The many merits of Santiago’s colonial milestone.
There was a time when the church of San Francisco was the unmistakable symbol of Santiago; its image was featured in practically every painting, illustration or postcard of the capital. Perceptions and PR strategies have obviously changed throughout the years, but for much that skyscrapers and vineyards have replaced the old church as the new attractions of the city, it would be hard for most Santiaguinos to dissociate their hometown from this iconic landmark. The Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco has a special significance, not only as the single oldest construction in the city but also as one of the finest vestiges of Chile’s colonial past.
The church’s history is linked to the very origins of Santiago. The Order of St Francis settled here soon after the first colonisers in 1554 and were entrusted with the running of a little chapel, la Ermita del Socorro, which sheltered a precious carved figure – la Virgen del Socorro – gifted by the city's founder. After the pathetic construction succumbed to the ground as a result of an earthquake, the construction of the present-day church began in 1586 and was eventually unveiled in 1618. Although the building preserves the layout of the original Franciscan construction, the church has evidently been subject to modifications over time. Most of the nip and tuck has been to reinforce the church following each of the earthquakes that struck the city throughout its history; in fact it is possible to appreciate, at the front entrance, how several layers of brickwork make up its walls. Other interventions have been mainly ornamental, but no less bolder, in particular the spire above the bell tower, a 19th century addition by architect Fermín Vivaceta. The interior of the church is minimally decorated with bare stone walls and a number of lacquered wood carved figures and crucifixes, among which is the Virgen del Socorro in the altar. Perhaps the only feature worthy of mention is its wooden roof, beautifully decorated with flower motives in gold and pasty green.
In fact it is the annexed convent, and not the church, which warrants most of your attention. The convent, which now houses a splendid exhibit of colonial art or Museo Colonial de San Francisco, is a spot that should be well at the top of your sightseeing priorities. From galleries on end of figurines, dolls and candleholders to paintings, tapestry and furniture, this is not only Chile’s finest showcase of colonial art, but quite possibly the country’s most vast. The first set of rooms, on the east wing of the convent, contain mainly altar pieces and religious art, but there is a noteworthy collection of artefacts such as whips, rods, spiked metal ‘cilices’ and all the sort of lovely things monks used to employ to self-flagellate. On the west wing of the cloister are rooms which contain an impressive selection of silverware, among which are some intricately wrought chalices. The museum also features 17th century wood carved gruesome figures of the ilk that are displayed in the main church, many of them accessorised with natural hair, mother-pearl, embroidered dresses and with the most frightening looks you’ll ever come across whilst in town. But the rear rooms of the convents are the true jewel of the crown, with their dozens of massive paintings depicting the life of Saint Francis. This holding is no less than a true gem of baroque Spanish American painting.
The atmosphere in the corridors and courtyard of the convent of San Francisco is simply surreal. The overgrown gardens of the courtyard will take you back to 17th century Santiago, with its old fountain with goldfish and the roaming cockerels that make you feel as if you had suddenly left the city for a forgotten mountain monastery. Alas, the exit from the bucolic calmness of the cloister gardens to the outside world is a bit of an anticlimax.
The area instinctively dubbed as Barrio Paris-Londres is an elegant, if strangely sterile set of sidestreets that lack the basic components of what one could call neighbourhood life. The reason for this is that the south side of the Alameda has often fallen victim to outrageous planning projects, such as the uprooting of Santiago’s legendary Flower Market, la Pérgola de San Francisco, from its site at the foot of the church back in the early 1900s. The story of the Market and its stallholders inspired an important piece of national Musical theatre, denouncing the loss of quality urban spaces to the unattractive concrete blocks which have ended up drowning the church’s bell tower and its once mythical street scene. These days, the remaining cobbled streets serve more as film sets than as residential area, although the number of hotels and cafés that have surfaced in of late have cheered up the place with foreign visitors arriving in large numbers searching for reasonably priced accommodation in B&Bs with character. But step beyond the miniature boundaries of the manicured Calle Londres and Calle París and you’ll face the saddening reality of urban neglect, where entire blocks of buildings have been destroyed by quakes or bulldozed to the ground only to be replaced by distasteful constructions or their lands converted into car parks (quite a profitable business given the proximity to the historic quarter).
Still, there are a couple of interesting places to be seen the area. On the corner of Calle Tarapacá and Santa Rosa lies a distinctive scarlet-coloured colonial house, with a small tower raising above the clay tiled roof. This unique construction, which was not in fact built in the colonial period but most likely in the mid 1800s, was once the residence of a prominent art collective, el Grupo de los Diez – the Group of the Ten – which included poets, painters, sculptures and musicians among its members. Art collectives were fashionable and numerous in Santiago at the turn of the 20th century, but ‘los Diez’ were among the few that actually shared a living place. The now denominated Casa de los Diez was a sort of middle-class squat, where influence could be passed from one artist to another, in order to experiment with influences across the various artistic disciplines. Further on Calle Tarapacá and at the corner with Calle Serrano lies the Great Synagogue of Santiago and the Israeli Centre, two handsome 1930s art-deco buildings adorned with touches of moorish architecture. The Serrano Synagogue is Chile’s most important synagogue, serving the community of nearly 20,000 Jews that live in the capital.
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