Turtle Bunbury

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Casa Leof, Mexico - A Pre-Columban Sculpture Fantasia

Photographs by James Fennell.

Nadine Vinot-Postry believes in ghosts. She maintains that she and her household staff shared a mutual vision of her late husband, the American artist Danny Brenman, while preparing to restore the old convent at the back of her increasingly remarkable Mexican home, Casa Leof. He was standing by the garden wall, quite at ease, watching them. And then he was gone. Walking around Casa Leof, the doubting tommy inside of me suddenly yielded to a feeling of why not? Why shouldn't there be ghosts in this world? The building is, after all, located right beside the ruins of an Aztec temple where, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, over 80,000 human beings were sacrificed in two weeks. You can't get away with that sort of carry on without leaving a small dash of spirituality swirling in the neighbourhood.

Casa Leof is a world unto itself. For several days I had strolled through the centre of downtown Cuernavaca, Mexico's "City of Eternal Spring", wondering what lay beyond the magnificent black oak-wood door tucked so discreetly into a massive 30 foot high crimson wall. Cuernavaca is like that. Massive walls every which way you look but without a helicopter or an invitation to tea you aren't ever going to know what lies beyond.

The black door swings back to reveal a vast, palatial entrance hall, awash with ferns, orchids, period furniture and eye-catching pre-Columban sculptures, supported by a series of handsome stone columns. A sloping roof of cedar beams and terracotta tiles sleeps elegantly on top. At the far end of the hall, a broad stepped walkway curves back on itself and ascends to another level, bizarrely reminiscent of a motorway walkover. Casa Leof was originally a trading station for merchants heading east along the Camino Royale from the port of Acapulco during the 16th and 17th centuries. And this curvaceous walkway is a direct descendant of the ancient donkey ramp that once enabled these merchants to transport their goods to the upper warehouses for safe-keeping.

Taking the donkey path brings one to the main bulk of Casa Leof, an enjoyable ramble of different sized rooms connected by stepped slips and bumpy passageways, polished flagstone floors and sturdy 30 inch thick stone walls that seem to rise forever and then abruptly cascade down to ground-level. Directly above the entrance hall, the living room could quite feasibly double up as a tennis court, with the added bonus of being able to rest between sets on a beautiful sofa that once graced the bedroom of the unfortunate Emperor Maximillian and his beautiful wife, Carlotta.

The sum of the living room is as if the merchants had deposited their more valuable wares here and forgotten to pick them up. Stunning rugs from Rajasthan, a huge 16th century fireplace, sensual brass oil lamps, cowskin chairs, painted wedding chests, oil paintings galore and, once again, those silent omniscient carvings, busts, trophies, figurines and statues which arrest your eyes from the moment you arrive in the house.

The fact Casa Leof is so centrally located to the heart of the Aztec Empire makes it the most perfect residence for Nadine, a Parisian psychoanalyst who moved to Mexico nearly 20 years ago. Since she was a teenager, she has had a tremendous passion about all things pre-Hispanic. "To understand any culture, you must go back to the very first myths of creation", she says. Today she stands as guardian to the biggest private collection of pre-Columban sculptures in the world.

Nadine's 3000-strong collection of pre-Hispanic works of art was started by her husband, Danny Brenman, and two American colleagues, Milton and Sabine Leof, in the 1950s. The energetic trio had emigrated from Philadelphia to Mexico in the wake of the McCarthy Witch-hunts. Intrigued by Mexico's extraordinary history, they started to collect ancient figurines. By 1960, they had assembled enough pieces to warrant exhibitions in Leningrad, Paris and - the ultimate goal of any collector's ambitions - the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The collection dates back as far as the 5th century AD and includes pieces from Mexico's Toltec, Olmec, Mayan and Aztec ages, along with relics from Burma, Costa Rica, Brittany and some eighty wooden 17th century Christian icons from the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

In 1963 the trio purchased the premises that would become Casa Leof. The original structure had already been partially converted into a home in the 1930s by Eduardo Rendon, an inventive Mexican designer much involved with the restoration of Cuernavaca's colonial homes at the time. He created the second floor rooms and added the pretty barricaded windows, but retained the original cedar beamed ceilings, the well-worn stone floors, the stunning doors and the thick walls which are said to have been built with rock taken from the demolished Aztec temples.

The Leof-Brenman troika took up from where Rendon had finished, adding the pre-Columban columns which now surround the swimming pool, colourfully retiling the open-air kitchen and bathrooms and painting the interior walls a chalky white.

Milton and Sabina Leof had both passed away by the time Dan married the charismatic Parisian before a roaring fire in the entrance hall of Casa Leof in 1986. Nadine had been deeply interested in pre-Hispanic art for several years before she stumbled upon Milton and Danny at an exhibition in Paris in1980. A subsequent trip to Cuernavaca, a city graced with one of the finest year-round climates on the planet, convinced her that she no longer needed her small flat in Notre Dame.

Today she stands as a guardian to this mesmerising collection, forever improving her knowledge of the pre-Hispanic world by excursions to the region's ancient temples or by burrowing herself in Mexico's increasingly authoritative university libraries.

And she has also devoted herself to improving Casa Leof itself. Her present project is to convert a dilapidated convent at the north end of the garden into a home for herself. The intention is then to open up Casa Leof to the public as a museum, just as Robert Brady's home a few high walls away has become one of the most enigmatic art galleries in Mexico.

On my visit the garden was flourishing with the scent of camellias and hibiscus, pinsetta and bougainvillea, and the fruits of various orange, lemon, lychee and tangerine trees. A group of local masons were quietly hammering away at the walls of the convent. I looked across at the wall where Danny Brenman appeared before his widow. He was not there. But I did have the sense that, wherever he was, he was quite content with the way in which Nadine had decided the fate of the fine home and collection which he had helped build.

This story was published in Irish Tatler in 2002.

Click here for a 2012 update on this remarkable collection.