San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Album of Figueroa paints picture of Costa Rica’s past

For ₡9,000, or $18, you can now own one of Costa Rica’s national treasures. “The Album of Figueroa” – once a national scandal but now registered with UNESCO and a source of pride – is the subject of a 229-page book published by the University of Costa Rica press under the title “El Álbum de Figueroa: Un viaje por las páginas del tiempo” (“The Album of Figueroa: A Voyage Through the Pages of Time”). Dazzling photos make the book seem like the original.

The album, which is more like a scrapbook, contains text, drawings, maps, history and genealogies by Costa Rican draftsman, historian and cartographer José María Figueroa, beginning around 1850, though the exact dates are uncertain. All the work was done on a series of 191 laminated paper sheets measuring 70 x 90 centimeters, using colored pencils, pens, Chinese ink and watercolor paints. Some pages are covered with drawings. Although primitive in style, and not always accurate, the drawings depict pre-Columbian indigenous life and major events of the colonial and postcolonial era up to 1900, the year of the author’s death – an ample record of life in his time and before. 

The drawings are now somewhat faded but show details of social and economic life. Intricate family trees trace descendants from the conquistadores and settlers to the 1850s, and Figueroa included “family secrets” that caused not a little pain among the elite and religious communities of Cartago. Figueroa was considered subversive and obscene in his young years and was arrested several times, once for his support of deposed strongman President Francisco Morazán, and later for libel and pornography. At various times he was forced to leave the country.

José María Figueroa Oreamuno was born in Alajuela in 1820, the year before independence. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Cartago, east of San José and capital of Costa Rica until 1823, where his father was a comerciante, or in trade. According to Carlos Pacheco at the National Archives, young Figueroa probably got the special paper and art supplies through his father. 

Figueroa was considered a rogue who preferred to travel around the country studying the flora and fauna, landscape, economics and the ways people worked and lived, rather than settling down to a career and family. His interest in history is evident in his drawings of events before his birth, such as the arrival of Columbus, indigenous villages, the mule trains to Panama and volcanic eruptions from the 17th century. 

His family trees, which traced the descendants of the conquistadors and earliest settlers, represented the country’s first efforts at genealogy. His convoluted branches contain errors, but his research at a time before national registries is impressive, although some labels, such as “father unknown,” caused embarrassment at the time.

The book does not include the whole album, but enough to impress readers. The text is easy-reading Spanish, in blocks describing the various works, and is divided into sections on geography, genealogy, history and environment, daily life, colonial life and indigenous life, each section analyzed and written by professionals in the field.

After the death of the author in 1900, the government under President Rafael Yglesias Castro bought the album for the sum of ₡9,500. It was stored in the National Archives and later sent to the National Library, where lack of a controlled environment led to its deterioration. It was later returned to the archives, and in 1995 restoration began, with some of the work being done in Spain. 

Today, the album is preserved under controlled temperatures and dryness and can be studied only in the digital version. But with this book, available at the University of Costa Rica bookstore (2511-5858) in San Pedro, east of San José, or at State University at a Distance bookstores around the country, we can all have a share.

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