In the shade of the old ceiba tree

Jean-Baptiste Vermay, La inauguración de El Templete.

SITES and objects of remembrance–cemeteries, monuments and inscriptions–held a fascination for William Whitehead wherever he traveled. Although he could claim little facility with the local language, his first visit to Havana in March 1829 proved no exception.

Long tradition had contrived to tell precisely the time and place of the city’s birth. It was to 16 November 1519, the day on which Cuba’s Spanish conquerors held the inaugural cabildo or council meeting, and a priest sang the first Catholic Mass, that the town of San Cristóbal de La Habana traced its origins. These twin ceremonies unfolded beneath the canopy of a spreading ceiba, a distinctive tropical tree that many indigenous peoples invested with great spiritual significance. In a later age the ceiba would symbolize a new-found respect for native cultures but, at the dawn of Havana’s history and for centuries after, it was emblematic of their subjugation, and glorified Cuba instead as a loyal outpost of Catholic and imperial Spain.

A few steps from the verdant Plaza de Armas, rulers of Havana have tried over the years to perpetuate the memory of the first ceiba tree by the planting of fresh ones. Such impressive attempts at historical continuity persist, if with limited success, to this day. But in 1829 Whitehead found a scene very different from what most prior visitors and even many Habaneros had known.

The city on 19 March was keeping the solemnity of St. Joseph and the name day of María Josefa Amalia, the consort of King Ferdinand VII. A cavalcade of dignitaries lined up to pay respects to the Bourbon monarchy through its representative in Cuba, Captain General Francisco Dionisio Vives. For Whitehead, the suspension of ordinary business offered a chance to explore Havana’s founding site without obtaining special permission. Uncharacteristically, the area was open to the public at large.

Visitors to El Templete, in the background of this 1839 view, once passed under a large triumphal arch and through a spacious courtyard. The arch was later eliminated and the courtyard foreshortened.

In 1754, after it was determined that an ancient but still healthy ceiba had to be cut down, authorities made amends for the loss by raising a limestone pillar whose lines, curves and trilateral column simulated the shape of the venerable tree. Whitehead, an admirer of ceibas he saw in rural Cuba,1 seems not to have grasped the pillar’s stylistic allusion to those natural forms. Unused to the conventions of baroque art he considered the column to be “of no particular order of architecture,” but understanding this site’s historical significance Whitehead circled the column, notebook in hand, and to the best of his ability jotted down the inscriptions on each of its three sides, one in Spanish and two in Latin.2

The year before Whitehead’s examination the monument was restored (or, in his words, “repaired and improved”) and incorporated into an even more elaborate memorial complex. A perimeter fence of iron pickets and stone pillars now enclosed the grounds, and at the back of the newly defined square stood a replica of a Greco-Roman temple. The dedication of this building a year to the day prior to Whitehead’s visit had been the centerpiece of possibly the greatest spectacle in the city’s history, a three-day jubilee of banners, banquets, illuminations and perhaps the first hot air balloon flight on the island.3

Compared with the old monument’s baroque undulations, the neoclassical shape and details of El Templete (“the little temple”) could be considered a nod to Enlightenment rationalism and a more modern, less authoritarian sensibility. But the inscription on its pediment reinforces the loyalty given and owed to the mother country by “La fidelísima Habana religiosa y pacífica”: “faithful Havana, religious and pacific,” as Whitehead rendered it.4

The precinct of El Templete as it appears today.

Ascending the steps of El Templete and passing through one of three large doorways, Whitehead could see that it was designed to house visual representations of the events to which the ceiba pillar and its inscriptions made reference. Inside were two monumental canvases by Jean-Baptiste Vermay, a student of Jacques-Louis David, the dean of all history painters. Vermay had fled Europe with the overthrow of Napoleon, coming first to the United States and finally to Havana, where he founded the art academy that would become Cuba’s National School of Fine Arts.

Vermay’s depiction of the first cabildo filled the left-hand wall of the temple interior, and his painting of the first Mass faced it on the right. Not yet complete or not yet hung was his colossal scene of the 1828 dedication of El Templete itself; though he may have seen this work on a later visit, Whitehead never mentioned it. The three scenes are united by more than artist or setting. Truncated but central in each looms the solid ceiba: the stock of the living tree in the two paintings Whitehead examined, and the stone shaft left to evoke it even when a new, quite different monument was introduced.

Having either never heard of Vermay or forgotten the name, Whitehead would associate the Frenchman’s works with another foreign painter residing in Havana, Massachusetts-born Eliab Metcalf. Both Vermay and Metcalf, expatriate artists and almost exact contemporaries, did portraits for the city’s elite (and Vermay even sat for Metcalf), so the confusion is perhaps forgivable. Whitehead recalled Metcalf as someone he had met frequently and, with a dash of patriotic brio, as “the only American artist ever treated with any respect or consideration by the authorities.” Nor was Whitehead much taken, it appears, with the paintings in El Templete: “I do not,” he wrote, “think the two pictures above alluded to, if by him, are equal to others I have seen of his production.”5

Eliab Metcalf’s self-portrait, and his portrait of Jean-Baptiste Vermay.

The attribution to Metcalf seems not so much an error as an effort to ennoble an American painter abroad. Whitehead was to find other such affinities among his fellow foreigners in Cuba, a land that he began to see held not only a rich past but the promise of an enriching future. Soon after returning north his brother John, already having extensive business ties on the island, petitioned the Jackson administration for a job representing American commercial interests in Havana. William in turn would spend part of the summer of 1829 studying Spanish, although by his own telling he “never made much progress in its acquisition.”6

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “They are very lofty trees, with strait smooth trunks, as majestic almost as the palms; the branches spring out horizontally from their summits not unlike an umbrella, supporting, and affording nourishment not only to their own foliage but also to numerous species of parasitical plants and insects.” “Letters from Havana XI,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 6 September 1838 2:3-4, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 11 September 1838 1:5-6.

[2] Whitehead endeavored to describe the monument for his readers: “It is a column composed of three square pilasters or pillars, joined at their interior faces and having a common pedestal and capital–but is I should think, of no particular order of architecture–it bears a gilt figure on its summit, which I suppose is twenty feet from the base, but who it represents I never could ascertain.” “Letters from Havana III,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 7 August 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 14 August 1838 1:3-4. The column was capped by a sculpture of the Virgin and Child.

[3] Cf. Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, La Habana. Apuntes históricos (Havana 19642).

[4] “Letters from Havana III.”

[5] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[6] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 26 of the transcription contain the reference.

Images: 1) La inauguración de El Templete, courtesy of Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana. 2) Frédéric Mialhe, Vista del Templete y parte de la Plaza de Armas (detail), from Isla de Cuba pintoresca (Havana 1839), University of Miami Libraries. 3) Precinct of El Templete: author’s photograph. 4) Eliab Metcalf, Self-portrait, from 5) Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Vermay, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba.

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