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Looking Back

Manila in the past tense

/ 04:05 AM February 24, 2021

Why is it that when we talk of Manila, we often do so in the past tense? Why do we speak of Manila with a tinge of nostalgia for the former capital city whose primacy was challenged when Quezon City was newly established and became the seat of government from 1948 to 1976?

Manila has a long history that predates the Spanish conquest, even if that proud memory has been diluted by the annual celebration of its foundation as a Spanish city, honored by Philip II with a coat of arms and the title “distinguished and ever loyal.” Spanish Manila grew from the defeated Rajah Soliman’s palisades, expanded and enclosed within stone walls that we know today as Intra (within) Muros (the walls).

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By the 19th century, nearby areas outside the walls (extra-muros) like Tondo, Quiapo, Santa Cruz, Binondo, San Nicolas, Ermita, and Malate had grown, developed, and were gentrified, but remained arrabales (suburbs) of the old city until these were incorporated into what became Greater Manila and expanded into the monster we know today as Metro(politan) Manila, officially known as the National Capital Region or NCR. Manila is but one of 16 cities and one municipality that now comprises the mega-city seat of government.

Manila was destroyed in 1945, and we should regret this twice over because, unlike other cities that were reconstructed better than the old one, Manila went to seed. No other Filipino artist has preserved the Manila of nostalgia better than Jose Honorato Lozano, who was active in the 19th century and is known for a distinct type of art known as letras y figuras — literally figures and other visual details that form letters to spell out the name of a person. These works stop time in its tracks, like a photograph, but unlike images caught by a camera, these are finely painted by hand.

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While good reproductions of Lozano’s work can be found on the internet or in a profusely illustrated monograph, there are no actual Lozano works accessible to the public in Philippine museums or libraries as they are in Spain, in the Museo Oriental in Valladolid and the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid. The handful of original Lozanos I have seen in Manila are all in private collections, so it was a treat to have one of the most famous letras y figuras works — spelling out V-I-E-W-S-O-F-M-A-N-I-L-A — on the block at Leon Galleries, from the estate of the eminent Filipino historian Benito J. Legarda Jr.

I have only known this work from photographs, so seeing the actual work was a revelation. Drawn on paper in gouache and watercolor, it’s signed in Lozano’s fine hand on the lower right. Though undated, it was made between 1848 and 1863 based on two landmarks: the Magallanes (Magellan) monument erected in 1848 on the street of the same name that runs parallel to the Pasig river, and the Manila Cathedral as it looked before the destructive 1863 earthquake. A US flag flying prominently outside an American trading house has the stars arranged in a circle around one big star, similar in design to what is known as a “Betsy Ross flag.”

Divided into three parts, “Views of Manila” depicts the areas outside Intramuros on the top; a view of Manila Bay with all sorts of ships and watercraft in the middle that suggests trade in the busy port of Manila, plus the Magellan Monument, the Plaza Mayor in Intramuros with the Ayuntamiento, the Cathedral, and the Palacio del Gobernador; and finally Binondo church in the lowest panel. Details that form the individual letters show how people dressed for church or work (Chinese food vendor, Filipino bread and milk vendor, man threshing rice, a woman in a roadside carinderia, another with betel chew laid out that viewers mistake for rice cakes). There are men busy with cockfighting, and a couple pounding rice using a mortar known as lusung, said to be how Luzon got its name.

Lozano’s art relates to history and is the sum of its parts. Lozano’s work has to be viewed two ways: afar and up close, like history that can be seen for either the forest or the trees. Unlike other works that spell out the names of people who commissioned the painting, “Views of Manila” is unique. It re-presents a Manila long gone yet one that reminds us of what a city should be: a place where people can live peacefully and be the best they can be.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Jose Honorato Lozano, Looking Back, MANILA, Philippine history
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