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  • The Devil and the Dolorosa:History and Legend in Quito's Capilla de Cantuña
  • Susan Verdi Webster (bio)

One of the most popular and enduring legends in the Andean city of Quito recounts the vivid tale of a young Indian named Francisco Cantuña, the son of a powerful Inca captain, who lived and died in the sixteenth century. Maimed and horribly disfigured when the Inca general Rumiñahui burned the city of Quito, Cantuña was present when the general hid the treasure of Atahualpa before the arrival of the conquering Spaniards. In the aftermath of occupation, the young Cantuña was adopted by a benevolent Spaniard who taught him to read, write, and live a good Christian life. In return, Cantuña rewarded the Spaniard, as well as several local churches and chapels, with large sums of gold, which he secretly melted down from Atahualpa's hidden treasure. News of Cantuña's beneficence prompted all manner of speculation and suspicion among the local populace, to the extent that he was called before a tribunal to account for his mysterious wealth. In order to preserve the secret of the Inca treasure, Cantuña testified that he had acquired his riches by signing a pact with the devil. On this point, the earliest published version of the legend affirms that his testimony was a deliberate lie intended to quiet the gullible authorities, because Cantuña "was in reality a good Christian" who was very devoted to a local image of the Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows). Upon his death, Cantuña bequeathed much of his fortune to the Dolorosa and to the Franciscans, who used it to fund constructions at their monastery.1 [End Page 1]

Despite its more piquant and theatrical features, some of the characters and elements of this legend derive from local history, in particular, the Andean protagonist, Francisco Cantuña. This study examines the influential first published account of the legend, written by the eighteenth-century Jesuit priest, Juan de Ve lasco, reading it in conjunction with documents from the archival record. The relationships between history and legend reveal some of the ways that historical figures, events, and urban landmarks became mythologized and shed light on the social, professional, and religious context of colonial Quito. The intent of this study is not to debunk legends, for those too have their place in history; rather, it seeks to disentangle the historical from the legendary in order to illuminate Cantuña's contributions to the history and material culture of colonial Quito.

Velasco and the Treasure of Atahualpa

Although versions of the Cantuña legend have circulated for centuries, the earliest accounts were penned by the Franciscan friar Juan de Santa Gertrudis (1775) and the Jesuit priest Juan de Velasco (1789). Particularly in the latter case, the story of Cantuña is presented as an historical account—not as legend. Both authors name people, local landmarks, and historical events that lend a sense of veracity to their texts. Although Santa Gertrudis wrote his account in 1775, it was not published until 1956.2 The first published version, that of Velasco, was written in 1789 during the author's exile in Italy, but did not see print until 1840-44.3 These two accounts, initially recorded some 14 years apart, likely drew on popular versions of the legend that circulated in Quito during the eighteenth century.

Although the legends of Velasco and Santa Gertrudis bear some similarities, particularly in their emphasis on Cantuña's association with a lost treasure, they diverge on several points. While Velasco locates Cantuña at the time of the conquest in the sixteenth century and states that his testamentary bequest enabled the Franciscans to build the chapel that bears his name, Santa Gertrudis places the protagonist in the early eighteenth century and credits Cantuña (aided by demons and hidden treasure) with having personally constructed the eponymous chapel.4 As a Franciscan friar, Santa Gertrudis is likely to have had greater access to historical [End Page 2] documentation regarding Cantuña's relationship with the order, yet his manuscript, written in reclusion at the end of his life in Mallorca, Spain, remained...


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