Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Of the dozens major national museums in Paris, one of my personal favorites is the Musée du Quai Branly. Located in a lush garden environment a mere five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, it is unique for its collection of over 350,000 works dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.

Paris-Branly facade.

In addition to its lush gardens, the museum also features a luxuriant vegetal façade designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.

Since only one percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time in its permanent and thematic temporary exhibits, each visit is a journey of discovery to remote corners of the planet and the long ago cultures that thrived there.

On a recent late fall afternoon, after enjoying a peaceful stroll around the lush wilderness created by noted French botanist and landscape artist Gilles Clement, I made my way toward the enigmatic building rising bridge-like above the gilded autumn foliage of the tree tops. I was on my way to pre-Columbian Peru.

Peru before the Incas

Paris-Branly Moche bottles.

The Moche civilization flourished from 100 to 700 AD. Their fine ceramic bottles speak of the importance of water as well as the flora and fauna of their food supply.

Doubtless because they had the misfortune of playing hosts to their uninvited Spanish visitors in the mid-15th century, the Incas and their Cuzco Empire have long been held as the crucible of pre-Hispanic Andean culture. While there were traces of previous pre-Columbian cultures going back as far as 1500 BC, these had long been eclipsed in the collective imagination by the powerful Inca narrative. But over the past three decades, extensive archeological excavations on the northern coast of Peru, especially at the Huaca site near Trujillo and at the royal tombs of Sipán, have provided a new insight into these ancient cultures, revealing how they, and  most notably the Mochicas, first laid the foundations for pre-Hispanic civilization over 1500 years ago.

Moche bottles (circa 300 to 400 AD) depicting marine life.

These revelations are the basis for the current exhibition, curated by archeologist Santiago Uceda Castillo, who has been directing the site excavations since 1991. “Peru before the Incas” takes visitors on an archaeological investigation into the origins and evolution of power and political systems within these ancient societies. Who held power? The celestial gods, the kings, the urban elite, the warriors, the priests and priestesses? And how did it manifest itself?

A Journey of Discovery

The exhibition spans time from the 8th century BC to the conquests of the Chimú by the Incas in 1470 AD. During that time, in the absence of a written language, successive civilizations left us a rich heritage of remarkable potteries and sculptures, gold, copper and silver ornaments, and funeral furnishings that illustrate their way of life and evolution.

Paris-Branly totems.

Moche bottles representing mountains and totemized animals.

The journey begins with a focus on the natural environment and everyday life of the area. Wedged at the foot of the Andes, the northern coast of Peru is one of the most arid deserts in the world. Owing to the combined presence of the cold Humboldt Current and the mountains, it virtually never rains. For the populations that settled in this inhospitable land, water took a central part in their rites and beliefs, as is represented in a stunning collection of ornate ceramic bottles that document the flora and fauna of their food supply, and their divinities. Theses works speak of a strong connection between the animal and human worlds. As man seeks to acquire the strength, reflexes or speed of specific animals, he deifies them or turns them into the totems of his community.

Divine Power

Paris-Branly God of Mountain.

The God of the Mountain is an anthropomorphic figure.

As the community develops and organizes into a state, totemism evolves into a more formal concept of the existence of superior beings, endowed with powers over the human condition. Temples are created, where the presence of these divinities can materialize. The main god, which will endure under various forms until the Inca period, is the God of the Mountain. An anthropomorphic figure with feline fangs, clawed hands and feet, and carrying a double specter, it represents the sun, fire and water that come from the mountain. It requires human sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests and the prosperity of the community.

Ancestral divinities are worshiped at the clan level

Much power is also attributed to ancestral divinities. These more personal gods worshiped at the family or clan level are the link between men and the gods. Especially at the time of funerals, they are recipients of food, drink and metal objects offerings.

 

 

 

Earthly Power

Paris-Branly huacos.

Ceramic portraits represent priests and shamans.

Earthly power is bestowed by the gods to the king, who controls the armies and the state.Through a rich array of Huacos (portraits realized in ceramic), statues, emblems of function or power and personal ornaments, the exhibition document the various powers that support this theocracy: the priests and priestesses, the warriors, the shamans and healers.

 

 

Paris-Branly ornaments

Personal ornaments reveal the power achieved by women.

And surprisingly, the final part of the exhibition reveals the power held by an elite of women. At the time of the conquest, Spaniards had documented coming across some villages (called Capullanas) that were under the authority of women. But recent excavations at major Andes sites show that, in the pre-Columbian past, some women achieved much greater power, as proven by the presence in their funeral monuments of the emblems of their functions (including crowns and specters) and iconographic representations.

Even for the most casual “archeophile,” Peru before the Incas is a fascinating exhibit. The almost 300 artifacts on display cast a new light on the development of the early Andean cultures and demonstrate that in South America, the Incas are only the end point of an elaborate social evolution of native culture before the Spanish conquest.

Paris-Branly huacos/

Ceramic portraits (or Huacos) represent high functionaries.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Quai Branly

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

After three days of white-knuckle driving through some of the most dramatic seascapes of the Mediterranean, the eastern coastal road that connects Corsica’s glitzy southern resort of Porto Vecchio to the major northern seaport of Bastia feels a bit humdrum. Granted, every break in the narrow band of foliage that outlines the coast reveals deserted sandy beaches and the occasional hamlet. The Tyrrhenian Sea shimmers under the pale autumn sun, and to our left, the jagged foothills are quick to morph into a serrated skyline of mountains. But that’s small stuff after the epic vistas of the Calanches of Piana.

The Spiritual Capital of Corsica

Corsica-Road to Corte.

The road to Corte snakes by ancient bridges and farmhouses

Fortunately, within little more than one hour, we zip past the unremarkable modern small town of Aliera and turn inland toward Corte. At once, the scenery becomes more spectacular, the history more obvious. The road snakes upwards through an ever-changing scenery of silvery streams, thick forests and occasional mountain peaks. We cross ancient bridges spanning deep gorges and catch glances of traditional granite farmhouses rising from the dense scrubland (or le maquis, as it is called here).

Corsica-Corte

Corte was shortly the capital of independent Corsica.

Eventually, we reach Corte, the brooding citadel city on its precipitous rocky spur dominating the confluence of the Tavignano and Restinica rivers. Its daunting 15th century fortress presides over a warren of cobbled alleys, with newer streets spreading down the face of the ravine below. This is the spiritual heart of Corsica, where its great hero Pascal Paoli established a democratic parliament during the island’s brief period of independence from 1755 to 1768. Today, it remains a mainstay of Corsican nationalism, as well as an administrative center and the seat of the University of Corsica.

Corsica-Corte Gaffory.

The façade of General Gaffory’s ancestral home still bears the mark of Genoese bullets.

We settle for a lunch of hearty local lamb stew at one of the sunny terraces on the Place Gaffory, at the edge of the medieval town. The square is named after General Jean Pierre Gaffory, one of the towering figures of the Corsican revolution, and Corte’s most revered native son. His statue dominates the space, resolutely standing in front of his ancestral home, where the stone façade still bears the scars inflicted in 1745 by dozens of Genoese bullets, lest anyone would doubt of the independent spirit and long memory of the people of Corte.

The Forests of Castasgniccia

Corsica-Ponte Leccia.

The village of Ponte Leccia sitls among the chestnut forests.

From there, we meander northeast toward Bastia, Corsica’s main commercial port, at the base of the Cap Corse Peninsula, through some of the largest chestnut forests in Europe, the Castagniccia region. The trees that gave the region its name were planted in the Middle Ages to ensure a reliable source of food. In addition to bread made with chestnut flour, the nuts find their way in many traditional dishes including the local version of polenta and even a type of Corsican beer.

Back in Bastia

Corsica-Bastia St Nic.

Ferries slide by the quay along the Place Saint Nicholas.

For our last night on the island we stay at the recently opened waterfront Hotel Port Toga, conveniently located just across the waterfront from the commercial port and the Toga marina. Its central location places it within an easy stroll of the Place Saint Nicholas, the broad 300-meter (1,000-foot) long, palm tree-lined waterfront avenue in the center of Bastia. Another 15-minute seaside walk takes us to the Vieux Port (Old Harbor).

Corsica-Bastia old port.

The old port of Bastia has become a trendy marina.

Founded by the Genoese in the late 14th century and protected by a mighty bastion, Bastia was capital of Corsica until 1811 when Napoleon demoted it in favor of his birthplace, Ajaccio. Tucked into a narrow cove, its old harbor has become a popular marina much thought after by pleasure and fishing boats, and the old docks are lined with cafés and trendy eateries. But the original fishing village, the Terra Vecchia (Old Land), remains a maze of narrow lanes and tightly packed tenement houses leading to the citadel (circa 1378).

Corsica-Bastia Terra Vecchia.

The Terra Vecchia fishing village remains a maze of colorful tenement houses.

After this last leisurely day of taking in the rich history of Corsica, we wander back to the commercial port for one final bit of daredevil driving: negotiating the process of wedging our car into one of the cavernous garage decks of the overnight ferry that will take us to mainland France. Then, our bags hastily dropped off in our cabin, we hurry to the upper deck lounge for one last look at the enigmatic mountain island fading to black in the Mediterranean night.

Corsica-Bastia Panorama.

The Old Port and Terra Vecchia of Bastia.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari. From May to September seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano) that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stunning scenery.
  • Staying –For our stay in Bastia, we chose the newly opened Hotel Port Toga, Rond Point de Toga, 201200 Bastia, for its convenient central location across from the ferry terminal, its walking proximity to the historic Old Port, and its comfortable, well appointed rooms with sea view balconies. But what made our stay memorable was the attentive welcome of the staff, especially the desk manager Pauline Meignen, whose thoughtfulness made her a charming ambassadress for the property and the city in general. Contact: phone +33(0) 4 95 34 91 00, emailcontact@hotel-port-toga.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Corte

Bastia