Universidad de la Habana
The Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana, Calle L y San Lázaro, tel. 07/878-3231, www.uh.cu, Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.) was founded by Dominican friars in 1728 and was originally situated on Calle Obispo in Habana Vieja.
During the 20th century, the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (University Students’ Federation) was an extremely influential group amid the jungle of Cuban politics, and the university was an autonomous “sacred hill” that neither the police nor the army could enter—although gangsters and renegade politicians roamed the campus. (The student federation is in a beautiful Beaux-Arts mansion at the corner of Calles 27 and K.)
Visitors are allowed to stroll the grounds, although, ostensibly, you need authorization to take photos (tel. 07/832-9844). The campus is off-limits on weekends, and the campus and museums are closed July–August.
From Calle L, the university is entered via an immense, 50-meter-wide stone staircase: the 88-step Escalinata (staircase). A patinated bronze statue of the Alma Mater cast by Czech sculptor Mario Korbel in 1919 sits atop the staircase. The twice-life-size statue of a woman is seated in a bronze chair with six classical bas-reliefs representing various disciplines taught at the university. She is dressed in a long-sleeve tunic and extends her bare arms, beckoning all those who desire knowledge.
The staircase is topped by a columned portico beyond which lies the peaceful Plaza Ignacio Agramonte surrounded by classical buildings. (The campus was loosely modeled after New York’s Columbia University.) A Saracen armored car in the quadrant was captured in 1958 by students in the fight against Batista. The Aula Magna (Great Hall; special events only) features a marble urn containing the ashes of Félix Varela, plus a magnificent mural by Armando Menocal.
The Monumento a Julio Antonio Mella, across Calle L at the base of the Escalinata, contains the ashes of Mella, founder of the University Students’ Federation and, later, of the Cuban Communist Party.
Museo de Ciencias Naturales Felipe Poey
The Escuela de Ciencias (School of Sciences), on the south side of the quadrant, contains the Museo de Ciencias Naturales Felipe Poey (Felipe Poey Museum of Natural Sciences, tel. 07/877-4221, Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–noon and 1–3 p.m., free, no photos allowed), displaying endemic species from alligators to sharks, stuffed or pickled for posterity.
The museum dates from 1842 and is named for its French-Cuban founder. Poey (1799–1891) was versed in every field of the sciences and founded the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Anthropological Society of Cuba, and a half dozen other societies.
The Museo Anthropológico Montane (Montane Anthropology Museum, tel. 07/879-3488, Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–noon and 1–3 p.m.), on the second floor of the Escuela de Ciencias (Sciences School), displays pre-Columbian artifacts.
Who would imagine that so much of Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal memorabilia would end up in Cuba? But it has, housed in the Museo Napoleónico (Napoleonic Museum, San Miguel #1159, e/ Ronda y Masón, tel. 07/879-1460, musnap [at] cubarte [dot] cult [dot] cu, Tues.–Sat. 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sun. a.m.–noon, entrance CUC3, guide CUC2) in a Florentine Renaissance mansion on the south side of the university.
The collection (7,000 pieces) was the private work of Orestes Ferrara, one-time Cuban ambassador to France. Ferrara brought back from Europe such precious items as the French emperor’s death mask, his toothbrush, and the pistols Napoleon used at the Battle of Borodino.
Other items were seized from Julio Lobo, the former National Bank president, when he left Cuba for exile. The museum—housed in Ferrara’s former three-story home (Ferrara was also forced out by the Revolution)—is replete with portraits of the military genius. The museum was closed for restoration at last visit.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition