Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Patagonian Beasts in Bas-Relief

Some two decades ago, Argentina toyed with the idea of moving its capital from Buenos Aires to the city of Viedma, in its northern Patagonian province of Río Negro. In the end, Porteño politicians preferred the occasional Patagonia vacation to permanent residence there, but Buenos Aires still offers reminders of the far south – one of my own favorites in the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Pictured below, the natural sciences museum occupies a huge building in the little touristed barrio of Caballito, which is readily reachable by Subte, the capital’s underground rail system.
Its entrance flanked by sculptures of owls, the museum’s collections are outstanding – perhaps not quite so diverse as the landmark Museo de La Plata about an hour outside Buenos Aires - but I especially like the building itself (dating from 1925). It’s most noteworthy for the bas-reliefs that decorate the exterior walls; depicted by a variety of artists, most of the animals are native to Patagonia itself (though some range more widely).
The most distinctive, undoubtedly, is the Glyptodon (pictured above) sculpted by Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro (1898-1951). Patagonia-bound travelers are not going to see this extinct giant armadillo, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, but a fossil Charles Darwin found was the ancestor of a species that spread from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Its smaller descendants are a common sight throughout the region.
Traveling across the Patagonian steppe, travelers are likelier to see troops of grazing guanacos (pictured above), wild relatives of the domestic llama and alpaca that graze the highlands of Argentina and other Andean countries. Occasionally raised in captivity, guanacos sometimes even appear on restaurant menus, but they are common throughout the Argentine Pampas and even seen in Uruguay. Those depicted here are the work of (Luis Carlos Rovatti, 1895-1986).
Many people associate flamingos with the tropics, but they are abundant in shallow lakes and marshes in the Andean highlands and in the high latitudes in parts of Patagonia. This bas-relief is the work of Alfredo Bigatti, (1888-1964). Condors (as depicted by Donato Antonio Proletto, 1896-1962) are also found in the Andes and on the Patagonia steppe, where they often scavenge the remains of sheep. Pumas (the work of Emilio Sarniguet, 1887-1943, but not shown here) prey on guanacos and sheep, and have even attacked humans (rarely) in Patagonia. They are not a common sight, though – in repeated trips over 30 years, I have only seen one.

Argentina has a lengthy Atlantic coastline, but the only work that acknowledges it here is the representation of southern sea lions – the bulls notable for their impressive manes – by Oliva Navarro (see link above). They are frequently seen in coastal locations, even in Buenos Aires province and Uruguay, but keep your distance – they are large and powerful, surprisingly quick on land, and can be aggressive.

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