A Venetian mapmaker and circling barracudas

Published June 21, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

From where I sit on a round Vienna bentwood table, I see a papag with a couple of orinolas underneath, a wall of paintings and two shelves of santos, a Maranao chess set, a pair of Chinese cloisonne vases, a tortoise shell salakót, three Quing Dynasty vases, a biombo, a doctor’s cabinet filled with books, and quite a few more.

A shrink will dig into my childhood to account for the mess and no doubt confirm my suspicion that my parents did it, made innocent me an experimental child psychology subject.

At age one, Tatay’s gift was a 12-volume illustrated encyclopedia. My bedtime stories were Philippine mythology and folk tales. A boxful of letter envelopes still with stamps still stuck on kept me busy and out of trouble—it takes forever to unstick the stamps and arrange them in notebooks. It also taught me geography, history and politics, botany and zoology, currencies. Tia Juli got me into coins. We pasted the large one-centavo copper coins on the cardboard backing of pad paper. She also aided and abetted my stamp collecting, making sure I had first day covers.

Then there was my Lola. We were a good match. She was a great storyteller and I was an inquisitive brat. We spent hours and hours talking about her Bulacan childhood, how they fled to the hills of Loma de Gato as American soldiers advanced toward Malolos, and how they found only ashes when they returned to their Marilao riverside home.

All these got me interested in and into collecting an open-ended variety of objects—books and printed matter, paintings, santos, furniture, ceramics, costumes and accessories, photographs, vestments, furniture, etc.

I used to decompress from workweek stresses by spending Saturday afternoons browsing shops. I had a wife and young children to think about and with a U.P. assistant professor’s salary I regretfully missed out on a lot of things. Just the same, my house is full of odds and ends—name it and I probably have one or two.

Each object has a story.


Excavated ceramics was the in thing during the 1960s and 1970s when diggings in Santa Ana and Laguna and later in Mindoro, Agusan, and other places yielded coveted objects.

THE STORIES OF ODDS AND ENDS – A stoneware Annamese dish (ca. 14th century) with Ang Kiukok’s barracuda

I began collecting them too even as I was vaguely bothered by the thought that dearly departeds had been dug up to get at them. (Our ancestors were sent off to their maker fully adorned with gold jewelry and equipped with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai ceramics, pottery, and other valuables.)

The ceramics were out of reach (a tiny blue and white Ming Dynasty jarlet cost ₱600, which was about one third of my monthly salary) and on seeing the Leandro Locsin and Roberto Villanueva collections, I realized I could never come close. I gave up and all I have are common and badly restored pieces like a stoneware dish from Vietnam (formerly known as Annam) with a fat fish happily minding its own business.

One day I decided the ceramic pond needed jazzing up, took it to Ang Kiukok and asked him to do something. He added the two 20th century barracuda circling the oblivious 700+ year old gobby.


It was already twilight and I was rushing to catch my train back to Rome after a long day of trudging through the Uffizi, Pitti, and other must-sees of Florence. I almost bumped into an old man with a pushcart filled with engravings. Using broken Spanish and sign language, I asked if he had anything on the Philippines and he had this one priced at the lire equivalent of $10. It was a 1785 map of the Philippines, “Isole Filippine,” printed by Antonio Zatta e Figli in Venice. That was in July 1966, shortly before the great November flood that swamped the city and probably swept away the poor man’s stock.

A 1785 Map of the Philippines printed in Venice.

Years later in Paris while walking along a small Left Bank street, I saw a map in a shopwindow, stopped, and went in.  It was a map of the Philippines engraved by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, mapmaker to King Louis XIV. It was expensive, $300, but I thought I’d give it to President Marcos, who also collected maps. It was left behind in 1986 when the Marcoses departed in a bit of a hurry and now it is in Malacanang’s Presidential Library and Museum, nicely acknowledged as a gift from me.

Note:  The Roberto Villanueva ceramics collection and the Leandro and Cecilia Locsin gold collection are on exhibit at the Ayala Museum. Bahay Tsinoy in Intramuros also has a good representative collection of Chinese ceramics. The Preidential Library and Museum’s permanent exhibit includes President Marcos’ Murillo-Velarde Map.

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