Vanessa Bauza | Sun Sentinel
HAVANA · Painstakingly recovered from under 27 layers of paint, the colonial-era murals at No. 12 Tacon St. are known to local art historians as the “Sistine Chapel of Old Havana.”
Located halfway between Old Havana’s cathedral and the port, the colorful floor-to-ceiling murals offer a window into the city’s past. Almost all homes, government buildings and stores in Old Havana’s majestic but badly deteriorated historic quarter were once decorated with wall paintings that were obscured for a century or more under successive layers of paint.
Now they are gradually being rediscovered and restored as Old Havana undergoes a vast reconstruction effort aimed at rescuing its architectural treasures and drawing tourist dollars. So far about 500 houses with murals have been identified in Old Havana. Because much of this colonial capital remained frozen in time until recently, Cuba is thought to have one of the world’s widest collections of 18th- and 19th-century murals.
The murals at Tacon Street are unusual in that they cover all the walls, rather than selected portions, of a small room in a former colonial residence, giving art historians a unique pictorial depiction of a bygone era.
“It is not a story board, but a series of scenes describing the customs of the 18th century,” said Roger Arrazcaeta Delgado, director of the city historian’s archeology department, which is now housed in the former residence.
“Havana’s high society of the time is there. The clerics, a damsel with her mulatta slave, the young courtiers are all enjoying a beautiful garden,” Arrazcaeta Delgado said.
Painted in the 1760s, the murals depict manicured, Versailles-style gardens inserted into a tropical setting. They include schooners docking at the harbor, colonial buildings with graceful arcades, habaneros riding in carriages and minstrels serenading passersby with violins and flutes.
One frame shows a religious procession leading to a small chapel, likely reflecting a popular pilgrimage of the time. Another includes a small island painted in the middle of Havana Bay. It has since slid underwater because of repeated dragging in the bay.
Restoration of the 12-by-12-foot room of murals had been stalled for years due to a lack of materials. But earlier this year the city historian’s office received a donation of paintbrushes, scalpels, natural pigments and other supplies from a British art lover, allowing the restoration to move forward this fall.
Across Old Havana a small team of specialists is busy meticulously uncovering and restoring similar though less elaborate murals.
“Every house is different. We’ve never found one where a mural has been repeated,” said Sandra Paez, a restoration specialist. “You can find up to 20 decorated layers, one on top of the other.”
The most common motifs were bouquets of roses, cornucopias and garlands. Early 18th century murals were hand painted. Artisans later used stencils to apply geometric or floral patterns. By the early 1900s the tradition faded.
Little is known about the artists behind these unsigned works, but restoration specialists say they were likely part of a large artisans’ guild and some may have even been freed slaves whose trade was poorly paid and not valued as art at the time. Still, they were in high demand. The murals were frequently painted over in colonial days to keep up with changing trends just as outdated wallpaper might be replaced today.
“All the houses we have investigated had murals, no matter how poor they were,” said Juan Mendez Ramos, who heads the team of mural restoration specialists. “In all the economic spheres people would set aside money for this. I try to save what I can, be it a little piece [of a mural] or something big.”
Mendez Ramos’s team is currently at work on a former 18th-century residence known as the Pratt Puig house, which is set to become an architecture museum once it is restored. Shrouded in scaffolding, and hidden behind piles of rubble and construction materials, it is one of the best examples of colonial pre-Baroque architecture.
Due to Havana’s serious housing shortage, the Pratt Puig house, like many others, had served for almost a half-century as a crowded dwelling for families who built their own ramshackle homes within its walls. Still, despite the wear and tear, portions of its original wooden roof and support beams remain in tact.
The murals inside the building are not only valued as examples of colonial art. They also offer archeologists hints as to the original rooms’ configurations, which have been altered over the years. Fragments of murals running diagonally across one wall indicate that a staircase was once there; another fragment floating near the top of a wall likely bordered a doorway that is no longer there.
One interior courtyard wall facing west is covered with what restoration specialists think was a large mural of a landscape at sunset, although it difficult to see under layers of dust and dirt.
“You have to train your eyes to see this,” said Jose García, a restoration specialist. “Unfortunately some people don’t appreciate it. Carpenters sometimes come here and say we should just paint over the murals. But that’s not the point. They have been there for two or three centuries.”