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Amenities Include Built-In Mountain Stream : Museum Shows Old Venezuela's Style of Gracious Living

January 27, 1988|MARIA TEJERA | Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — High ceilings to ward off the tropical heat, a sunken stone tub with a built-in mountain stream and velvet cushions set on a dais to escape the fleas on the floor were all part of gracious living in 18th-Century Venezuela.

Those luxuries are now on view at the Colonial Museum in Caracas.

Neither the traffic down the hill nor the modern houses next door detract from the air of bourgeois comfort, circa 1790, that envelops the museum.

Visitors walk up a steep cobblestoned carriage way to the museum, one of the few colonial houses to have survived recurrent earthquakes, revolutions and modern urbanism.

The sprawling house, with its 25 rooms, stables and gardens is visited by thousands of people a year, some of them tourists, some of them Venezuelans curious to see how their ancestors lived in the days before the discovery of oil made the nation one of the richest in Latin America.

Tropical Flowers

The wide verandas look out on a tangle of tropical flowers--18th Century local taste ran to overgrown gardens for the natural look--and huge mango trees, one of the museum's few anachronisms.

"You know, Venezuelans are always astonished when we tell them that the mango shouldn't even be present in the garden of the Colonial Museum," says Carlos Duarte, the museum's director. "We all think of the mango as being something of a national fruit or staple, but the truth is that it is an Asian tree that arrived in Venezuela in the 1840s from Trinidad, where traders from the Far East had taken it."

Those who think of Latin American houses as white walls, dark beams and heavy furniture are in for a shock when they enter the museum: A cedarwood sewing box is placed against a strawberry pink wall, a pianoforte against banana yellow and brocaded beds against glowing orange. It is just as they were when the house was built at the end of the 18th Century.

The surprisingly delicate marquetry furniture (decorative inlaid work), made in Venezuela between the 17th and early 19th centuries, is also a far cry from the expected heavy chairs and tables. Even the low wooden armchairs for everyday use are made of mahogany and cedar inlaid with precious woods, all of them common in the country.

In one of the salons, under a reed-lined 20-feet-high ceiling, a dais is strewn with velvet cushions. There, the family and visitors would gather at night to sew and gossip.

"They couldn't sit on cushions on the floor because of the fleas, so it was common to have a raised dais," Duarte said.

Also on exhibit are religious paintings and portraits; a vellum covered edition of "The Art of Dying Well," a favorite bedside book of the time; small carved coconut shells in silver stands, at one point fashionable for drinking chocolate, the favorite beverage, and a silver chocolate beater. Venezuelan cocoa was, and still is, regarded as being among the world's best.

A unusual feature that delights visitors is a sunken stone bathtub with a little mountain stream running through it. Put down a stone at the far end, and the tub rapidly fills up; lift the stone, and the bathwater flows out.

The Spanish Empire considered Venezuela a backwater colony, and it was ruled by a lowly captain-general, instead of the viceroy that Peru and Mexico had.

Revolution Began

The country only woke up in 1810 when Simon Bolivar, the "Liberator of America," began the revolution that would spread through the rest of the continent. After the 11-year War of Independence, it sank back into relative obscurity and poverty until oil was discovered early in this century.

Venezuelan generals on both the royalist and the revolutionary side were well aware of the value of propaganda. A favorite custom was to send to England for commemorative mugs and plates with messages lauding the valor of a general. Staffordshire potters would impartially accept orders from both sides, and just as impartially ship the mugs back to Venezuela with hilarious spelling mistakes, as seen in one of the exhibits.

Built as a country residence "for recreation and to escape the city heat and the epidemics," as the original owner wrote to his wife, the house, comfortable and unpretentious, was a popular gathering place, first for its original royalist owners and their guests, and then for the revolutionaries who confiscated the house.

Bolivar, who knew the place well, loved the place and at one point instructed a friend to buy the house.

Years later, the house was still a favorite party site. In 1840, the British minister described one party that had "too many speeches, a great number of broken glasses and, as our host later found out, 22 missing silver spoons."

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