive picture for some Vibert or Zamacois against the golden background of parchment-covered books lit by the sunlight that filtered through the leaded windows. There are other monasteries of lesser note, repetitions on a smaller scale of these great ones.

Of Lima’s churches, San Pedro makes the richest effect. It is the fashionable church of the city, and its dark aisles, with their deep-toned paintings set in elaborate gilded frames, their polychrome saints and martyrs looking out from niches charged with carvings that wake the shadows with the glow of their golden ornaments, their retablos toned with the smoke of incense and the dust of years, form a fine background indeed for the beautiful women that frequent it—women whose pallid faces gleam like ivory from beneath the lacy folds of the mantilla or the sombre pleats of the heavy manta.

The palace of the Torre Tagles without doubt takes precedence over all the secular buildings of the city.

Its superb balcones, the finest in the city, would alone arrest your attention, or its doorway, the best example of the Churrigueresque style that I saw in Peru. You may or you may not like this form of architecture, with its bizarre proportions, its broken pediments, its general lack of organism, but the mere bulk of this entrance, the grandeur of its scale and absence of finicky detail will prepare you for the splendid courtyard within. This great patio is reached through a deep vestibule where, after the fashion of Spanish palaces, steps are arranged for mounting and dismounting from horses.

The court itself is shaded by a broad projecting balcony of cedar wood left without paint or varnish, its columns, arches, and balustrades richly carved, and its supporting corbels, elaborate and intricate in detail, ornamented with heads of animals and men that, though Hispanic in design, are evidently the handicraft of highly skilled Indian workmen.

A broad staircase, whose glazed tiles imitate a stair-rail upon the one hand, while its mahogany stair-rail imitates these same tiles upon the other, leads to the upper balcony where the main apartments open. These are spacious and handsome and still contain much of their antique furniture of the viceregal period, among other things two superb wardrobes, royal objects of massive design completely encrusted with mother-of-pearl, silver, and tortoise-shell, the viceroy of Mexico’s wedding gift to an ancestor of the family. Handsome portraits of gentlemen in wigs and the elaborately embroidered coats and waistcoats of the eighteenth century, and of ladies in the voluminous skirts and powdered hair of the same period, complete a picture of aristocratic life under the Spanish regime.

The Torre Tagles, who counted among their members two viceroys and the first President of Peru, were a family of great importance, as many things about the palace testify. By royal grant, a pair of cannon, their noses planted in the ground at either side of the vestibule, gave right of asylum to any one who passed between them. In one corner of the patio a heraldic lion carved in wood supports a post from which hung the scales that weighed the gold and silver for the King’s troops, the head of this family having been for centuries paymaster of the army and navy. The great collection of pictures that they owned, once the most notable in Peru, is now being dispersed, and their state coach, a gilded calèche worthy of the royal stables of Madrid, has been bequeathed to the National Museum, where it now forms the central object in the colonial collection.

This National Museum, with the National Library, and San Marcos University founded in 1551, the oldest in the New World, form the three important institutions of learning in the capital.

The museum’s well-ordered cases, arranged by an enthusiastic German archaeologist, afford an excellent opportunity to study the civilisation of the Incas, containing, as they do, rare picture cloths from Tiahuanaco, with their strange conventionalised figures of animals and men; quaintly fashioned huacos (funeral urns) that, like the Greek and Etruscan vases, give us the best documents we have of the manners and customs of the times; and row upon row of those strange, seated mummies whose knees touch their chins and whose faces are covered with masks of gold, silver, or vicuña cloth, according to their social standing.

The National Library is again of importance. I say again, for during the Chilian invasion it was ruthlessly looted and its priceless treasures carried off by a pack of vandals. Now, however, through the unremitting efforts of Don Riccardo Palma, one of the most brilliant literary lights of Latin America, whose “Recuerdos de Lima” forms the classic collection of the city’s tales and legends, it has again attained to a certain degree of its former importance.

San Marcos University looks much as it did in colonial days, and its sunny cloisters, with their white arcades, still echo the footsteps and voices of students preparing for the liberal professions.

It is in one of the populous quarters of the city—one of the districts where you may still see some of the curious street types of Lima: the aguador vending his water, or the lechera peddling her milk, mounted high upon her pillion, a Panama hat upon her head, her huge cans, bound in calf-skin sacks, dangling at either side of her ambling pony. Here, too, or over in the Malambra quarter, near where the favourite of the viceroy Amat dwelt in seclusion in the Casa Perricholi, you will find the vendors of chicha, the national drink, women who smoke cigars and carry bamboo canes, and the panaderos who cover their bread-baskets with bright-red parasols. And at any time, in any street, you may meet the capeador, perhaps the most characteristic of all the Lima types, mounted upon his pacing pony of Arab stock, whose hair saddle-cloths, silver-mounted bridle, and housings over the tail will recall the trappings of the mediaeval knights.

The business streets of the city are animated; the better shops full of attractive imported articles, especially wearing apparel, for the women are smart and well dressed, devoting much of their time and attention—too much, perhaps—to their clothes. If you want to see a group of them, go in the winter season to the race-course, or in the bathing season, December to April, upon a Sunday morning, to La Punta, a little resort reached by trolley.

And if you want to see more of them and in more attractive surroundings, go some Sunday evening to Barranco, and especially to Chorrillos, where a broad promenade skirts the sea. The scene in many ways would remind you of some lesser resort on the Riviera —the broad terrace with its balustrades and seats, the music in the band-stand, the palm gardens, the villas new and bright overlooking the terrace, and the sea among whose lazy rollers far below lies the yacht club with its phantom boats.

With a bit of energy, with the impetus of a few enthusiastic citizens, Lima could be made most attractive as a winter resort. When the Canal is opened, I dare say it will become one, especially when some hotel not yet in existence, but soon to be, I hear, shall have been constructed, set in wide gardens.