Colonial Cusco evolved into an exceptional centre for architecture and art. The era’s paintings in particular are curious for the way they adorn human and angelic figures in elaborate lacy garments and blend traditional and ancient with colonial and Spanish elements. They are frequently brooding and quite bloody, and by the mid-seventeenth-century had evolved into a recognizable school of painting.

The Cusqueña art movement dedicated itself to beautifying church and convent walls with fantastic and highly moralistic painting, mainly using oils. The Cusqueña school is best known for portraits or religious scenes with dark backgrounds, serious (even tortured-looking) subjects and a profusion of gold-leaf decoration. Influences came from European émigrés – mainly Spainish and Italian – notably Juan de Illescas, Bernardo Bitti and Mateo Perez de Alessio. At the close of the seventeenth century, the school came under the direction of Bishop Manuel Mollinedo. Bringing a number of original paintings (including some by El Greco) with him from his parish in Spain, the Bishop was responsible for commissioning Basilio Santa Cruz’s fine 1698 reproduction of the Virgen de la Almudena, which still hangs behind the choir in Cusco’s Catedral. He also commissioned the extraordinarily carved cedarwood pulpit in the church at San Blas.

The top Cusqueña artists were Bernardo Bitti (1548–1610), an Italian who is often considered the “father of Cusqueña art” and who introduced the Mannerist style to Peru, and Diego Quispe Tito Inca (1611–81), a mestizo painter who was influenced by the Spanish Flamenco school and whose paintings were vital tools of communication for priests attempting to convert Indians to Catholicism. Bitti’s work is on display in the Museo Historico Regional, while some of Quispe’s works can be seen in rooms off the second courtyard in the Religious Art Museum at the Archbishop’s Palace in Cusco. The equally renowned Mauricio García (painting until the mid-eighteenth century) helped spur the form into a fuller mestizo synthesis, mixing Spanish and Indian artistic forms. Many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cusqueña-mestizo works display bold compositions and colours.

By the eighteenth century the style had been disseminated as far afield as Quito in Ecuador, Santiago in Chile and even into Argentina, making it a truly South American art form and one of the most distinctive indigenous arts in the Americas.

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