El Gran Café Tortoni, Argentina’s oldest and most famous café, has been an integral part of the porteño landscape and lifestyle since it opened its grand brass-handled doors to the public back in 1858, 150 years ago to date.
Celebrations have been taking place since the start of 2008, with a notable performance of Puccini’s renowned opera ‘La Bohème’ currently showing with tickets selling like hot empanadas.
Within Café Tortoni’s heavy-set oak-panelled walls, at its green marble tables, have sat some of Latin America’s most celebrated intellectuals, artists and politicians alike. At progressive points throughout history Tortoni has been a favourite haunt of tango singing sensation Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s most successful literary export Jorge Luís Borges and feminist writer Alfonsina Storni.
Tortoni’s Tango soul
Home to Buenos Aires’ Academia Nacional del Tango, Tortoni’s old-world elegance and low-lit interior create the perfect atmosphere of intimacy well-suited to nightly tango shows, poetry recitals and opera performances going on until the small hours. The relaxed, bohemian vibe during daylight hours later gives way to a more romantic ambience when things heat up in the various salas of this maze of rooms displaying collections of aquired curiosities.
Tortoni has even had its very own tango dedicated, written by Hector Negro and sung by Eladia Blázquez – ‘Viejo Tortoni’, penned in 1979.
“The tango here isn’t completely authentic, unfortunately, as it’s aimed at tourists,” says Roberto Fanego, current manager of Tortoni, sadly. “In the old days, Gardel would often drop by. On 26th June 1927 he came in with his guitarists and gave a splendid performance of one of Pirandello’s plays. Pirandello himself attended. Gardel used to have a radio show on Radio El Mundo at nearby Maipú 555, it was the first and only radio station in Argentina at the time.”
Tortoni was founded by a French immigrant by the name of Touan towards the end of 1858, who took its name from an establishment on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris.
Towards the end of the century, the café was handed over to fellow Frenchman Celestino Curutchet. Fanego directs my attention to a framed newspaper article dating from 8th September 1925 announcing the death of Curutchet who, at 97 years old, was the oldest resident of Buenos Aires at the time.
During Curutchet’s management of Tortoni, the café was a popular meeting place for a group of painters, writers, journalists and musicians who formed ‘la Agrupación de Gente de Artes y Letras’, headed by Benito Quinquela Martín. Curutchet would allow them to hold their discussions in the underground wine cellar.
150 years on
Fanego has been working as general manager of Tortoni since he was a young man in his 20s in the 1950s, and is as much part of the café’s history as the nostalgic paraphernalia that surrounds us.
I notice with interest a large capital-lettered sign saying ‘PELUQUERÍA’ in a rusty blue and a row of mirrors set into alcoves in the wall. “This used to be a working hairdressing salon within the café,” explains Fanego. “It was common at the start of the 20th century for confiterías and hairdressers to join forces. One could have a coffee and a snack whilst waiting for one’s appointment. We closed it down in the 1980s.”
Tortoni’s works of art
The ubiquitous clutter of objets d’art, old photographs and letters packed into nooks and crannies all around the building fascinate me. I ask Fanego what his favourite work of art is and he shows me a softly blurry painting of the inside of the café called simply ‘Tortoni’ by Argentine artist Augusto Marteau.
The piece that particularly caught my eye was an painting by Carlos Canás, an art teacher who is 80 years old this November. It depicts a huge faceless pair of deep red lips with a freshly-lit cigarette resting seductively in the corner of the mouth. A cup of coffee sits further in the foreground and the white steam from the coffee mingles with the white smoke of the smouldering cigarette, contrasting sharply with the red, red lips. This sultry, sensual image conjures up the sensational romance of Tortoni’s past.
I refer to a life-size bust of Jorge Luís Borges by Juan Carlos Ferraro and take the opportunity to quiz Fanego on Argentine literature’s shining star. In the official Tortoni booklet, Fanego is pictured in black and white sitting at a table in by Borges side.
“My goodness, that photo must date back to the 1970s,” says Fanego with a sideways smile and a slight blush. “Yes, I was fortunate enough to have met Borges. I knew him when he was older though, in the decade leading up to his death, God bless his memory. He would frequent this café regularly, meeting with other writers.”
Andalusian poet and playwright Federico García Lorca spent seven months in Buenos Aires in 1933. This year, to mark 75 years since his visit to Tortoni, a performance of the first play of his famous trilogy ‘Bodas de Sangre’ took place. Fanego refers to a photo of himself with Lorca’s younger sister, Isabel, which is secured under the glass of the table we are sitting at.
More recently, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa has signed the heavy leather-bound guestbook, adding to its contemporary history.
Coffee and politics
Activity in Tortoni during the 1930s was at its peak, Fanego tells me. Many poets gathered here for intellectual discussion as well as Spanish exiles during the Spanish Civil War. “But that was before my time. I had just been born!”
Tortoni’s doors were open throughout the dictatorship of the 1970s and I ask if the tense political situation affected business at Tortoni in any way. “Not really, no. Uruguayan politicians would gather here without a problem. Tortoni has been a refuge for many political outcasts. It would always be business as usual.”
Both of the famous political Perón couple have experienced Tortoni’s hospitality too. “Evita came here when she was simply Eva Duarte, before she married Perón. It was at the time that she was working in radio. Perón himself visited as General Perón, Minister of Labour.”
Hilary Clinton’s letter addressed from ‘The White House’ is mounted in a glass cabinet in the peluquieria. “She was such a nice woman,” says Fanego. The letter reads ‘What a treat to visit a piece of history and enjoy both the ambience and the delicious meal. Thank you. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1997.’
Café Tortoni would appeal to anyone with an interest in the artistic and literary history of Buenos Aires and a penchant for a good espresso (or a good whisky, for that matter).
Where else can you enjoy being part of the city’s cultural history whilst the traffic on the Avenida de Mayo rushes by and you can faintly hear the habitual manifestaciones as protesters take politics to the streets and gather in front of the Casa Rosada in search of justice. As the words of the tango Viejo Tortoni suggest, ‘history lives in its silent walls.’