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New Exhibit at Special Collections

May 23, 2016

Fact: Stranger than Fiction?
The Fantastical 18th century Utopia of Bishop Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón
from Trujillo del Perú
This exhibition is a creative and intellectual collaboration between Dr. Juliet Wiersema’s AHC 4333 New World Manuscripts class and Rare Books Librarian, Agnieszka Czeblakow

Putting History in Students’ Hands
Juliet Wiersema, Assistant Professor, Art History
Blair Salt, MA graduate student, Art History

How do you make 200 year-old scientific study images relevant and interesting to today’s UTSA students? That was the challenge I faced with my spring 2016 course, New World Manuscripts II. The Andes. Working from a facsimile of Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón’s Trujillo del Perú, an encyclopedic collection of watercolors that document the natural history of the bishopric of Trujillo during the later part of the eighteenth century, students created a vibrant exhibition, housed in UTSA’s Special Collections. Unlike other Enlightenment-period, crown-sponsored botanical expeditions, Trujillo del Perú was a project spearheaded by a progressive prelate. Through questionnaires sent throughout a vast area, Martínez Compañón was able to crowd-source information, collecting drawings of myriad unusual and often useful plants and animals that were native to northern Peru. The facsimiles have only become available in the past few decades and very few comprehensive studies have been undertaken on them. For students, this means an unparalleled opportunity to conduct new research and arrive at original observations.

Trujillo del Perú is the product of an enlightened Spanish prelate, Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón (1737 – 1797) and dozens of his native subjects. In 1767, Martínez Compañón was sent by King Charles III of Spain to serve as cantor of Lima’s Cathedral. Eleven years later, in 1778, he was named bishop of Trujillo, an appointment he undertook with gusto for the next 12 years. As bishop, Martínez Compañón worked to improve the lives of the people he served—founding towns, building schools, and educating the indigenous people of the vast Bishopric of Trujillo. Nevertheless, Martínez Compañón’s greatest legacy is Trujillo del Perú, a nine-volume paper museum of 1,372 beautiful and seemingly fantastical watercolors by anonymous (and largely indigenous) artists. Together, the volumes provide an encyclopedic view of the people, plants, animals, insects, architecture, and traditions of this region during the final half of the eighteenth century.

Remarkably, Martínez Compañón compiled his series like a modern day crowd sourcing project, drawing upon the indigenous knowledge of his subjects. Through questionnaires, information was collected about natural and local resources, with a decided emphasis on medicinal plants and exotic animals. Often times, illustrations were accompanied by botanical specimens which were later sent to Madrid to fill Charles Ill’s Royal Cabinet of Natural History.

At first glance, many of the illustrations in the Trujillo del Perú volumes appear far-fetched, even impossible; a porcupine with a prehensile tail? A tree that bleeds? A ray with a two-sided saw for a nose? A cursory look into the specimens documented, however, reveals that many continue to inhabit this region while others have made their way into our ecosystem, our diet, and even our grocery stores!

Acquiring Trujillo del Perú by Bishop Martínez Compañón
Shari Salisbury, UTSA Librarian

I first learned about Trujillo del Perú by Bishop Martínez Compañón from art history professor Juliet Wiersema when she invited me to a lecture at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Dr. Wiersema was interested in the nine-volume facsimile of watercolor reproductions for her own research and for teaching. Dr. Marion Oettinger, Curator of Latin American Art, showed slides of the illustrations and had several of the volumes on a table for the audience to examine. As a librarian, I couldn’t resist thumbing through them and looking at the amazing drawings! Dr. Oettinger explained that the facsimile had been published in three different bindings, and SAMA’s set had examples of each. He also indicated that it had been difficult to locate all nine volumes and that they had been acquired by SAMA one or two at a time until they had found all nine. According to the WorldCat database, about 50 libraries have copies of Trujillo del Perú however many do not have all of the volumes. Dr. Oettinger also stated that little had been written about the watercolors, but that a new book called The Bishop’s Utopia by Emily Berquist Soule was soon to be published. In light of this forthcoming publication and Dr. Wiersema’s research and teaching interests, I felt we needed to be quick if the UTSA Libraries were going to be able to acquire our own copy of the complete facsimile. The new book would doubtless stir up more interest in the watercolors!

I enlisted the help of UTSA Libraries Acquisitions Department staff, and they immediately set to work trying to locate the Trujillo del Perú volumes. We did not care whether they had the same binding or not, we just wanted to see if we could get all nine. It was touch and go at times, with a volume seemingly becoming unavailable just when we thought we had found them all! Working with vendors in the United States, France, and Spain, we were excited when our Acquisitions staff managed to locate and purchase all nine volumes within two months!

Most recently, we have learned of the existence of a booklet and three appendices that are meant to accompany Trujillo del Perú, and our Acquisitions staff are already tackling the challenge of locating these also. The saga continues…

Working with Trujillo del Perú as a Class
Christine Lane and Kat Gally, UTSA undergraduate students

As students learning in an age of Wikipedia, we found it fascinating that a similar crowd-sourced project had successfully taken place centuries in the past, in today’s Peru! The eighteenth-century bishop Baltazar Jaime Martínez Compañón compiled an impressive collection of local knowledge leveraging the artistic skills and botanical savvy of his subjects. Martínez Compañón is perhaps best exemplified by his devotion to his work and his concern for the citizens of his bishopric, Trujillo.  He introduced a variety of educational, scientific, and urban planning projects in order to assimilate the Peruvian people into European culture.

Within his nine volume work, Trujillo del Perú, the ambitious bishop compiled hundreds of watercolors. In these pages are also his elaborate plans to develop a booming industry based on exotic plants. He hoped to aid the local population in becoming a rich asset to the Spanish crown and aimed to shape Trujillo itself into a veritable utopia, where citizens were productive and natural resources were capitalized upon and commercialized. His proposed reforms, while beneficial, were largely unsuccessful due to a number of factors including lack of financial support from the church and the Spanish crown, resistance from those in power, and Martínez Compañón’s idealistic adherence to the grandiose nature of his proposals. Although Martínez Compañón was tasked to convert the Peruvian natives into hardworking Catholics, he still valued indigenous culture, traditions and beliefs. This set him apart from nearly all of his peers.

Within the pages of Trujillo del Perú are fascinating and unique examples of Peruvian biodiversity that border the line of believability. After spending a large portion of the spring semester pouring over the facsimiles of these manuscripts housed in UTSA’s Special Collections, an exhibition emerged: “Truth: Stranger than Fiction? : The Fantastical 18th century Utopia of Bishop Baltazar Jaime Martínez Compañón from Trujillo del Perú.” The exhibition showcases some of the fascinating and extraordinary pages from this collection of images, juxtaposing them with their real world counterparts. The exhibition is currently on view on the 4th floor of JPL and will be featured in the August issue of Sombrilla.

Narrowing Down the Exhibition Topic
Chloe Walker, Stephen Sotoodeh, Megan Doss, and Elizabeth Wirick, UTSA undergraduate students

While our class was taking in the hundreds of watercolor illustrations making up Martínez Compañón’s Trujillo del Perú, we were struck by the number of animal images that seemed more imaginary than real. For instance, we had no idea what kind of creature was indicated by the figure identified as Chachapas.



Trujillo del Perú’s Chachapas looks like a sheep/monkey/raptor hybrid which seemed biologically impossible. The Chachapas was one of many animals that seemed to have been invented by the illustrators. So, our first step was to undertake a bit of research on these animals to see if they had counterparts in the natural world. As it turns out, all—including the Chachapas—did, making us realize that these seemingly naive illustrations were in fact very accurate. This notion got us thinking about different topic ideas we might pursue for our exhibition.

Our initial idea was to focus on the crowdsourcing aspect of the manuscript, illuminating how Martínez Compañón employed the help of natives to create this encyclopedia of local knowledge. Our project would mirror that process through the creation of a Wikipedia page, as the modern-day equivalent of Martínez Compañón’s eighteenth-century crowd-sourced encyclopedia. However, we later decided that the nature of a group process is inherently like crowd sourcing, and that creating a Wikipedia page would not, therefore, be necessary. From there, a new topic emerged.

It was the veracity of the watercolor images that became our new focus. The fact that all paintings were depicted by likely dozens of people native to Martínez Compañón’s vast bishopric explained the varying artistic style found in the images, but were the plants and animals depicted local to the region, and did they depict a fanciful fiction or a grounded reality? This question became the cornerstone of the exhibition, and through our combined research and pictorial analysis, the veracity of every questionable image was confirmed. As it turned out, even the most bizarre images depicted flora and fauna endemic to the bishopric, even the fantastical Bleeding Tree (featured in exhibition).

As we searched for explanations about the fantastical appearance of these images, we came up with a handful of possibilities: artists not having been academically trained; the use of multiple perspectives in a single image; artists working from subjects that may have been in the process of decomposition (see, for example, the hammerhead shark); and the need to enlarge or exaggerate identifiable or useful parts of plants and animals. Comparing Martínez Compañón’s versions of these fantastical organisms from Trujillo del Perú with extant examples found in the natural world formed the basis for our exhibition.
Fantastical Finds
Bertha Chavez, Rhonda Oliver, and Marlene Saucedo, UTSA undergraduate students
Daniela Cavazos Madrigal, MFA student

Leafing through the beautifully illustrated images offered an encyclopedic look at eighteenth-century Peru’s unusual flora and fauna. As many of these images, at first glance, seemed fantastical in nature, our first goal was to ascertain if these species did, and still do, in fact exist. After we had spent weeks familiarizing ourselves with the contents and artistic styles from Trujillo del Perú, each student chose two species to investigate further. One of the intriguing outcomes was learning about the habitat and habits of these animals, insects, and plants and how each continues to be significant today.

The bagworm moth was an excellent example of an insect too bizarre to invent. The artist presents us with three aspects of the life cycle of this flying insect. A. depicts the larvae and C. shows it emerging from its bag, or cocoon, spun from silk and plant detritus. While the image looks fantastical and strange, this watercolor presents a remarkably accurate depiction of the insect larvae and the cocoon itself

The Hierba de Dientes for example, which is also known as the toothache plant, has analgesic properties that were and continue to be used to relieve tooth pain. The depiction of this plant, with its purple and gray hues, seemed an odd choice. After some initial research, I realized that the depiction in the volume is completely different from its current appearance. One explanation may have been that the illustration was modeled after a decayed specimen of the Hierba de Dientes.

Two other visually intriguing plants appearing in the volumes are Mashua (tropaeolum tuberosum) and Yuca/Cassava (manihot esculenta), both edible tubers. At first glance, the Martínez Compañón image of the Mashua looks a bit like a jellyfish. However, it seems the artist was simply capturing—in a single view—the above ground flowering plant and the underground tubers. The colorful striped roots depicted below the ground line are accurate renditions of what Mashua looks like today. A similar perspective was employed for the Yuca, which privileges the brown tubers, which grow underground.

Many of the images capture things both seen and used today in San Antonio and elsewhere. One example is what Trujillo del Perú refers to as the Mariposa de Seda. Its orange and black wing pattern, distinctive mint green cocoon, and proximity to a milk weed plant evokes the Monarch Butterfly. Another example is the Manzanilla plant, also known as Chamomile. Today Chamomile can be purchased in supermarkets and used as tea. Chamomile has long been used as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and mild astringent. It is used to treat wounds, ulcers, eczema, gout, bruises, burns, and other ailments.

Learning from an Eighteenth-century Pictorial Manuscript
Ron Palos, Rebecca Moore, and Kayla Littlefield, UTSA undergraduate students

Before taking this upper division Art History course, we knew virtually nothing about Peru or South American Art History. Indeed the only thing I knew going into this course was that we would be studying old manuscripts and documents of some sort from an area or region in South America. I was intimidated at first upon learning about the specificity of study our class would take and began to wonder if New World Manuscripts I might have been a course I should have taken prior to this one. This turned out to be unnecessary as I discovered there was very little existing scholarly research (relatively speaking) on our specific area of study or manuscripts from Spanish colonial Peru.

Starting with study of Guaman Poma’s long letter to King Phillip III of Spain and working our way through the 9 volume facsimiles of Bishop Martínez Compañón’s Trujillo del Perú in UTSA’s Special Collections, I became fascinated with observing and studying what only a handful of other academics have seriously studied. It was a unique experience being able to contribute to this area of study, and a position I never expected to find myself in as an undergraduate student at UTSA. Through concerted examination of the Trujillo del Perú manuscripts and the process of creating an exhibition for the Special Collections Library, I have learned to truly appreciate what UTSA and the Library has to offer students and have a greater understanding of what it is to make an academic contribution. In the end, I am happy to have contributed even the tiniest piece to the field and I know that my classmates likely feel the same way. Dr. Juliet Wiersema’s enthusiasm for Latin American studies in Art History definitely helped us understand our unique position as students in this class. It was a unique and engaging experience that I hope Dr. Wiersema and UTSA will continue to bring to undergraduates for years to come.

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