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Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba

Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba
Classicism and Dissonance on the Plaza de Armas of Havana, 1754-1828

This pathfinding interpretation of Havana’s foundational site brings the first extensive and direct application of contemporary heritage studies to the analysis of colonial Latin American visual culture.

Series: Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture

May 2015
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344 pages | 6 x 9 | 72 b&w photos, 4 maps |

According to national legend, Havana, Cuba, was founded under the shade of a ceiba tree whose branches sheltered the island’s first Catholic mass and meeting of the town council (cabildo) in 1519. The founding site was first memorialized in 1754 by the erection of a baroque monument in Havana’s central Plaza de Armas, which was reconfigured in 1828 by the addition of a neoclassical work, El Templete. Viewing the transformation of the Plaza de Armas from the new perspective of heritage studies, this book investigates how late colonial Cuban society narrated Havana’s founding to valorize Spanish imperial power and used the monuments to underpin a local sense of place and cultural authenticity, civic achievement, and social order.

Paul Niell analyzes how Cubans produced heritage at the site of the symbolic ceiba tree by endowing the collective urban space of the plaza with a cultural authority that used the past to validate various place identities in the present. Niell’s close examination of the extant forms of the 1754 and 1828 civic monuments, which include academic history paintings, neoclassical architecture, and idealized sculpture in tandem with period documents and printed texts, reveals a “dissonance of heritage”—in other words, a lack of agreement as to the works’ significance and use. He considers the implications of this dissonance with respect to a wide array of interests in late colonial Havana, showing how heritage as a dominant cultural discourse was used to manage and even disinherit certain sectors of the colonial population.


List of Illustrations



Chapter 1. The Plaza de Armas and Spatial Reform

Chapter 2. Classicism and Reformed Subjectivity

Chapter 3. Fashioning Heritage on the Colonial Plaza de Armas

Chapter 4. The Dissonance of Colonial Heritage

Chapter 5. Sugar, Slavery, and Disinheritance






Paul Niell is Assistant Professor of Art History at Florida State University. He is the coeditor, with Stacie Widdifield, of Buen Gusto and Classicism in the Visual Cultures of Latin America, 1780–1910.



In November 2010, Joe Hartman, a graduate student studying with me at the University of North Texas, visited Havana, Cuba, to conduct fieldwork for his thesis and to observe the city’s November 16 birthday celebration on the main plaza. This annual event occurs at El Templete (The Little Temple, completed 1828), a civic monument on the Plaza de Armas, where, as legend has it, Spanish conquistadores founded the city under a ceiba tree in the early sixteenth century, an event the structure commemorates. According to the story, the conquerors conducted the first Catholic Mass and meeting of the cabildo (town council) under the shade of the ceiba in 1519. The contemporary ritual in Havana allows the city to reactivate its foundational narrative in an apparent effort to reuse the past for agendas in the present--specifically, to underpin civic, regional, and national identities. The following recounts Joe’s description of the proceedings and summarizes the content of two films of the event that he brought back.

The ceremony transpired November 15–16, and its inaugural event occurred at eight o’clock in the evening of the first day, when a crowd of journalists, invited guests, church officials, and acolytes assembled on the Plaza de Armas and moved from the old Spanish colonial governor’s residence, the Casa de Gobierno (Government House), to the ceiba tree and the area around El Templete, on the east side of the plaza. In this location, Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian of Havana, addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker while standing in front of the monument’s neoclassical portico. Leal explained that the development of the civic ritual involving the ceiba tree cannot be accounted for empirically. Rather, he said, the celebration constitutes an aspect of Cuban culture that relates to an unquantifiable notion of identity in Havana. Perhaps Leal echoed the writings of the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969), particularly the latter’s statement that “the real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations.” The city historian then ceremoniously circled the ceiba tree three times counterclockwise and tossed coins into the air, trailed by a procession of acolytes carrying censers. After these initial turns around the tree, the remainder of the entourage followed Leal’s example. This select group of guests seemed to contain conspicuously few people of African descent; across the plaza, however, and outside the gates of El Templete, a recently erected metal fence restrained another, more ethnically diverse crowd of waiting spectators.

After this exclusive ceremony, police allowed the remaining crowd into El Templete to likewise participate in the ritual. Each followed the processional program of making three turns counterclockwise around the tree, touching the tree’s trunk as they passed, with some people dropping money at its base. Scores of spectators visited the tree throughout the night and the following day as guards constantly monitored the site.4 This communal, yet hierarchical and policed, ritual at the foundational ceiba tree of Havana is the performance of heritage, a memory craft that fashions contemporary significance out of the things of the past, and sometimes, as in this case, by the appropriation and articulation of a natural and phenomenal link to that past. The tree is reinscribed through this civic ritual in which a site of heritage production in Havana's past is reactivated in the present to serve a variety of interests and agendas.

As Leal Spengler implied in 2010, this heritage site and its commemorative monuments are the result of a transcultural process. People in Havana continue to use the space five hundred years after the initial Europeans arrived in the Caribbean and after absorbing the influences of Spanish viceregal rule that persisted for almost four centuries in Cuba (1511–1898), the Cuban republic (1902–1959), and the ongoing Castro revolutionary government. During this time, the indigenous people of Cuba resisted Spanish rule, were assimilated into the dominant society and violently oppressed; immigrants arrived from Spain, other parts of Europe, and the Americas; contraband trade flourished; an island-born Creole society emerged interspersed with arriving Spaniards and foreigners; and ships brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to labor on the island as slaves, which contributed in turn to large free populations of African descent. These historical processes informed the development of a complex Cuban material culture of which the foundational ceiba and the monuments erected to represent it form a part.

The circumambulation of the ceiba tree that takes place at the November 16 ceremony functions to remake heritage on the site, but it is one of entangled histories, memories, and identities. The light touching of the tree on each pass, for example, and the offerings placed at its base are found throughout literature on the African Diaspora pertaining to the use of ceibas in devotional rituals. People of African descent in Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil, and elsewhere widely regard this particular type of tree as a divine or semidivine entity. African Diaspora religious practice, particularly in Catholic contexts, is frequently found to have merged the religious culture of the dominant society with remembered African beliefs and practices, a process that has often been described by scholars as syncretism, acculturation, or transculturation. An especially striking example of such new cultural production and multivalent seeing in Cuba is the fact that November 16 marks not only the date of Havana’s founding but also the day that celebrates the Afro-Cuban deity Aggayú. Such an example, among many others, suggests African-Atlantic culture as an indispensable part of Cuban spatial production and points to the multiple cultural landscapes that coexist in Cuba.

This book focuses on the history of the symbolic ceiba tree site of Havana and associated cultural production from 1754 to 1828, considering the monuments built to commemorate and reconfigure the tree and its narrative as part of a heritage process in early-nineteenth-century Cuba. By the late 1820s, the mainland viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru had already formed independent nations, leaving only Cuba and Puerto Rico as loyal territories of Spain in the Americas. The heritage work that was El Templete in 1828 was a means of fixing history in an effort to render certain identities as likewise stable and anchored to place. This effort to locate a predictable past, I argue, was simultaneously a design to deny the social instability that plagued Havana’s slave society as well as the political upheaval that had rocked the Spanish Americas by the 1820s. In this sense, the monument was the construction of a lieu de mémoire (site of memory), as defined by Pierre Nora, who argued that such sites arise from a response to the pressures and anxieties of rapid social transformation. I maintain that this conscious memory craft in early-nineteenth-century Havana came from dominant groups within the fabric of Cuban material culture and reveals competing interests.

Heritage as Methodology

In recent years, Heritage Studies have increasingly defined heritage as more than an object or site, but also a process by which people use the past for present purposes. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity (2008), David C. Harvey argues that “heritage is itself not a thing and does not exist by itself--nor does it imply a movement or a project. Rather, heritage is about the process by which people use the past--a ‘discursive construction’--with material consequences.” This new constructivist approach to heritage emphasizes the idea of “present-centeredness” and probes “the ways in which very selective past material artifacts, natural landscapes, mythologies, memories and traditions become cultural, political and economic resources for the present.” This new theoretical approach to heritage has primarily been focused on and practiced within the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, with much less attention being given to the areas that comprise the former Spanish viceregal Americas. In the present book, I selectively subscribe to this new conception of heritage, arguing that heritage has much to offer Spanish colonial and early national Latin American art history, as well as art history in general. This is so, I contend, not only because heritage thus defined has been a global practice seen perhaps at all stages of human civilization, but also because it facilitates the analysis of the operation of material culture in heterogeneous and hierarchical societies. In focusing on how and why societies “presence” the past, heritage allows for the identification of dominant voices and strategies as well as subaltern responses and tactics within a colonial milieu. It also appears in multiple domains, which helps identify interrelations between overlapping areas of discourse, such as poetry, prose, history, philosophy, and popular publications.

The hierarchical, negotiated, and contested nature of Spanish colonial societies and their complex uses of images, objects, and spaces suggest that an academic analysis of heritage as process, object, and site could contribute to the broader study of how colonial discourses maintain colonial ideologies. In their book Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict (1996), Gregory Ashworth and J. E. Tunbridge have argued that an intrinsic dissonance exists in the construction of heritage found in disagreements about its significance and use. Created through collective interpretation, heritage is inherently contested, and variant explanations of its meaning produce the ambivalent relationships that exist between heritage, place, and identity. In societal discourses of inclusion and exclusion, the ownership of heritage by one group implies another group’s disinheritance. Yet this dissonance can perhaps by theorized as a succession of degrees of social affirmation or disavowal, with some groups sharing different aspects or levels in a particular heritage expression, while others become more completely disinherited.

The emphasis on dissonance in Heritage Studies offers a means to move beyond colonizer-colonized binaries as we seek to understand the creation of meaning in late colonial contexts. If heritage is a process with implicit layers of cultural agreement and discord, then it calls into question the complex, overlapping, and contested interests of multiple groups. Dissonance might be found, for example, in the competing discourses surrounding the ceiba tree monument of 1828. Visual narratives valorized Cuba’s loyalty to Spain based on a constructed view of the past to meet the realities of imperial disintegration. Simultaneously, other combinations of visual signs suggest Cuba and Havana as authentic places that validate a sense of belonging. Rather than working out such contrasts as manifestations of “hybridity,” which implies stasis, heritage sets these expressions into motion and evolution as they work against each other in the dynamics of colonial consciousness and social life. Furthermore, the heritage of Havana’s foundational ceiba tree seems to have authorized certain views of social difference, such as that between españoles (individuals of Spanish descent) and castas (individuals of mixed ancestry, including mixtures of Indian-Spaniard, African-Spaniard, and Indian-African). Yet the construction of a collective heritage in late colonial Cuba would need to be considered in relation to the phenomenon of mestizaje (pride in miscegenation) known to multiple Spanish American contexts. The pride in or, as Serge Gruzinski argues, the condition of being of a socially and culturally “mixed” society of European, American, African, and other threads must be thoroughly considered when evaluating such constructions of collective memory.

The erection of heritage monuments in 1754 and 1828 on the Plaza de Armas of Havana is also significant in the relationship established between heritage and the normative modes of social and political representation on the Spanish colonial plaza. A space used by officials to reinforce royal and ecclesiastical authority through architecture, imagery, and ritualized performances, the main plaza of a Spanish town or city became a prestigious space for the expression of power and for social appropriation. As colonial societies took form over time, the plaza became an important site in the definition of sense of place of the colonial city. The notion of place itself has been defined and explained in many ways by intellectuals, including contemporary scholars of heritage. In the present book, I consider place as a discourse of belonging that is underpinned or supported by heritage, a belonging to the city, the island, or indeed, the Spanish Empire. Heritage authenticates place by such an effort to fix history and recraft collective memory, in this case, via monuments. The ceiba tree memorials of 1754 and 1828 reinscribed the past and fabricated collective memory to support prevailing identities and sociopolitical agendas. Yet the process of fashioning heritage reveals dissonance spawned by multiple coexisting and competing interests, voices, agendas, and desires.

Place-oriented imaginings in Cuba must be considered in relation to the consciousness of criollos/as, or Creoles (individuals of Spanish blood or Hispanic descent born in Cuba). The growing affection of this group for their American patria (homeland) that developed during the colonial period has been explained as a manifestation of “Creole patriotism.” Spanish officials repeatedly deployed complex visual, textual, spatial, and performative genres to differentiate colonial subjects and shape loyal subjectivity. Scholars have suggested that Creoles imagined themselves through this colonial framework, one that cultivated loyalty. Viceregal representation performed work in shaping and reshaping colonial subjectivities and was itself formed by local societies and spaces. Creole perceptions of sameness with or difference from peninsulares, or Peninsulars (individuals of Spanish blood born in Spain), thus occurred within a complex arena of representation that worked to reproduce the unequal social and political relationships of colonialism and to foster loyalty to this system. The heritage processes that occurred at Havana’s foundational ceiba tree were part of this complex fabric of colonial representation, and thus heritage discourse in this context becomes a particular type of colonial discursive practice.

Fashioning Colonial Heritage

The temporal settings for the two ceiba tree heritage monuments in late colonial Havana bracket the transformation of the Plaza de Armas from 1771 to 1791. This reworking of the plaza came during the escalating reforms of the Spanish Bourbon monarchy, which took the throne of Spain from the Austrian Habsburgs during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1700–1714. The Habsburgs had conceived of their American viceroyalties as a composite monarchy of kingdoms, while the Spanish Bourbons increasingly aimed to introduce more rigorous and centralized imperial practices. The so-called Bourbon Reforms intensified after the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763 and were aimed at renovating Spain’s stagnating economy along with its science and arts. The Spanish Crown adopted a more stringent translation of Greco-Roman classicism in the visual arts as the official imperial style, denominated by art history as neoclassicism and sponsored by the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, which opened in 1752. Royal expressions in art and architecture exhibiting a more severe classicism were adapted to American civic contexts in an effort to propagate the image of an ascendant, strong, and prosperous empire and to produce more loyal and industrious subjects.

On March 12, 1828, the Diario de La Habana, one of the city’s most prominent colonial newspapers, carried a superior order warning that carriages would be prohibited from entering the Plaza de Armas on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of the month due to the celebrations honoring the saint’s day of Queen María Josefa Amalia (1803–1829) of Spain, third wife of his majesty King Ferdinand VII (r. 1813–1829, 1833). The festivities culminated in the March 19 inauguration of the new monument to commemorate the city’s alleged founding site. El Templete memorialized the site on the east side of the Plaza de Armas where the Spanish conquistadors supposedly held the first Christian Mass and meeting of the cabildo (town council) under the tree’s generous shade in 1519 (fig. I.1). The Diario of March 16 proclaimed: “The Island of Cuba, faithful to its principles and its duties, has given on this day to the entire world the ultimate proof of its unblemished loyalty and undeniable patriotism. The magnificent monument that is presented today to public anticipation, paid for by the inhabitants of this heroic capital, will preserve for future generations a glorious memory of the virtues of their ancestors.”

This passage demonstrates how the heritage of the ceiba tree operated to valorize Havana’s loyalty to Spain. The sense of place, the discourse of belonging, in this instance refers to Spain as patria, as homeland. Yet the aspect of heritage that imposed loyalty coexisted with a wide range of representational forms that seem to validate Cuba’s unique history within the Spanish Empire. This tension creates an important area of dissonance within this colonial heritage in that it suggests the potential for a lack of agreement on the significance and use of heritage.

The 1820s heritage process at the ceiba tree is made more complex by a previous attempt here to construct a site of collective significance. In 1754, Captain General Francisco Cagigal de la Vega (served in Havana, 1741–1762) had ordered the erection of a vertical limestone pillar at the site to compensate for the governor’s mandate to have the ceiba tree removed the previous year--its roots having compromised the nearby fortification wall. The eighteenth-century Cuban historian José Martín Félix de Arrate wrote of the Plaza de Armas: "Until the year 1753, a robust and leafy ceiba survived there that, according to tradition, at the time of the colonization of Havana, was where the first Mass and cabildo were celebrated beneath its shade, a fact that Field Marshal D. Francisco Cagigal de la Vega, governor of the plaza, intended to pass on to posterity by raising on the same site a commemorative column that preserves this memory." This 1754 monument mimicked the tree’s natural features by employing baroque decorative elements, including curvilinear volutes that adorned a triangular shaft supporting a statue of the Virgin and Child (fig. I.2). The captain general’s construction of such a memorial suggests his attempt to assuage public resentment over his removal of the tree, to win popular favor, to immortalize his administration, and perhaps to insinuate himself into local narratives of place. The work reveals an earlier heritage process that surely housed dissonance, yet it is much more difficult to map out than in the 1828 monument. In this later work, the site was not only reused but also the 1754 monument, which was retained and incorporated, a move that juxtaposed elements from the baroque and the emerging neoclassical aesthetics of the city. This conflation of old and new was indeed a part of the heritage process in 1828, as the retention of the past emphasized continuity, civic tradition, and political succession and thus validated the imperial present.

In 1827, royal officials, senior clergy, and the city’s elite had expressed renewed interest in the emblematic ceiba tree site by commissioning a monument from engineer Antonio María de la Torre. Begun in November of that year and inaugurated the following March, El Templete preserved and enclosed the 1754 tree memorial built under Cagigal within a stone and iron fence, forming a space to house a new, temple-like structure. The work incorporated a more sober and severe classicism associated with the European art academies and the spread of the so-called neoclassical style.30 Its Tuscan Doric revival portico fronted a small quasi-cubical building designed to house three academically conceived history paintings narrating the story of the site (fig. I.3; plate 1). For the paintings, the bishop of Havana, Juan José Díaz de Espada y Landa, hired the French expatriate artist Jean-Baptiste Vermay, who had arrived in 1815 and was a former student of the academic master Jacques-Louis David in Paris. Vermay’s pictorial interpretations of the foundational events provided an academic rendering of the site’s history for nineteenth-century audiences.

The first of these works, for the northern interior wall, was The First Cabildo (c. 1827–1828), a painting that depicted the Spanish conquistadors seemingly in the act of founding the town and establishing secular order under the ceiba tree in the sixteenth century (fig. I.4; plate 2). For the opposite (south) wall, the artist painted The First Mass (c. 1827–1828), a scene depicting a priest holding the first Christian Mass of the city, likewise set beneath the tree’s great canopy and attended by a group of conquistadors and Amerindians (fig. I.5; plate 3). Workers installed a third, much larger painting sometime thereafter (c. 1828–1829) against the eastern wall and situated between the other two monumental canvases. Known as The Inauguration of El Templete, this third scene allowed Vermay to depict the inaugural ceremony of the monument itself on March 19, 1828, in a painting that features a detailed group portrait of Spanish royal officials, the city’s bishop, members of the Havana elite and other social ranks, and a self-portrait of the artist (fig. I.6; plate 4}. To enrich the focus on conquest history, Bishop Espada donated a marble bust of Christopher Columbus to occupy a ledge on the 1754 pillar (see fig. 3.28}.

Approaching this work as a question of heritage exposes problems in Spanish- and English-language scholarship on El Templete that speak to larger problems in the field of late Spanish colonial art history. The first is an overreliance on period styles as authentic signs of specific historical developments, positing El Templete as a neoclassical work that must belong to the Bourbon Empire’s implementation of an imperial classicism toward the end of the colonial period. Such a view homogenizes neoclassical forms in the Spanish world and tends to eliminate considerations about how they were reshaped by local conditions, developed local significances, and validated the emergence of a local modernity.

Audiences and patrons in the Americas, in contrast, seemed to use stylistic transitions in the late colonial period to their respective advantage. The colonial press of 1828 framed El Templete as an exemplary work of buen gusto (good taste) in spite of the retention of the 1754 pillar, which exhibited baroque aesthetic tendencies. This discourse encouraged the reader to reconcile stylistic difference seemingly to serve heritage (the reuse of the past for present purposes), which underscores perceptions of a place-specific importance. This passage suggests a slippage in the signification of gusto that lends itself to an effort to validate the city’s modernity in the present. Yet this effort was steered by the socioeconomic and cultural elite who sought to achieve a certain standard of classicism for international validation, whereas the baroque seems to have remained popular particularly among members of the lower social echelons.

The discussion of El Templete’s political meaning presents a further problem that Heritage Studies can address. The significance of the work has been framed as responding to two agendas in opposition, those of its most powerful patrons. Historians point to the ideological struggle between the city’s reformist Bishop Espada and the oppressive, reactionary Spanish governor and captain general of the island, Francisco Dionisio Vives. This conflict took center stage in discussions at a conference organized in 1943 commemorating the Cuban Enlightenment. Fernando Ortiz reports that in a speech by José Antonio Aguirre, first president of the Basque Autonomous Community, the politician noted the following: "Regarding this, I remembered the jugarreta (dirty trick) that the Basque bishop played on the captains general, arranging the construction of El Templete in this city behind the legendary ceiba, which was a sign of the jurisdictional liberties of the town of Havana, and consequently, in front of the palace of the island government, was erected an approximate reproduction of the tree of Guernica and of the Sala de Juntas, where the national liberty of the town was symbolized."

The president contended that Bishop Espada invoked his Basque roots, enlightened principles, and constitutional advocacy on the Havana plaza by appropriating a symbolic oak tree in the center of the town of Guernica, Spain. This tree served the Basque people in medieval and early modern times, as Castilian monarchs were obliged to swear an oath to preserve Basque fueros (regional laws) underneath the Guernica tree. This contextualization of El Templete as a subversive monument, echoed by subsequent historians, transforms Bishop Espada into a national hero as the man who brought the Enlightenment to Cuba. The problem in positing this tension between absolutism and constitutionalism as the explanation for El Templete’s meaning is elucidated by the fact that the work resulted from the patronage of more individuals than the two rivals in question. According to archival documents, a group of civic elites, including Creoles and Peninsulars, contributed a considerable portion of the necessary funds for El Templete upon being invited to do so by the captain general. The implications of this “public patronage” have been largely ignored by the historiography, as English-language scholarship has largely disregarded the impact of late colonial public cultures on art and architecture in the Spanish world. Furthermore, the bishop-versus-captain-general contextualization reduces the potential reception of the work by a complex colonial society. Images of Spanish conquistadors, Amerindians, nineteenth-century elites, and Cuban botanical flora must be considered within a fuller colonial setting and on the broader Atlantic world stage.

Colonial Modernity and the Reformist Self

In order to better situate the heritage process at work on the ceiba tree site in Havana, I turn to scholarship of the early twenty-first century on the multifaceted concept of modernity that emphasizes its local unfolding in global contexts. Such work has emphasized Spain’s unique contributions to global modernity, for example, in the areas of cartography, bureaucracy, and natural history.35 This scholarship counters long-established views propagated by northern European writers that eighteenth-century Spain essentially saw no Enlightenment, as it remained Catholic and loyal to an absolutist monarch. Such views obfuscate imperial contributions to modernity and deny colonialism as providing a framework for the emergence of nationalism.

The Bourbons in Spain increasingly sought to renovate the Spanish state, largely modeled on France. These reforms included the expansion and restructuring of state bureaucracy, intensified record keeping, the promotion of state institutions, the demand for more rigorous urban and architectural planning, and the promotion of education. For the purposes of this study, several such efforts deserve special attention, particularly those aimed at reforming individual subjects. These include the establishment of civil societies in Spain and its colonies abroad for the promotion of a more individualized subjectivity, especially in elite circles. They also encompass the Bourbon effort to implement a disciplining of individual subjects in the interest of making more efficient producers of national wealth.38 The state increased its technologies of surveillance and began to render its subjects more legible and visible through intensified record keeping. Reformers also sought more rational approaches to the construction or reconstruction of urban spaces based on extensive planning, an effort that could be seen as an attempt to heighten spatial surveillance and the legibility of social bodies.

The significance of patronage by members of an elite public derives from the Spanish Crown’s efforts to promote civil societies to support the spreading of state power and to ameliorate the empire’s stagnating economy by incorporating the nobility of various regions into projects for local improvements. Reformers encouraged the assimilation of Sociedades Económicas de Amigos del País (Economic Societies of Friends of the Country) in Spain and the Spanish Americas as tools for economic renovation. In an analysis on the anthropology of the nation-state, Michel-Rolph Trouillot notes the incorporation of civil societies as a state-building apparatus that seeks to construct atomized individual subjects who collectively identify with the state and its mechanisms. Such associations reified a kind of “public sphere” in various parts of urban Spanish America, a phenomenon that Jürgen Habermas addressed in the contexts of France and Germany. Yet, the idea of the Habermasian public sphere cannot simply be applied to Spanish or Spanish American publics, as the latter differed in their general adherence to the Catholic faith and allegiance to the Crown. The Hispanic Enlightenment sought “useful” applications from eighteenth-century science and rationalism for the renovation of empire. Civil societies in the Spanish world empowered and obligated the local nobility in certain urban areas to take more of an active role in public affairs. In Havana, Creole and Peninsular elites served together in such societies, complicating our view of their self-conceptions as distinct groups in all ways. Acting mutually for the sake of public improvements seems to have offered new avenues to prestige and was understood as serving immediate localities as much as the Spanish nation. The existence of such societies in early-nineteenth-century Havana opened up a site for Creole-Peninsular collaboration and perhaps even collective identifying with the city and its various civic improvement projects. Furthermore, such formal associations became an elite space for the emergence of neoclassicism’s alterity, in the elite colonial public’s identification with, distancing from, or local translation of classical revival.

In an effort to renovate or even construct national culture and reshape nationalist seeing, Spain founded academies of history, language, and visual arts in the eighteenth century. These institutions not only offered instruction but also carried out research, exploring the Iberian Peninsula for signs of authentic national culture while identifying and validating the nation’s participation in the perceived universal language of a Mediterranean classicism, particularly those ruins left by the Roman Empire in Spain. Historians set out to rewrite Spain’s history and that of the New World in an effort to render such histories as more empirical, universal, and nationalist narratives of the past. The Alhambra in Grenada, the literature of Cervantes, and other medieval and early modern Spanish productions--entangled with the legacy of Islam--became heritage resources and sites for national redefinition as much as the Roman legacy in Spain. Neoclassicism might be viewed as the authorized heritage discourse in this process, providing an authoritative language in multiple expressive genres that mediated between the local, international, and imperial. While neoclassicism could represent a high cultural authority irrespective of place, efforts were simultaneously under way to expose the uniqueness and authenticity of particular regions, places, or cities. As Spain searched for its own uniqueness, Creoles in the Americas, and even Peninsulars, became increasingly interested in the distinctive nature of their own localities, cities, and regions. Peninsulars even appear to have made efforts to visually insinuate themselves into the narration of American place, a phenomenon that the art historian Emily Engel has observed in viceregal portraiture in South America. Local histories, including conquest narratives; local flora; and the customs of local societies developed as signs of place within imperial geopolitical domains for a complex audience in the Americas. Patriotism was, therefore, not a fixed ontological connection to the land, but a discursive process that reinscribed land, region, nation, and city for various contemporary purposes.

Efforts to classify and homogenize botanical knowledge represent another Spanish contribution to modernity. The work of the art historian Daniela Bleichmar has ably demonstrated the importance of the scientific classification of nature to imperial efforts in the eighteenth-century Spanish world. The ordering of the empire’s botanical specimens based on the system of binomial nomenclature invented by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus took on political importance for the control of territory and the exploitation of resources. These efforts, as Bleichmar argues, correspond to broader patterns of rational seeing--of making the empire, its botany, and its subjects more visible and legible in the interest of political control and economic renovation. The acute attention paid to the ceiba tree in El Templete can be viewed within a nascent scientific discourse in Havana guided by the local botanical garden that opened in 1818, an institution that in many ways sought to imitate Madrid’s Royal Cabinet of Natural History.

A final characteristic of global modernity registered in Spain and Spanish America is a rationalization of society whereby social and racial classification were intensified and recast. Even as white and black spheres overlapped in Havana, royal officials and civic elites increasingly sought to separate these realms. Aesthetic valuations became entangled with this reordering of society based on political economy, social tensions, and divisions within the trades. In 1818, the Economic Society founded a drawing school in Havana named the Academy of San Alejandro, after the intendant and Economic Society director Alejandro Ramírez. The new school seems to have been conceived within the racial politics of art production in late colonial Havana. These efforts speak to attempts to rationally identify, control, and manage the ethnic other and to render such order visible, as in the eighteenth-century casta painting genre of New Spain. Thus the revised aesthetics that drawing instruction would produce seem to have become a strategy of reform not only imposed by the Bourbon monarchy from without, but also cultivated by an oligarchy from within Cuba.

The appropriation of a rigorous, more archaeologically correct Greco-Roman classical revival, or neoclassicism, can be regarded as a global phenomenon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that was thoroughly entangled with modernity and coloniality. This mode of civic, religious, and private expression spoke a language of cultural authority via the imagined standard of authenticity found in the antique. It can also be said to have represented, validated, and even romanticized a broader rationalist and economic project. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, a scholar of public culture, identifies the construction of the paragon of antiquity as part of a phase in the rise of global modernity in which elite societies became “custodian(s) of the classical . . . [by setting] . . . the measures and models of human excellence that each new age must seek to emulate under altered conditions without ever hoping to surpass it.” One could offer that classical revival art and architecture became a means of applying such knowledge-power to perceptual and lived spaces, of reinforcing power relations by upholding ideologies in day-to-day life. Such theorizing of these global processes involving classicism lends itself to postcolonial ideas involving the cultivation of dependency on a paradigmatic standard, such as Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry. Hence classicism in history, literature, and visual art served an important role in capitalist processes in various societies worldwide, often as a tool for promoting certain sectors of society and controlling others. Such classicizing values could become entangled with the operation of colonial hierarchies in Spanish colonial contexts that elevated limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), as defined by the status of español (Spaniard), above the racially mixed castas (castes).

In terms of managing a subject population, classicism could gain greater authority through its association with the past via a heritage process imbued with an eighteenth-century tendency to construct essentialized historical foundations. Thus the construction of certain elite identities in Havana’s El Templete as belonging to the patria or to the city was interconnected with a simultaneous disinheritance of the castas, in particular, people of African lineage. As the products of late colonial heritage, such modes of seeing and representing responded to a socioracial crisis that compelled urban elites to attempt to restore tranquillity, quiet phobias, and manage certain sectors of the population even as such expressions were drawn out of a cultural milieu informed by these very subalterns. The successful slave rebellion on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue, which began in 1791 and was later known as the Haitian Revolution, generated anxieties among white elites in slave societies throughout the Atlantic world that this event and the subsequent establishment of the independent black republic of Haiti would become a model that might encourage their own slaves and free blacks to revolt. On the neighboring island of Cuba, with its similar demographic conditions, the white elite effectively used civil association to advance racist agendas.

In the first two chapters of this book, I establish the conditions for the heritage production at the foundational ceiba tree of Havana by examining Bourbon implementations of classicism and spatial order in the late eighteenth century and the rise of a colonial modernity and reformist selfhood in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, with their implications for vision, representation, and space making. I address the development of the city’s intramuros (area within the urban walls) and how the urban fabric became a setting for the construction of social identity, including the practice of a private heritage. This arena of urban discourse via architecture and visual representation, along with military concerns, sets the stage for appreciating why royal officials chose to reconstruct the Plaza de Armas in the manner proposed in the 1770s. Finally, I examine the plaza in relation to a colonial discourse of performance and ritual--how social and political hierarchy was acted out in the reading of the 1812 constitution and in the processions of the city’s African mutual aid associations, the cabildos de naciones.

In chapter 2, I explore the rise of an elite public in Havana and the multivalence of classical revival. The emergence of a more rigorous interpretation of Greco-Roman classicism in the city coincided with the promotion and cultivation of a new form of subjectivity, identified by historians as a relatively bounded, atomized individuality. The founding of various forms of civil association in Havana, promoted by the "enlightened" court of Madrid, promoted such reformed subjectivity. Meanwhile, members of civil society contributed actively to various civic projects involving the new classicism. Rather than merely an imperial implementation, several cases bear out the active role of local elites in the construction of a late colonial reformist culture. I examine local understandings of buen gusto in the writings of the Cuban priest and intellectual Félix Varela, along with how taste was lived in the social spaces of early-nineteenth-century Havana. Attention is given to Spain’s promotion of knowledge in the eighteenth century, especially its academies of language, history, and visual arts, which impacted the colonial Americas. The effects of religious reform on the conceptualization and reception of local classicisms is considered in Havana’s religious art and architecture following the arrival of the reformist bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada y Landa in 1802. Furthermore, I examine the role of portraiture in the colonial social context and address the impact of Jean-Baptiste Vermay on certain representational conventions. Finally, I examine the racial politics surrounding the founding of a drawing school for Havana, led by Vermay, as it relates to growing elite anxieties about the apparent predominance of people of African descent in the visual arts of the city and the growing presence of these individuals in general.

Following a consideration of the urban, social, and artistic conditions, I turn in chapter 3 to the construction of heritage in 1754 and 1828 on Havana’s ceiba tree site. The emergence of the ceiba tree as a heritage resource in early modern Cuba is considered for its potential Amerindian, European, and African origins. The enigma of the plaza ceiba in Havana and its foundational story are considered against an array of primary documents. The 1754 pillar is addressed in its known context, while the commission and patronage of El Templete are exposed as a collaboration between royal, clerical, and elite sponsors. I examine the typological and symbolic constructs relevant to the 1828 monument, considering their origins in devotional shrines, Enlightenment concepts, Masonic symbolism, and local memorials. From this analysis, El Templete emerges as a new type of interface between architecture and urban space by contrast to the Bourbon palace architecture across the Plaza de Armas. Finally, I consider the Vermay paintings within El Templete as the construction of a heritage gaze shaped by colonial discourse, as I explore potential perceptual and experiential sequences engaged by audiences.

In chapter 4, I examine heritage dissonance in El Templete. The disagreement over the meaning and uses of heritage emerged in multiple contrasting heritage gazes, such as the past as validation of Spanish imperial and paternal governance versus the past as a testament to the dignity and primacy of Cuban place. Various arboreal tropes of European and American origin became additional heritage resources to strengthen claims of varying sorts in the foundational ceiba tree on the Plaza de Armas. A wide array of European and Atlantic world representations, including local devotions, civic signs, revolutionary emblems, and Amerindian figures, among others, are considered for how they provided shape to the legibility of heritage for particular audiences in Havana.

Having established a sense of the dissonance of colonial heritage in El Templete, I focus in chapter 5 on other areas of the monument’s multivalence. These include the subaltern meanings of heritage in the monument as well as projects of rationalized social management on the island. The effort to establish new towns for white settlers, initiated by Havana’s Economic Society, is considered in tandem with the spatial ordering of these towns and the known racialization of artistic aesthetics in nineteenth-century Cuba. The narrative of historical encounter in the history paintings by Vermay is examined as a practice of disinheritance because of the ways in which Spanish, Creole, and Indian figures appear in the painted series. Finally, the African dimensions of the ceiba tree mentioned in chapter 3 are reconsidered for what they may reveal about subaltern voices and the ways in which elites may have manipulated transcultural signs in urban representation in an effort to sway African audiences. Heritage performed extensive cultural work on this site throughout its known history, as it does today. Its operation before and after the Seven Years' War, in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, and in conjunction with Bourbon Reforms in Cuba suggests heritage as an important framework to view late Spanish colonial art, architecture, and visual culture.


“[T]his book offers a sweeping and carefully researched volume that will appear to scholars in art history, Latin American Studies, cultural studies, urban studies and related fields. It reflects the efforts of a determined scholar who aims to link the local, plaza, city, colony, and ultimately (Spanish) empire scales of analysis. This work will force veteran scholars to rethink their assessment of Spanish colonial spaces, and will guide younger scholars too.”
European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“This is an important book that successfully demonstrates the potential of heritage studies as a critical strategy to understand visual culture in the context of the production of identity, power, and authority in a society.”
Magali Carrera, Chancellor Professor of Art History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and author of Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings

“This [book] is immensely important for the field [of colonial art history]. While sixteenth-century contact-era art and eighteenth-century exceptional works have drawn attention to the field, they also help to keep it marginal to the practice of art history. By engaging the Bourbon reforms, the foundation of academies, and so on, Niell and [others] more amply account for colonial art and help scholars from other genres of the discipline to see similarities, not just differences. . . . The book offers a model case study in the recrafting of historical sites for new purposes, particularly, but not exclusively, in a colonial context. It thus offers a good model for the study of a place in all of its complexities and for all of the constituencies exerting influence on the site.”
Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Professor of Art History, University of North Texas, and author of Art and Architecture in Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821