Portraits of the past

Adriana Murillo

The treasures that have been guarded for centuries; maps of the past, avenues, streets, buildings, churches, carriages, photographs in sepia, stories of love and revenge; are part of our history. Conserving and preserving these treasures has been of vital importance  for the telling of the story of Latin America, especially Bolivia.

The city of Potosí-Bolivia was founded on the 1st of April 1545 under the name “Villa Imperial de Carlos V” in honour of King Carlos V of Spain. Carlos awarded the city with its first coat of arms (1) which loyally reflected the spirit of a phrase still used in the present day, “I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of all mountains and envy of kings”. This phrase not only reminds us of the grandeur and glory of “Sumaj Orcko”, mountain of silver, but of the power struggles and greed that cost the lives of many.

Beyond a story written in blood and silver, it cannot be said that anyone in history denied the greatness of this place. For example, writers such as Miguel Cervantes Saavedra who immortalised the phrase “to be worth a Potosí” in his monumental work Don Quijote de la Mancha. This phrase expresses that something is worth a fortune.  

“If I were to pay you Sancho”, responded Don Quijote, “as the importance and nature of this cure deserves, the treasures of Venice, the mines of Potosi, would not be enough to pay you. See what you have of mine, and put a price on each lash.”

Furthermore, in his work “The Doctor in Spite of Himself”, Molière writes “I would not change you, not for all the riches of Potosí”. However, without a doubt, the most renowned author to have told the story of Potosí in the most symbolic way was Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsua y Vela. A writer and historian born in Potosí (1676-1736), his name has been stamped in Latin American history and literature thanks to his spectacular work “History of the Imperial City of Potosí” which made him colonial literature´s most prominent historian (2). In the pages of his work you can find all of things already mentioned here: the letters, legends, stories, battles of an inhospitable land that was home to thousands of people who had been drawn by the idea of obtaining riches, treasure, and power.

In the context of this description which tells of both honour and anguish, the city of Potosí, now home to 240.966 people, tells proudly of its days of glory. The nostalgic atmosphere of the past is conserved, a city filled with colonial buildings, narrow streets, and churches with incredibly valuable architecture. This all paints a picture of the town that built a country.  


(1)     http://www.lhistoria.com/bolivia/potosi

(2)   http://cvc.cervantes.es/literatura/aih/pdf/02/aih_02_1_006.pdf


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Potosí-Bolivia / mountain of silver / streets / buildings / churches / Miguel Cervantes Saavedra