09 December 2012

Sunken Treasure

The third painting from the 2013 Parvum Opus Desk Calendar:
A Gold Cup, Peru? 1670-1715, from the cargo of the Santo Cristo
de San Roman, sunk in 1715

After a long absence due to an incredibly busy few weeks in the bindery, I'm very pleased to be back and to bring you the third installment of posts on the antique art objects from the Parvum Opus 2013 Desk Calendar. As you may recall, each year we add twelve new motifs to our library of original watercolor paintings, which are then featured in our desk calendars, ex libris bookplates and address labels. All of these can of course be seen at http://www.parvumopus.com.
For the month of March, I chose to paint a three hundred year-old  gold cup, probably from Peru, filled with a jaunty posy of hydrangea and ivy: a perfect complement for any elegant desk, wouldn’t you say? Interestingly, it’s one of two pieces of sunken treasure featured in this year’s calendar. This cup was part of an enormous load of treasure aboard the Spanish galleon, San Cristo de San Roman, sunk during a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1715.
A Spanish galleon, by Everett Hickam:
a sister to the Santo Cristo de San Roman, perhaps?
According to Allen Tony at Wrecksite.com, “Santo Cristo de San Roman brought up the rear of the fleet and acted as a guard ship. The 450 tons ship was armed with 54 cannons. The holds of the ship contained the second largest amount of treasure within the fleet. The manifest is as follows: 2,687,416 pesos in silver and gold, 53 chests of worked silver, 14 chests of Chinese porcelain, 728 leather bags of cochineal, 1,702 leather bags and chests of indigo, 139 sheets of copper, 682 tanned leather hides, 26 chests of pottery, 48 chests of vanilla beans, balsam, liquid amber, chocolate, oaxaca, cochineal, brazilwood and sasparilla. During the hurricane of 1715 she ran aground on a reef when 1,500 feet from the shore, eventually coming to rest on the second reef when 700 feet from the shore in 12 feet of water.
A map of just a few of the shipwrecks off the coast of Florida,
including the San Roman, second from the top.
The San Roman’s treasure had been destined for Spain where it surely would have been useful to the heavily debt-burdened Philip V (no comment). After her sinking, recovery of the San Roman's treasure began almost immediately. Our gold cup was among those objects recovered by divers in 1715.
As you can see in the painting, despite being slightly dented from its underwater adventures, this is a very sensitively worked cup. This is not at all surprising given the long history of goldsmithing in South America. Metal working in the New World seems to have developed in the Andean region of modern Peru, Colombia and Bolivia with gold being hammered and shaped into intricate objects, (particularly ornaments) as early as 2155 to 1936 BCE. Gold in the Americas was an especially prized material, valued for its religious symbolism. For the Inca and other peoples of the Andean region of South America, gold was thought of as the "sweat of the sun," the most sacred of all deities.

An early Inca sun motif gold mask

Our anonymous South American goldsmith formed this beautiful cup from a sheet of gold, alternating between hammering and heating the metal until it had the desired shape. This was no brutish, primitive task: the molecules in the gold had to be hammered carefullly into alignment to create a rigid, but not brittle finished vessel.  He would have soldered the two handles, and then worked the design on the cup using  complex techniques of repoussé and chasing. In repoussé, specialized tools are used to impress the design into the metal from the back (repoussé being from the French, “pushed up”). About three hundred forty years ago, then, our artist ancestor would have refined his design by delicately working with chisels from the front of the cup (chasing). Having studied metalwork during my art school years and after, I romantically imagine that his chasing tools, made specifically for his hand, would not have been so very different than my own handmade tools, forged with the guidance of my undergraduate mentor.

 A selection of handmade chasing tools, reminiscent of some of my own,
courtesy of Anvil Fire
How wonderful that in a time in which we value the virtual more highly than many things, working with one’s hands provides a unique path towards understanding our ancestors and the objects they created. Using the traditional, sometimes even ancient craft techniques and tools passed down through generations of artisans, allows us to relate to the people and objects of the past on a very human, intimate level. Brilliant.
If you'd care to learn more about the history of gold in South America, I invite you to take a look at this video tour of the magnificent Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia. Having visited many times myself, I can tell you that the predominant golden hue of this video wonderfully represents  the fantastic, unreal glow of the place. Enjoy!


  1. Dear Erika - this is an enthralling post with so many interesting aspects to it.
    I am struck by the similarity of the early Inca sun motif gold mask along with many of the pieces in the Bogota Museum to that of the Mycenaean funerary gold mask of Agamemnon.
    The exquisite golden work in Bogota also reminded me of Picasso's work, I do know that he was influenced by African tribal art and masks.
    There appears to be many overlaps in ancient civilisations.
    I have an emerald ring bought back from Bogota by my husband. I recall him being paid locally in non convertible currency for his perdiem whilst on a mission there. It was quite a substantial amount which he had to spend in the country. Hence my emerald ring.
    Another lovely painting by you Erika, you have a prodigious talent.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your kind words--I'm so pleased that you enjoyed this belated post! I agree with you completely about the interesting aesthetic connections that exist between seemingly unrelated cultures-- it makes one wonder if there could perhaps be a core library of motifs at the base of our primitive brains, doesn't it?! A great deal has been written on the history of ornament, tracing the movement of motifs through time and place, including on All Things Ruffnerian: fascinating!

      How wonderful that you were able to benefit from the unfortunate non-convertible payment your husband received while working in Colombia! It is a gorgeous country rich with culture and potential, but also, like so many places, a hive of bureaucracy. Still, I'd say the end result was a good one for you-- wear your emerald in good health!
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Erika,

    I am seconding all of Rosemary's comments. I too enjoy how so many classic pieces are cross-cultural; I saw in the video of the Bogota museum's collection designs that reminded me of Asia, and I also thought of Phillip of Macedonia.

    I am enjoying your calendar series, and I appreciated that I was able to click on the image of your painting and view it slightly larger. You indeed have a prodigious talent, and I enjoy how you have achieved different sheens and textures with watercolor. Brava!

  3. Dear Mark,
    It's such a privilege to have intellectually curious and erudite readers like you and Rosemary! I shall have to cheerfully challenge myself to earn your continued interest!

    Thank you for your kind words. I completely agree with you about the intriguing way that seemingly unrelated cultures share a common aesthetic language... It is truly an amazing phenomenon, and I'm happily reminded of your writings on Greek Keys.

    Thanks again, Mark-- I send warm regards from cold Michigan!

  4. Hello Erika, Your painting of the gold cup with flowers is brilliant. I like the way the lighter tones at the top of the hydrangea balance the lighter highlights toward the bottom of the cup. The ivy also gives a counterpart to the handles, as well as invigorates the whole composition with an asymmetrical component.

    Your arrangement also reminds us, whether or not this was not the intended use of the cup, that these antique artworks were also practical objects meant to be seen in the context of their everyday use. The context you give, while taking the entire focus off the cup, makes us appreciate it the more.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your kind message. I love the observation you've made about objects and functionality. For some reason, I've always been drawn to functional objects in my studies, as opposed to paintings and sculpture. It seems to me that the relationship people throughout history have had with the objects they've used in their everyday lives is so much more intimate and complex than those relationships we have with objects of contemplation. No matter how fine or how humble the functional object, something of its user's soul rubs off on it, don't you think?
      Warm regards,