Writing about Havana’s history means taking the risk of walking along very trite roads, you can navigate deep oceans of ink from so much that it has been done. With ease anyone can repeat the unknownness of the exact place where the village was first emplated and the date on which this occurred, allude to the mysteries of its transfers until reaching the Port of Carena, refer to the date of the first mass and lobby assumed as foundation, because the books that were to contain that data have never appeared , mention the forerunners, the first square and its four primitive streets, in short, the Cuban very, but beautiful “history of tobacco”, full of speculation and repeated until tiredness this year. How can we then evade these paths and find another way to pay a well-deserved tribute to our city?
Some time ago I stopped to talk about some symbols of Havana, those that just to see them or hear them talk about them refer us to our old city. At that moment I alluded to La Giraldilla and the lions of Paseo del Prado, but I preferred to leave for another occasion the true queen of symbols of our city, I thought she deserved to be approached independently. Knowing that Havana is a constant in Palabra Nueva and in the midst of days when we celebrate its five hundredth anniversary, I believe that the precise time has come to do so. I will dedicate these lines to the Fountain of India or Noble Havana. To present its history will be to pay the best tribute to our beloved capital, without falling into the same historical resources as always, because mentioning the Fountain of India is almost the same as saying Havana.
The Fountain of Noble Havana was an initiative of Claudio Martínez de Pinillos y Ceballos,1 the Count of Villanueva, who was superintendent general of Army and promoter of some important projects in the capital city. The first sketches of the supplier were made by Colonel Manuel Pastor, well-known architect of the time. Havana for that historical moment was full of works that embellished it. The drawings were sent by Villanueva to Italy and placed in the hands of Mr. Gerolamo Rossi and Mr. Antonio Boggiano, to whom he commissioned two fountains, that of Noble Havana and that of the Lions for the Plaza de San Francisco. The one we presented was entrusted to the sculptor José Gaggini in 1835. The original design had to be corrected by the Italian artist himself; the proposal was apparently not good, as it is common for several reliefs and some other details to be added to it. The total amount of the commission amounted to the amount of forty thousand strong pesos, a considerable sum for the time.
When the commission arrived in January 1837 in Cuba, the fountain was located in Havana, the place selected for this was of remarkable relevance at that historical time. It quickly became the most beautiful and sumptuous fountain in the city, so much so that the Havana Daily of the 1st. January 1838 stated: “In the past year a magnificent fountain of Havana has been placed, located at the exit of the Earth Gate and in front of the main one of the Military Camp: this fountain is the most beautiful that is known, the best that has come to America, and can appear in any Court of Europe”.2 Relates the press of the time that was formed there , ending the Paseo de Isabel II, a beautiful tree-lined roundabout, with benches and lanterns, where the carriages twisted to return to the promenade. In this quote there is an important detail: “a magnificent fountain of Havana has been placed”. Thus it is clear that the source was recognized since its placement as a representation of the city.
Just in 1863, the City Council took the agreement to move it from site, it would be placed in the center of the space that formed in the interception of San Rafael streets and the Neptune square, in the area of the present Central Park. The Havana Gazette, corresponding to January 15, published a statement of claims in search of a contractor in charge of the transfer, in which no details were escaped that would help preserve the good condition of the elements of the source. The contractor’s appointment act took place on 28 January. From the period of his stay there he referred to the Spanish weekly magazine El Museo Universal: “However, what impresses [in Havana] in the most pleasant way […] are his walks … between these … that of Elizabeth II is distinguished by the character of greatness that imprints on him the beautiful monumental fountain built in its center, a work worthy of the place it occupies, so by the merit of the sculpture that the crown, of which it takes its name, as by the simplicity and apt arrangement of the whole”.3
She was in the new place until the statue of Elizabeth II returned to the site, this one had been lowered from its pedestal in the Spanish historical period known as Sexenio Revolucionario.4 The fountain returned to its old roundabout, but on this occasion the Indian representative of Havana was left facing the Field of Mars, turned a hundred and eighty degrees.
The sculptural work, as an object of art according to its symbolic representation, received great criticism in the country. The first was directed to the posture of the main figure sitting and his crisscrossed legs have stiffness. Another to the fact that its phenotype shows Europoid traits and not an Aboriginal one. Finally, they refer to the attributes she carries, most have no relation to a native woman either, but as opposed to the foreign criteria differ from those national criticisms, let’s see what appeared in a chronicle of the Spanish Painting Weekly in 1851: “India’s source in Havana can only have some comparison with that of Cibeles in Madrid. A colossal statue of beautiful stone lying docked on a kind of chariot, and with the horn of abundance at its side, represents the perfect type of indian race, whose shapes and contours are described with admirable cleanliness and truth.”5 In terms of art everything is very subjective and depends on aesthetic patterns, no doubt this quote is made from European conceptions , but even if they do, they allude to issues of native characteristics and not to those of their natural environment, they saw something different from their patterns.
Criticism and praise aside, it is fair to say that as a whole it does carry the message according to the purpose for which it was created. It is a whole crowned queen, sitting on her throne, holding the coat of arms of Havana, this is a direct object of representativeness and a cornucopia full of the fruits of the country, not others, the rest of the fountain is composed of ornaments made according to the artistic canons of the moment, arches crammed to give a sense of depth in its planes , masks and dolphins that spit out jets of crystal clear water, those are not all, but they are the main ones.
Criticizing it from the current aesthetic point of view would not make sense, the truth is that in Cuba, in 1837, no artist of the time could make such a work, by that time the painters and engravers who, later, bequeathed us collections of fabulous prints, were all graphic documents of the first order when facing any sociohistorical research of Havana and Cuba in the colony , as were the cases of Jean Baptiste Vermay, Federico Mialhe, Víctor Patricio Landaluze, Eduardo Laplante, Alejandro Moreau de Jones, brothers Costas and others. An important detail to be known is that it was always ornamental and not service, there was not going to look for water in a city devoid of liquid, it has always been the subject of recreation.
A curious aspect of the fountain is the fact that it never had a plaque that tried to make the target for which it was created, it only has a brief dedication where you can read: “By the Count of Villanueva”. This has always been a cause for signs, some say that it was Martínez de Pinillos himself who egocentrically made him record it. On the matter said Eugenio Sánchez de Fuentes y Peláez: “This beautiful fountain, the most beautiful and sumptuous of how many Havana has, is made up of huge pieces of marble beautifully worked, without it being, as we have said, any inscription that gives us light about its origin, other than the most brief mentioned”. But later he points out bluntly: “Mr. Mesa and Suarez Inclán refer that this source was a gift to the city of the Count quoted. There is no such thing, it was the public age that cost it, as well as many other works of ornate at that time.”
Some claim that antonio Rezzonico7 was the first to perform a daguerreotype to the sculptural work. There are also countless engravings and lithographs of it, indicating its visual relevance in the colonial stage. Many of these prints were made by several of the artists that have already been mentioned. No one can dispute the fact that the site was in the colonial city a key point of reference, recreation and attraction, no artist takes a second of his time to reproduce pictorially what has no appeal.
Colonial Havana had already expanded to Belascoaín Street in the mid-19th century and continued to grow in a south and west direction. In the space that had transcended beyond the wall, a modern urban infrastructure was being created where relevant public and private initiatives emerged, large markets, shops, factories, railway stations, walks and others.
The fountain remained in place and remained one of the most attractive public spaces, no one resisted it, neither Creole nor travelers. A sample of this can be found in the criterion issued by Samuel Hazard in his 1871 book entitled Cuba in pen and pencil…: “The fountain is a work of considerable beauty, sculpted in Carrara marble and erected at the expense of the Count of Villanueva. It is the best of public sources, and it lives up to the taste and generosity of the patriotic citizen who erected it.”8 Its popularity increased further when in 1892 the mayor of Havana decided to build the picturesque Christopher Columbus Park on the ancient lands of Campo de Mars, adjacent to the fountain.
In this social dynamic the Republic was reached and with it, in the urban aspect, the plans for improvement that came to give a new air to the city. India withstood the onslaught of time and politics, until, in 1928, when the American Fraternity Park or Fraternity Park was inaugurated and then the National Capitol, it turned so that the lady would look towards paseo del Prado, as we can see it today.
Jean Claude Nicolás Forestier was in charge of making the design of the area in which the Fountain of Noble Havana is located, making it one of the main capital urban nodes. The symbol of our city remained in place, it was integrated into the reforms without any difficulty.
The fact that Forestier respected the source and integrated it into his project is important, he was worshipping his historical significance and by the way he took advantage of the aesthetic proposal, he was a renovator, if he had not found anything interesting, he would have proposed that he withdraw, just as he did with other things.
Today the heritage site is part of the first urban node of the municipality Centro Habana, it is one of the most visited and photographed of the city, but also one of the best preserved by the Office of the Historian of the City.
If Italy prides itself on the Trevi Fountain, Madrid of that of Cibeles and Paris shows vain that of Saint Michel, the Habaneros are fortunate to have our Fountain of India, less pompous, but very our own. In its waters we get wet under the light of the vaulted lantern of the Capitol last night of November 16, as we contemplate the fireworks for the five hundredth anniversary of our beloved capital.
1 Claudio Martínez de Pinillos y Ceballos (Havana, 1782–Madrid, 1853): Landowner, politician and economist, second Earl of Villanueva and Viscount Valvanera was a reformer and sugar planter, defender of Spanish colonialism.
2 See “News of Havana”, in the Diario de la Habana, Havana, 1st. January 1838.
3 “The Fountain of India of Havana”, at The Universal Museum, Madrid, May 13, 1866, No. 19, Year X, pp. 147-148.
4 Revolutionary Sixenth: Period of contemporary history of Spain since the triumph of the Revolution of September 1868 until the pronouncement of December 1874, which marked the beginning of the stage known as the Bourbon Restoration.
5 “Paseo de Isabel II in Havana”, in Semanario Pintoresco Español, Madrid, January 5, 1851, p. 25.
6 Eugenio Sánchez de Fuentes y Peláez: Monumental, Statuary and Epigraphic Cuba, Havana, Solanas and Compañía Printing, 1916, t.I., p. 142.
7 Antonio Rezzonico was one of the first daguerreotypists to come to Cuba. His nationality has not been specified, as he points out interchangeably as Italian, French and even Canadian of Italian origin. Check http://www.opushabana.cu/index.php/articulos/36-articulos-casa-de-papel/469-cuba-sus-inicios-fotograficos.
8 Samuel Hazard: Cuba pen and pencil: the ever-faithful Island, Havana, Editorial Cultural S.A, 1928, t. I, p. 154.