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By Mireya Castañeda

The dilemma of visiting museums or galleries such as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or that of the Uffizi family in Florence is in trying to appreciate all their great treasures. Rafaels "Madonna and Child"? Botticellis "Three Graces"? The difference if it is located in your native city is that you can return at will. Such is the case with Havanas Museum of Fine Arts, and doubly so, because its collections are housed in two separate buildings, one for Cuban Art and the other for Universal Art.

The Universal Art museum, which includes the collection on which this article is based, was inaugurated in 2001 in the former building of the Asturian Center of Havana, a luxurious example of eclectic architecture possessing a natural Spanish inspiration.

A specific date has provoked this new tour around one of its splendid salons, transformed into exhibition spaces: 50 years since Dr. Joaquín Gumá (Havana, 1909-1980), Count of Lagunillas, donated his extraordinary collection of ancient art to the Fine Arts Museum.

In order to celebrate the event, a colloquium was held in which, during one of the conferences, City Historian Eusebio Leal described the collection as "one of the most important in the Western hemisphere" and affirmed that Dr. Gumá is a "patron of Cuban culture for his act of altruism and solidarity."

A stroll through the five halls in which the collection is displayed, the Lagunillas Collection imposes a similar dilemma when facing the splendor of each of its pieces: it is impossible to pass any of them by.


Aymée Chicuri, a graduate in Art History with 15 years experience as a specialist at the Museum of Fine Arts, proposes that we carry out the same tour that a visitor would. "So, well go in chronological order, stopping at the most important pieces in each hall."

The tour begins with Ancient Asia where the oldest exhibits in the collection are on display, Mesopotamian pieces dating back to 3,500 AD. "We have some Sumerian pieces, including tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing, others from the Babylonian and neo-Babylonian cultures, plus a group of five works of art from Phoenicia, those great navigators of antiquity, those that unified the Mediterranean against the Roman Empire."

Chicuri points out that almost all the objects in this group - numbering 45 - are made from clay or earthenware; just two are made of bronze and, with the exception of the two large ceramic containers from Tell-el-Obeid, part of the Lagunillas collection, they arrived at the Museum in 1993 from the Academy of Science, and are on permanent display (thanks to funds from the La Salle College).


"We have divided the Egyptian display into two large halls; one dedicated to life and the other to death. This is basically because our 113 exhibits do not cover the whole chronology of the period, and by way of thematic grouping, we can provide visitors with the best possibility of communication with and understanding of the country, its history, daily life, the state, administration and religion."

The vast majority of the exhibits belonged to Lagunillas, seven came from the Academys collection, and there has also been one recent donation - specifically for the scientific event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Lagunillas Collection - from Christian Loeber, principal curator at the Museum of Hanover: a vase from the Neolithic culture of Nagada.

Nor did the multi-colored wooden sarcophagus belong to Lagunillas: this was donated by Egypt in recognition of Cubas assistance in the salvage and rescue of the Abu-Simbel temples in 1974.

The group of funereal artifacts, dating back to distinct eras, includes four exquisitely-made chalices to guard the internal organs of the deceased, votive steles, scarabs of the heart, and a papyrus from the Book of the Dead.

A specialist in Ancient Asia and Egypt, Chicuri affirms that the most beautifully crafted piece in the collection is the singular Head of Amon in black basalt, "small in size, it is exquisitely made, on which one can see the differences of texture, on the smooth finish of the face with its soft expression, and on the rough crown, in order to support the gold in which it is covered; still, if one looks at it in the light, you can see the reflection of the gold."

An interesting fact. The body of this sculpture of Amon is found in the Louvre Museum and "we are thinking that at some point, we can bring together the head and the body and mount an exhibition both here and in Paris although, unfortunately, they will be separated again afterwards."


The most relevant section of the collection - in terms of the quality and quantity of exhibits - is Grecian art, which was also the great passion of the Count and is displayed over three halls, situated in what was once the grand ballroom.

The Ceramics Hall distinguishes itself in terms of wealth and beauty and this is where we find top-quality pieces, representing every period, technique and almost every description. "These are not any old vases, they are luxury items, and this collection is truly marvelous."

The iconography of Grecian ceramics is significant because, unlike other cultures, particularly Oriental culture, the Greeks represented human beings at the centre of life and thus, the vases are like open volumes representing the life of the Greeks.

We can see a variety of subjects depicted on the vases: sports, life in the gynaeceum, war, myths. But besides this, each vase has its own particular use: there are vessels used for drinking wine, others for mixing wine with water, as well as amphoras and goblets.

The sculptures are positioned in chronological order, and busts from different periods - archaic, classic and Hellenistic - can be enjoyed. Here, says the specialist, it is worth stopping to observe three busts displaying the evident influence of Praxiteles, and also undeniably the remarkable and imposing head of Alexander the Great, "a piece from an international catalogue."


The collection contains just eight works from the Etruscan period, marvelous if we take into account how little is known about the regions history and the fact that few pieces exist outside of Tuscany, the region where the Etruscan kingdom - with a tremendously significant culture and a predecessor to Rome - was situated. The most outstanding object? A large amphora and the bronze mirrors.


The Roman exhibition - 174 pieces - like that of Egypt, is displayed thematically: the Roman home, the Gods, and funeral art. It is presented in this way, says Chicuri, because the chronology is unbalanced, "almost all of it is from the imperial period. There are just three busts from the Republic."

Amongst the most essential works that the specialist invites us to observe are two large scale mosaics, and one small impluvium: "a kind of cistern in the atrium of a Roman house which collected rain water."

Illustrating Roman funeral rites, the collection includes fragments from two sarcophagi, a stone catalogue, the lid of a tomb, and the Bust of a Lady, an exquisite relief found in Palmira, in current day Syria.

It would be inconceivable to miss the Portraits of Fayum, the most important in the collection. Nine portraits, painted on wood, showing the life and death of the subject and placed at the head of the coffin."

Fayum is a town in Egypt, but the style of the exhibits is Greek and they were undertaken during the Roman Empire, explains Chicuri, thus it is a very interesting phenomenon linking the three cultures.

It must have been this trilateral link that possessed the curators to place the spectacular Portraits of Fayum in a small corridor, reached by way of a bridge (from Rome, one can return to Ancient Asia), that unites the whole of the Lagunillas collection.


Just by walking up the great staircases that nowadays provide access to the Ceramics Hall of the Lagunillas, visitors - be they foreign or Cuban - will be impressively surprised. They begin their stroll through more than 600 pieces dating back millennia, 500 of which were acquired by Dr. Gumá himself.

The Count purchased the pieces at prestigious auction houses. He had read well and was a connoisseur. A lawyer, he was a collector with a marked interest in the authenticity of his works and his main pride was to ensure there was nothing false in his collection.

After he presented his collection to the museum in 1956, Dr. Gumá always remained in contact with the specialists and curators.

The Count of Lagunillas is now a legend far beyond the collection which, quite rightly, bore his name. They say that he would go at night to see the collection, to which he had devoted his life and his fortune and, with such an altruistic gesture, left on permanent loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.

Some questions. The bust of Amon or Alexander? The Sumerian tablets or the fragment from the Book of the Dead? The Pan-Athenian amphora or the Tanagra figure? Which of the nine Fayum portraits? And although the poet Eliseo Diego bequeaths us "the whole of time", it is, almost always, insufficient.

Source: Granma International

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