Hearst Castle: Varguenos (Bargueños)

MPF Conservation has assessed and conserved furnishings of upholstered and non-upholstered objects for Hearst Castle; this page discusses the on-site assessments we performed on three varguenos with accompanying tables or chests.

Especially in government-owned properties, assessments are important in assisting curatorial staff as they choose projects to be treated and set yearly and long-term budgets.

A note about not wearing gloves when handling antiquities: Protocol is to wear gloves, however, sometimes it is better to wash our hands often and not touch our face or other objects to keep hands clean rather than wearing gloves. Gloves can get caught on threads, escutcheons, splinters, bits of paint, and cause losses in objects.

Vargueno, or bargueño (Spanish) are wooden chests with drop fronts, the latter which becomes a writing surface. The drop front is usually secured by a heavy padlock which guards the interior, top right.

The sides had sturdy handles which allowed for the vargueno to be carried securely, shown left.

Their influence is both Spanish and Oriental, and they first appeared in the 14th to 15th centuries, though by the 16th century it was a common article for the wealthy in the Spanish Colonial Empire.

The interior has drawers and small recesses, some with doors, which could hold anything from writing instruments to valuables.

The interior is usually the most beautiful part of the cabinet, as it is often elaborately stained or painted, and often inlaid with ivory, jewels, gold and silver, example shown right.

Varguenos often sat on a second chest with two doors, but later sat on special tables called puente (bridge) tables, with intricate arcading or arched designs seen in the French and Italian Renaissance.

Included below are the following varguenos and their stands from the Hearst Castle:

  • Italian Catholic Vargueno and Puente Table circa 17th Century
  • Marion Davies Vargueno and Puente Table circa 15th Century
  • Spanish Vargueno and Chest Table circa 15th Century

Mitchell’s musings about writing desks: “The creation of portable writing desks and their proliferation within a burgeoning economic class of educated and mobile elite, has much to say relative to a major shift in political, social and economic orders in Western Europe from the early fifteenth century Renaissance through the Enlightenment. The ability to pack one’s accoutrements for communication on a journey, taking it with them like today’s laptop, bore witness to a major shift in power structures which did not rely upon a priest caste nor a monarchical structures in order to effect society’s movements and ideas.”

Above left, the face of the “Catholic Vargueno”
when the door/desktop was dropped open.
Above right, and the Madonna with the baby Jesus at her feet. She almost appears to be ascending. Over her head is second small carving of an unknown person, possibly Joseph.

Below, carved saints on the various doors;
a door opened, shown right, to reveal a cubbyhole.

Italian Catholic Vargueno and Puente Table circa 17th Century

MPFC dubbed this the “Catholic Vargueno” due to the carving shown above: the Madonna and four accompanying Catholic saints and/or apostles, carved in beautiful lime wood. At the time of our onsite assessment two decades ago, no historical background was in place relative to the provenance or the piece nor could anecdotal information be found relative to their names. Understand that with the many many items in the collection and staff attending to important museum activities, this is not uncommon.

MPFC has researched the Catholic Vargueno extensively and found no similar designs, so believes it is an unusual and rare piece for its genre, and likely was made for a specific purpose and/or person.

It sat upon a “Puente Table”, shown above right with the loafers pulled out. Mitchell unlocked the drop front to inspect the interior (many images above and below).

The outer case and drop-leaf desk structure of the vargueno are made of walnut solids; the outer inlay is European limewood, shown left and below, image five. The crown moldings and inlayed bandings are modern for their time, reflecting a forward thinking design, and moving away from the excesses of Baroque to reflect rectilinear forms which were indicative of late roman Classical design.

The top is a solid plank of walnut, and has issues of cracking on the left facing side, shown right, which, while serious, were not putting the vargueno in danger at the time.

Above, the exterior of the vargueno showing the sides and a detail of the drop front.
More details of the small drawers and doors of the vargueno, below.

The interior of the cabinet steps back into classical Italian Renaissance design, shown top, above and right. Period arches, classical columns, and carved Greek stylized statues are made from European limewood and linden.

Other carved embellishments appear on the drawer fronts: nuts and fruits and vines intertwine around finely forged teardrop pulls, shown above; two of the drawers lock. The interior drawers and structure are made from pine and walnut secondary woods.

The Puente Table, shown below left, companions the Catholic Vargueno. Both are in need of conservation, exhibiting finish issues, cracks, scrapes and scratches in addition to the large issues discussed.

I wish we had a better image of the large Puente Table, shown right, but the cramped space of the niche made photography difficult.

Two sides have decorative barley twists turnings with four arches spanning the center of the table. Inspecting the twists on the right-facing side, we see evidence of beetle infestations which predates its arrival at the Castle, and these are causing serious structural issues. Fortunately the right-facing side with the most damage is against the wall, giving it added stability. MPFC proposed structural fixes which will not disturb the historic joinery.

As an intriguing point of potential provenance, there is a signature on the floor of the inside of one of the drawer cavities, shown below. To the best of our ability, the signature appears to say “–enendig CFM cangodo Ltd”. Mitchell and Kate have used the internet to research the words and as of this writing, found no joy. We did not lift the Catholic Vargueno for inspection, and when it is inspected in a conservation lab possibly further evidence can be found.

Marion Davies Vargueno and Puente Table circa 15th Century

The vargueno above sits in Marion Davies bedroom, hence the name we chose for it. It is made largely of walnut solids with a pine interior. In the center is the large door with many small drawers behind it.

Ivory columns are unusual, and the gilding and polychrome painting are stunning, shown in a detail of an inner drawer shown right.

It has no drop front and we saw no evidence that it was removed, so it may be that it never had the drop front which serves in most as a writing surface. Kate’s musings: “Only one clue makes it possible to consider that it once had a writing surface/drop front, and that is the corner escutcheons shown at the top corners are missing on the bottom corners. But then, it also has no lock on the top to latch a drop front closed.”

Details above of an internal collapse which you can see reflected in the top. It is likely the collapse took place long before Hearst acquired the piece; we believe it has lived in its current position on the Puente Table since it was acquired. At some point in its life it was probably in an unstable environment, possibly not even on a level surface, and seasonal relative humidity coupled with a careless moving event slightly torqued the case, allowing the internal structure of the carcass to give way in select areas. MPFC recommends stabilizing the interior drop shown above left, in order to keep it from continuing to deteriorate.

The sides have the traditional decorative iron handles which were used to carry the vargueno. Originally velvet was placed under the iron handles and decorative parts. You can see bits of the fabric remaining, shown below.

The large door shown center, above, which has a lock, opened to reveal many small drawers shown below and throughout.

The repeating painted motif are leaves, what may be a basket filled with fruit or a bouquet with leaves, shown top and in images below. Behind the door the ten tiny drawers which would make excellent places for jewelry and tiny treasures. Below right, several tiny drawers were pulled out to to show the construction, and the angled image allows you to see the knobs.

The hinges are beautiful hand-made pieces of history, shown right and below. The patina on the hinges is lovely.

Possibly the most beautiful of the varguenos we assessed, the Marion Davies Vargueno is adorned elaborate painted details, carved ivory, gems, silver details and gilding. Much of the painting appears to be on ivory, seen best in the last image above where a few triangles are missing.

Detail of the drawers which flank the central door shown right. This also may be another spiritually significant vargueno. Six-sided stars on each side of the locks hold the knobs. The carved motif on the sides is reminiscent of the phases of the moon, flanked by ivory columns topped with carved metals. Both of these symbols are significant in the Jewish tradition (and others) and Marion Davies was Jewish by birth, and this may be the reason for her attachment to the beautiful vargueno.

The vargueno is in need professional cleaning; care must be taken not to remove the painted motifs.

The Puente Table is shown above and below. Overall, it also is in compromised condition, largely due to pest infestations, which can be seen in the tall image below. There also appear several repairs from long before Hearst owned the piece.

The loafers which pull out are carved like jesters, shown in the first image below. In the last image is a close-up of the three arches of the Puente Table.

The vargueno open, above. Below, the vargueno
sitting on the chest before the drop front is opened.

Spanish Vargueno and Chest Table circa 15th Century

This is the earlier traditional way of using a vargueno, sitting on a chest with doors. This one sat in Randolph Hearst’s bedroom.

The walnut vargueno has a drop front which becomes the writing desk surface, shown right and below. The color of the vargueno changes in the lighting, from the nutty color shown right to the deeper color below.

As with other varguenos, the escutheons sit on velvet, shown below. The door face locks, and once unlocked, the drop shown in image one below must be lifted to allow the desk to open, using the drop pulls on each side, shown image two and four below.

I love the small shell escutcheons in image three which give you a suggest the theme of the interior. The loafers on the chest (slightly pulled out, right) are also shells, which shows that these pieces were made for each other!

Above, two images of the right-facing and left-facing top of the vargueno. The patina is beautiful.

The desk surface is quite degraded, image one below, and a large crack can be seen which runs across the desk mid-center. It appears a previous repair was made to move the left-facing desk hinge to the left. The right-facing hinge is in its original position, shown in image two below.

A shift has caused the lowest right-facing drawer front to crack, image three below.

Underneath the drop front are six drawers and one embellished door, the latter shown left. Unfortunately we could not open the door to see what we believe lay behind the door, which is likely many little drawers and cubbies.

The drawers and door are adorned with ivory (columns, triangles and squares), an unknown (at this time) black carved decor, and gilded and silvered decorative touches. It is missing the scroll pediment on the door, left) and many bits of ivory on the door and the drawers, shown below.

The large door mimics a building, with red velvet around the central lock, left, and we assume the velvet under the escutcheons is also red.

The handles are all silver shells, a popular motif of Santiago or St. James and the Camino, shown below.

Details of the interior drawers.

Turning to the chest the vargueno sits upon:

The traditional chest has two drawers, above right and right. The chest drawers have locks inside a heavy iron plate, shown right, and two small floral pulls on each drawer. The chest also has inlaid ivory and gilding.

The loafers are carved shells, shown above, and as with the puente tables, pull forward as supports for the drop front desk.

On the back the label indicated it was bought in the Ruiz sale in 1927, below.

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