Peruvian art from high Andes at cultural center

Impoverished village works with wood and stone

Arts: museums, literature

May 13, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the late 1970s, Father Ugo de Censi, an Italian missionary priest of the Salesian Order, arrived in the impoverished Peruvian village of Chacas, nestled in the shadow of the Cordillera Blanca high in the Andes mountains.

On inspecting his new parish, de Censi found the town's lovely colonial-era church sadly dilapidated and its beautiful 18th-century altarpiece damaged almost beyond repair.

An even more urgent need presented itself in the form of de Censi's parishioners, among the poorest of the poor.

The situation was so bad that campesino mothers frequently turned up on the church doorsteps with newborn infants in their arms, begging the padre to adopt their children because the families could not afford to feed them.

Out of this immense suffering a dream was born. De Censi persuaded a group of skilled Italian artisans to come to Chacas to help with the enormous task of rebuilding the church.

After the work was completed, de Censi implored a number of the artisans to stay on and teach local youths the ancient arts of stone and woodcarving at a school he established, the Cooperativa Artesanal Don Bosco de Chacas. The cooperative was one of the first of many programs created by de Censi to meet his flock's pressing need for education and employment.

Now the stunning hand-crafted furniture, religious sculpture and objets d'art created by de Censi's cooperative are on view at the Italian Cultural Center in Baltimore. The exhibition is on permanent display, and new objects are introduced periodically.

Among the pieces currently on exhibition are a fantastic Nativity tableau carved from indigenous mahogany woods, a large processional cross patterned after a famous design by the early Renaissance master Cimabue, and richly ornamented tables, chairs, chests and bedsteads decorated with Inca-inspired pastoral scenes.

This is an unusual opportunity to see a group of functional and beautiful works that literally had their genesis in an act of faith. The religious objects, in particular, are awe-inspiring, while the sleek lines of the furniture exude a totally modern sensibility in accord with Italy's legendary flair for innovation in the decorative arts.

The Italian Cultural Center is at 9 W. Mulberry St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and by appointment. Call 410-276-4606.

For more art events, see page 40.

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