This prized Amorsolo portrait of Rizal’s cousin is a peek at how super rich Filipinos lived
by Augusto Marcelino Reyes Gonzalez III | Nov 21 2021
Her name is Leonila Mercado Yatco–Yaptinchay, or Doña Ilay to some, the Chinese mestiza matriarch of the affluent Yatco and Yaptinchay families of Biñan town in Laguna. She is the lady visitors of Leon Gallery’s Eurovilla address in Makati have been inquiring about the past few days, and understandably so. A portrait of her, done by the great National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, hangs in the space that displays the highlights of the upcoming year end auction. And it’s an impressive work—in size, in intricacy, in its depiction of a lady of affluence, so different from the rural lasses we are used to seeing from the master’s oeuvre.
The finery she is wearing alone will have one spending an inordinate amount of time inspecting the portrait. She is dressed in an elegant “traje de mestiza” of the 1880s with a traditional camisa and panuelo of very expensive, fully–embroidered “pina” textile. She wears these over a skirt of shimmering turquoise French Lyons silk, overlaid with a “sobrefalda,” or tapis, of black French Chantilly lace. She is also wearing a large gold “tamborin” necklace of the 1890s type, matching earrings of large filigree gold beads, a bracelet of Isabel II 4 P gold coins, and hanging from her waist is a “porta abanico” (fan holder) of alternating Isabel II 4 P gold coins and gold beads.
The Biñan rich have a lot of exquisite gold medallions containing miniature paintings of religious figures and scenes by the talented Justiniano Asuncion y Molo aka “Capitan Ting.” The lavish ensemble of gold jewelry in the Amorsolo portrait is just among the many gifts of Ysidro Yatco and Bonifacia Mercado to each of their three daughters of which Leonila is the second. Much of the Spanish colonial gold jewelry of Binan’s “principalia” families are sourced from the famous Paterno Molo de San Agustin atelier in Santa Cruz, Manila.
Apart from the finery previously mentioned, Leonila is also wearing embroidered silk gloves from Paris in the painting, and holds an exquisite French ivory piercework fan with handpainted silk and lace. The predilection for all things Parisian and elegant was inherited from her father Ysidro, the first in the family to travel to Paris in the 1880s. He brought home French creature comforts, not least of which were Cristal Baccarat chandeliers and table lamps, decorations, and furniture for the family’s Biñan residence.
The imposing oil portrait, however, was commissioned by Leonila’s youngest and favorite daughter Flora Yatco Yaptinchay–Evangelista, or Flory. She asked Amorsolo in 1955, following the commission of her own portrait in a Ramon Valera wedding dress the year prior. Leonila’s granddaughters recalled Amorsolo arriving and staying for most of the day, from lunch to merienda, as the artist discussed lengthily the new portrait commissioned by their Tita Flory, who was as loquacious and demanding as could be. The young girls aged 7 to 10 were tasked by their Tita Flory to serve Amorsolo lunch and merienda.
The painter enjoyed his weekend visits to the Yaptinchay–Yatco ancestral house in Biñan as it was a perfectly preserved time capsule from the 1800s, the way Flora’s good friends top collector Luis Araneta and heiress Chito Madrigal regarded it. The artist charged Flora 5,000 pesos for the full–length portrait of her mother, a very considerable amount at the time. It was based on a small, hand–colored studio photograph of Doña Ilay from the 1880s (the antique photograph remains in the possession of a very knowledgeable Manila collector).
The patriarch Ysidro is representative of Binan’s oldest Chinese mestizo fortune derived from ricelands, sugarlands, and dry goods trading. His wife Bonifacia Mercado, meanwhile, was reputedly an elder sibling of Francisco Mercado (son of Juan Mercado and Cirila Alejandro; the name Bonifacia does not appear in that listing so perhaps she had another name, or was a half–sister, a first cousin, or a second cousin), the father of our National Hero, Jose Rizal.
Both Ysidro and Bonifacia were closely related by blood to Francisco Mercado, hence the relations to the Rizals were twice over. The pretty Leonila was the favorite daughter. She always acknowledged that Pepe, Paciano, and the sisters were her cousins as well as uncles and aunts, albeit not as rich as she was. In her parents’ memories, cousin Pepe was an unusually intelligent, rather smart–alecky, talkative, and “malikot” child, at least when he wasn’t sick with something.
Relations between the Yatco sisters and their younger Mercado–Rizal cousins were close and cordial. As children, the cousins played in the Yatco–Mercado “azotea,” “cocina,” and “antecocina,” right beside the “comedor” dining room and “caida” entrance hall. They liked to sit on a long bench and gather around the “dulang,” a low dining table.
Leonila related to her children that after cousin Pepe’s execution in December 1896, his younger sisters had come to the house requesting financial assistance; the Rizal family’s assets having been confiscated by the Spaniards. The sisters had to pass surreptitiously through the “voladas” (galleries) of the house like servants to avoid the attention of the household staff and possibly of the roaming guardia civil.
Leonila’s parents did extend financial assistance to their beleaguered Rizal relations, but they did so at great risk to their lives, livelihood, and reputation.
Cordial relations between the families continued up to the prewar, with the younger Rizal sisters visiting their affluent Yatco–Mercado cousins in Biñan.
During World War II, Leonila’s son Isidro (“Sidring”) offered the hospitality and relative safety of the house to his good friend Jesus Amado “Amading” S. Araneta and his family, including an eccentric aunt who did not like to be kissed nor touched. Amading’s youngest daughter Maria (“Baby”) brought her beautiful American and European dolls, to the delight of the young Yaptinchay granddaughters.
The Ysidro Yatco–Bonifacia Mercado residence (which later became the Pablo Yaptinchay–Leonila Yatco residence) was composed of the original 1820s bahay–na–bato connected by a commodious stone azotea to a newer, larger, 1840s bahay–na–bato which served as the residence’s principal façade. Another story went that the couple had built the 1840s house in front and then purchased the old 1820s house at the back to connect the two properties, a common practice at the time. In any case, the residence was large, composed of two houses connected by a stone “azotea.”
Leonila and her two sisters lived in then unheard–of luxury as the daughters of Binan’s preeminent citizens at that time (1870s and onwards). Imported French, English, American, and Chinese furniture graced the reception rooms. Elegant furniture from the redoubtable Chinese cabinetmaker Ah Tay in Binondo, Manila appointed the various rooms (there were four marbletop “lavadoras” (washstands) and four “peinadoras” (dressers) in the house when the usual grand residence usually had only one of each. European crystal chandeliers, hanging lamps, and table lamps lit the rooms.
The “caida” entrance hall was furnished with comfortable local and imported armchairs, round marbletop tables and side tables; memorable was a French Empire–style completely gilded marbletop console supported by an eagle. There were tall mirrors over the console tables. An American Victorian gasolier hung from the painted ceiling secured with buttonlike discs. There was also a tall German grandfather’s clock. Casually placed everywhere, on tables and on the walls, were the family’s travel souvenirs from times past.
In the commodious sala, large, lifesized oil portraits of Ysidro and Bonifacia by Antonio Malantic y Arzeo of Tondo hung on the far walls; a seated oil portrait of Pablo Yaptinchay y Gana by Justiniano Asuncion y Molo of Santa Cruz, Manila hung on one narrow wall. The walls were covered in canvas painted with arcadian scenes of trees and forests, hills and mountains by theater artists. A large grooved marbletop table with C–scroll legs occupied the center of the “sala,” with marbletop console tables in the same style along the walls set under large mirrors.
Seating in the sala was originally of traditional “Luis Quince” and “Carlos Trece” style armchairs and sofas as well as the erstwhile fashionable Thonet “Vienna” bentwood chairs of the 1800s. These were, however, replaced during the prewar with sturdier chairs and sofas in the geometric Art Deco style by Gonzalo Puyat. A big Eastern rug covered the center of the floor. A pair of Cristal Baccarat chandeliers hung from the painted ceiling, matching the sconces on the walls; they were purchased by Ysidro in Paris in the 1880s. A pair of antique Chinese Ch’ing dynasty ceramic Foo dogs sat on the console tables; in a nod to Chinese ancestral traditions, the pair was brought to the Yaptinchay–Yatco family mausoleum as decor every first of November.
The bedrooms had elegant 1840s tester beds in “kamagong” wood as well as ornate 1870s tester beds in “golden narra” wood, not to mention the prestigious “calabasa” beds of Ah Tay. There were many “aparadores” of various styles to store personal possessions; one aparador contained Leonila’s old issues of “La Moda Elegante,” an 1800s fashion magazine. The master bedroom had a grand matrimonial bed elaborately carved with swallows, cranes, incense burners, phoenixes, and dragons with solomonic testers. This was fronted by a comoda–altar with a magnificent tableaux of the Crucifixion in ivory encased in a kamagong urna, and flanked by ivory images of “San Jose Patriarca,” “San Roque de Montpelier,” and “Santa Barbara, virgen y martir.” Most of the ivory santos in the Yaptinchay–Yatco house were by the Biñan crowd favorite, Leoncio Asuncion y Molo of Santa Cruz, Manila, brother of the painter Justiniano Asuncion y Molo. Several of the “aparadores” were by Ah Tay of Binondo.
The Yaptinchay–Yatco “antecocina” and the “cocina” had an “aljibe,” a stone water cistern. A plain “aljibe” was a common feature of a bahay–na–bato. It was usually part of an azotea, and at that time of no running water, it stored rainwater necessary for household chores. However, to have an elaborate “aljibe” with a stone turret concealing the well, tiled roof, and an earthenware pineapple finial as part of the water filtration system was entirely another matter of finances altogether. Few Filipino bahay–na–bato had elaborate “aljibes,” among them the Yaptinchay–Yatco house in Binan, Laguna, and the Constantino house in Bigaa, Bulacan.
To contextualize these domestic, seemingly trivial matters, one should understand that well–off Filipino houses were sparsely furnished up to the end of the Spanish period in 1898. Fine furniture, both imported and local, were expensive, and imported lighting and decorations much more so. To have a houseful of European luxuries was a great economic and social feat up to the end of the Spanish regime. The Yaptinchay–Yatco residence in Biñan, with its neoclassical architecture and elegant furnishings, represented an ideal example of the Filipino “bahay–na–bato” by the high standards of the late Filipiniana authority Martin Imperial Tinio Jr.
Leonila married Pablo Gana Yaptinchay in the 1890s and they had three sons and four daughters: Jose “Pepe,” Francisco , Isidro Sidring, Nicasio Chiong–Veloso Osmena (“Nick”) Trinidad “Ate,” Tita “Tating,” Macaria “Nena,” and Flory who married the eminent Teodoro Evangelista Sr. the Executive Secretary of President Elpidio Quirino; Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of Education; and Far Eastern University President. The high–profile Sidring, meanwhile, parlayed his inheritance to a large fortune in the heavy machinery business, had his offices in Hong Kong, and lived at The Peak. The house was designated as “comunidad” in Leonila’s last will and testament but Flora paid off her six siblings and it became solely her property.
[The Amorsolo portrait in this story is open for viewing from November 27 to December 3, Saturday to Friday, from 9 AM to 7 PM, at León Gallery, G/F Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legaspi Village, Makati City. The Kingly Treasures Auction 2021 is co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, and the lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel.
For further inquiries, email email@example.com or contact +632 8856-27-81. To browse the catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com. For updates, follow León Gallery on their social media pages: Facebook – www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.]
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