Colombia’s Bank of the Republic owns a good bit of the ancient neighborhood of La Candelaria in Bogota – no doubt a lot more than you’d suspect. I have learned something about its holdings since teaching English to a class full of members of its employees’ union.
One of them works for the Luis Angel Arango Library, which is part of the national bank and contains not only a vast library but also a concert hall or two, as well as a collection of ancient musical instruments. This student works in the Map-o-teca, the treasury of cartographical whatnots. Another student of mine runs the security logistics for the Botero Museum, the Coin Museum and the rest of the block which houses the plain old Bank of the Republic art collection – to which I will come in due course. One of the students works printing money, one of them in the insurance racket, and another in currency exchange. The Bank of the Republic also owns and operates the Gold Museum.
This means that the Bank of the Republic owns whole city blocks, and that much of its land is dedicated to preserving and fomenting cultural activity, not only in Bogota, but in the entire country. Not a bad way to spend its profits.
One of these city blocks houses the Casa Botero, the large, colonial-style house with courtyard in which you will probably find the largest collection of the output of the amazingly diligent Fernando Botero. You can find Botero in other places, but the ne plus ultra is decidedly in downtown – if ne plus ultra is what you want.
I do not want it, because I think his productions partake more of the nature of cartoons than of true art. But whether you are of my persuasion, or if the ne plus ultra Botero seems to you a very attractive proposition, then the Casa Botero will not disappoint. You see, Botero made a lot of money and was careful to buy up some really good art: Monet, Rouault, Pissaro, Dali, Rodin, among others, and he even purchased some Picasso. Then he donated it, perhaps being rather canny about the value and interest of his own art – who knows. When you enter the Casa Botero, take a left and you will find yourself face to face with the canvas and paint with which Monet, Pissaro and Corbet worked, without any mediating glass. On the second floor you will find a newly opened sculpture section with a lot of twentieth century pieces to torment your soul. Botero sculpted as well, and if you want to gaze long and lovingly on his undraped, bloated creations, there you may.
The collection also includes some rather interesting watercolors and drawings. It is not a very large collection, but it is at least three galleries full, well-arranged and lighted, within earshot of a tinkling fountain, unexplained but nevertheless labeled and worth an hour or two of any sensible person’s time.
Attached to the Casa Botero and part of the wonderful grounds, gardens, courtyards, fountains and whitewashed colonial buildings with green trim and sloping, tiled roofs is the Coin Museum. There you can see the coin of the conquerors, of the golden age of Spain, of the colonies, of the new Republic and so on, down to the present day. The galleries of this numismatic collection are in a rather older building than the Casa Botero, and if you are not so interested in the coin of the realm, its processes and curiosities, let me recommend the architecture and setting of said collection.
Attached to both the Casa Botero and the Coin Museum and accessible through various labyrinthine passages is a series of galleries simply called the Bank of the Republic Museum, and if you are in either of the former museums, you should not miss walking back into this section. It is modern, which means there is a lot of blank space for hanging pictures, high ceilings most of the time, and very good artificial and natural lighting. In this section the treasures of Colombia’s lesser-known artists are housed, and they are worth examining for at least three reasons.
The first reason is that they preserve something of Colombia that was, and they do it well. Historians ramble on quite tediously sometimes, but these artists capture characteristic moments, interesting asides and other such details. One chap in the 17th century made it the labor of his lifetime to paint portraits of deceased nuns: there is a whole gallery full of them. One chap in the 20th century lived on 13th street in Bogota and painted things in his vicinity carefully and well. There are portraits, there are landscapes, there are what can only be described as visions of the damned being tortured; in short, everything.
The second reason is that the artists, though minor, were not without merit, some more than others. The only complaint I had was that the gift shop lacked posters and post-cards of these while it superabounded in Botero memorabilia.
The third reason is that it is a quiet, organized museum in which you can spend some time musing. Not all museums, alas, lend themselves to such things, and so it is not a quality one should overlook. It is unfortunate that there are no seats in any of the galleries other than the little stool on which the security guard reposes when said guard is blissfully alone with the art. Nevertheless the interior and remote feeling some of us value in museums is present there, should you require it.
The location is two blocks east of the Plaza Bolivar. Ascend by the way to the left of the Cathedral and you will not miss it. The cost is absolutely nothing . . . other than perhaps an overexposure to the expressions of the mind and heart of Fernando Botero, which is not a bad price to pay. In fact, you might get paid: as you leave, if you leave by the door to the Coin Museum, you may be so fortunate as to receive a commemorative coin of no denomination.