Plaza Independencia, Montevideo. At one time, where I am standing would have been in the middle of a large fortress built to protect this Spanish colonial city from attack by land. Today, I’m surrounded instead by beautiful buildings dating from the early 20th century, modern governmental buildings, and ever-present Uruguayans leisurely strolling their capital. In the middle of the square stands a statue with a mausoleum underneath. ARTIGAS. This single name, the last name of the hero of Uruguayan independence, is found everywhere here in Montevideo.

The Artigas mausoleum

But who exactly was Jose Gervasio Artigas? How did Uruguayan independence come about? And how can an exploration of Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja, the old city, shed some light on this fascinating history?

The Uruguayan National Museum occupies three different buildings. Along Plaza Constitution sits the Cabildo, a governmental building from the 1800s. Just across the square from the Metropolitan Cathedral of Montevideo, a lovely twin towered edifice, the Cabildo offers a few small glimpses into the early history of the city and country. This is the heart of the colonial city of Montevideo, a once walled stronghold of Spanish royalists who were among the last holdouts of Spanish rule in southern South America. (For more about the independence movements here, click here to read about Jose de San Martin and Argentine independence.)

The Cabildo

Casa Rivera sits a bit deeper in the old city, and is the largest and most impressive of the three sites of the National Museum. (If you only have time for one, this should be it.) The collection here ranges from items of cultural significance in Uruguay’s early history to portraits of a dizzying array of generals and politicians. It is here we learn more about Artigas, through some of his collections and through huge paintings of the most important moments of his life and career.

Of all the Artigas portraits, this one of him on a horse captures me most

In the early part of the 1810s, Uruguay – then known as the Banda Oriental – was closely aligned with the Argentine independence movement. Artigas fought in support of that independence. He believed in federalism a la Thomas Paine (whose books he had and are on display at the museum) and broke with the independent government in Buenos Aires over that issue. His forces ultimately captured Montevideo in 1815, though his triumph was short lived as the Portuguese invaded the following year from Brazil, conquering and annexing the Banda Oriental and driving Artigas into exile in Paraguay, where he would die in 1850.

One of the pieces of artwork from Artigas’ life. I believe this is the Battle of San Piedras.

When Brazil became independent of Portugal in 1822, Uruguay saw its chance. Led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, independence was declared on August 25, 1825. Lavalleja’s home is the third part of the National Museum, although it tells few stories about this general. After independence was declared, a war ensued, with Uruguay finally emerging as a country in 1828, although the 1825 date is what is celebrated.

Inside Casa Lavalleja

Given Artigas living to see Uruguayan statehood, I am not sure why he did not return to the country that would come to celebrate him extensively. But he didn’t, and his remains weren’t even moved here until well after his death, with the current mausoleum being completed in 1977. However, it is probably safe to say he would be proud to be associated with modern-day Uruguay, the most stable democracy in Latin America.

The Uruguayan flag

Beyond the National Museum and Cathedral, Montevideo’s old city is home to several places of interest for tourists. Chief among those is the Museo del Carnaval (click here to read about Carnaval in Montevideo), a beautiful home of some of the most splendid costumes I’ve ever seen. Next door is the Port Market, a lovely place to get some of Uruguay’s prized beef, grilled in front of you by experts. The Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Art Museum is worth an hour or so, even though it covers many native cultures, not just those from this area. And of course, you’ll want to wander the streets to check out the beautiful architecture.

Montevideo’s cathedral

For many, if not most, Americans, Uruguay can’t even be found on a map. And if it can, we know little of it beyond its place as a splotch between Brazil and Argentina. But it is a fascinating country with a complex history, one that a visit to the old city can help to explain. And we can learn of Artigas, the father of Uruguayan statehood, without whom none of this would be possible.

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