This book narrates the history of the City of Puebla de los Angeles, located in present-day central Mexico, some 120 km (74.5 miles) to Mexico City’s southeast. The book opens with Puebla’s founding in 1531 and chronicles the city’s development until the late eighteenth century, shortly before New Spain initiated its independence movement from Spain. The book’s narrative places architecture and urbanism at the forefront of its discussions, recounting the city’s birth, splendor, and decline in the more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. As the reader will find out, even during its most difficult moments, with economic hardship, epidemics, and demographic losses battering Puebla, the city managed to prove its resiliency and produce magnificent architectural works. In a way, Puebla de los Angeles, like cities elsewhere, will always manage to surprise those who write and read about them.
In effect, the tradition of writing detailed accounts and histories of urban settlements is centuries old. Through time, these texts accrued different names, whether known as laudes civitatum, encomium urbis, or more commonly, panegyrics; this literary genre sought to praise and describe a city, mining a town’s foundational myths, describing its topography and natural settings, praising its architectural landmarks, and producing laudatory discourses on their inhabitants and historical figures. From Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities of the first century AD, a historical review of Rome from its murky origins to the First Punic War; or the anonymous Wonders of the City of Rome (Mirabilia Urbis Romae), c.1140, a pilgrim’s guide to Rome; or Leonardo Bruni’s Praise of the City of Florence (Laudatio Florentinae Urbis), written in 1403, volumes on a city’s history and its built environment have served several purposes. Dionysius’ twenty-volume work was an extensive study of Rome’s historical development while the anonymous Mirabilia acted as a visitor’s guide to Rome and an inventory of the city’s architectural landmarks. During the Renaissance, Bruni, a humanist who studied and translated philosophical and historical Greek and Latin texts from antiquity, in his laudatory text dedicated to his beloved Florence, detailed the city’s topography, natural settings, its citizens’ character, and cited the city’s architectural landmarks to argue in favor of Florence’s virtuosity in the face of a military victory over Milan.
Laudatory texts devoted to urban centers have been central to Hispanic culture for centuries too. The Franciscan monk Francesc Eiximenis, in the prologue to his Regiment of the Public Sphere (Regiment de la cosa piiblica) from 1383, praised the City of Valencia and its “delights,” such as the city’s climate, natural resources, and its piety. In another example, the sixteenth- century historian Pedro de Alcocer authored the History or Description of the Imperial City of Toledo (Hystoria о Descripcion de la Ymperial Cib- dad de Toledo) of 1551, divided into two volumes. The first recounted the city’s historical trajectory and the second contained descriptions of the city’s religious-architectural landmarks.
The Spanish colonization of the Americas brought the genre to New Spain (viceregal Mexico), and the year 1554 saw the appearance of the first encomia written for the recently defeated Tenochtitlan, or Mexico City, by the Spanish humanist Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, who praised the city’s settings and its, at the time, incipient architectural and urban character. From there on, the literary genre of urban panegyrics took root in New Spain. By the eighteenth century, the criollos, descendants of Spaniards born in Mexico, adopted the practice of writing encomia for their patria chica, a Spanish-language term employed to designate a person’s hometown.
Such was Puebla’s case, founded in 1531 as a Spanish settlement that quickly became, after barely a few decades, the viceroyalty’s second largest urban center after Mexico City. As such, Puebla was not without its share of encomia, like the one written by the criollo historian and philosopher Mariano Fernandez de Echeverria у Veytia, titled History of the Foundation of the City of Puebla de los Angeles (Historia de la fundacion de la Ciudad de la Puebla de los Angeles), written in 1799 - but not published until the twentieth century. In reality, Fernandez’s chronicle attempted to provide a coherent narrative that organized the differing versions of Puebla’s foundational myth and the town’s subsequent development. The founding myth, roughly recounted, involved the notion of a cohort of angels descending from heaven and laying out the city’s gridded urban form. Puebla’s supposed angelic origin was an instance of what scholar Antonio Rubial termed a “sacred geography,” a string of cities in central Mexico that claimed a divine origin. These included Mexico City, Queretaro, Valladolid, and Puebla, among others.
In Fernandez’s chronicle, Puebla, due to its importance as a cultural and economic center, its impressive architectural stock, and its mythical, heavenly origin, was framed as New Spain’s most beautiful and pious city - the same claim, in reality, that was made in favor of all the cities of that sacred urban geography. Fernandez recounted Puebla’s origins and its founding myth, and he made sure to carefully describe the city’s religious architectural landmarks, staking a claim too, for the outstanding character of the city’s illustrious inhabitants. Chronicles like Fernandez’s belonged to a broader phenomenon of criollismo, the notion that the American-born inhabitants of New Spain - after experiencing three centuries of Spanish colonialism - were in the process of, as Antony Higgins put it, reconstructing “the image of a (post)colonial subject.”1 Eminently, the locus of that rhetorical discourse on identity-making fell, to a large extent, on cities, as these were the sites that contained all the institutions of the Spanish colonial enterprise: the churches, monasteries, almshouses, foundling hospitals, the city hall, the city granary, the colleges, the hospitals, and the residences of the richest and poorest of its inhabitants. In short, the city was the locus of collective identity-forging that arose from processes of continuous negotiations and exchanges.
These processes gravitated continuously between the native and the Hispanic, creating complex, hybrid, and contradicting expressions of material evidence of which architecture stood out in many ways. First, due to its visibility and permanence and also due to the possibilities the built environment possesses to reveal the different capacities under which several social actors participated in the building of a town. However, it is true that the powerful and wealthy, usually white males, gained practically all the visibility in their roles as patrons and architects of Puebla’s architecture while the contributions of builders, laborers, or stonemasons, often of native and mestizo origin, remain overlooked. I have tried to make the contributions of native and mestizo builders and communities as visible as possible, although further work on this topic needs to be carried out.
It is also relevant to point out that this work is not, nor was it ever conceived to be, a comprehensive survey of Puebla’s viceregal architecture - such an endeavor would be entirely outside this book’s scope, and it would also fall outside of my scholarly interests. Instead, each chapter, read together or independently, picks up on specific topics that discuss and convey different relevant aspects of Puebla’s architectural and urban culture. In that regard, this book takes its inspiration from encomia such as that by Fernandez de Echeverria у Veytia, who attempted to present a chronicle of a great city, written for those acquainted with Puebla and for those who had never set foot on it. Fernandez, after all, attempted to articulate a sophisticated historical narrative that involved Spanish conquistadors, missionaries, criollos, the Indigenous communities, and an amalgam of subjects with differing attitudes and interests in shaping a city he would have called his patria chica.
In a similar vein, this book attempts to chronicle the city’s material fabric, that is, Puebla’s churches, colleges, hospitals, its city hall, and, notably, the city’s exacting urban form. They all come together to narrate some outstanding episodes in the viceregal history of that wonderous city called Puebla de los Angeles. As in the eighteenth century, when criollos attempted to draw attention to their unique material and cultural settings by chronicling the development of their cities, this book also attempts to fill a gap in the contemporary academic literature devoted to documenting the creation and development of cities in the Spanish world of the early modern period.
Indeed, volumes dedicated to chronicling a city’s history and development using its built environment as a common thread abound, particularly if those cities are European or North American. The same cannot be said of Latin American cities. While renewed interest in Latin American architectural history and urban studies continues to increase, there is still a lack of specialized works that focus on the region’s architectural and urban histories. This is despite knowing that the colonial enterprise in the Spanish Americas represented one of the most ambitious and relevant urbanization experiments in history and despite the growing sentiment that the history of the Spanish early modern world contributed significantly to the shaping of modernity in the western hemisphere.
Therefore, this book tracks the history of an outstanding case study in the context of early modern architectural and urban history of the Spanish American world. Indeed, unlike Mexico City or Cuzco or other important Spanish viceregal cities in the Americas, Puebla lacked a pre-Hispanic origin. Instead, its existence was marked by the need of Spanish colonizers to affirm their presence in a heavily Indigenous region. In effect, its creation was only made possible after the Spanish settlers negotiated the city’s creation with the Indigenous fiefdoms surrounding Puebla’s founding site. However, since the viceregal period, the city’s chronicles and historical accounts overwhelmingly favored the view that the city was founded and that it thrived because of its Spanish settlers.
Instead, as this book suggests, the city could never have thrived or even existed without the Indigenous communities that settled in the city practically right after its establishment. Indeed, the poblano criollos of the eighteenth century felt their city was one of the most “Spanish” in New Spain due to its large Spaniard and criollo community, the exacerbated perception of its religious and imperial loyalty as well as its piousness. The image presented within these pages is more complicated than that. This book conveys the notion of a city shaped by various factors, actors, and circumstances as it developed from an incipient settlement into a wealthy metropolis, transformed as it was by a cohort of diverse settlers and a host of civic and religious initiatives that managed to produce a fantastic array of architectural landmarks hardly matched by any other in the continent.
As reiterated earlier, instead of presenting a comprehensive survey of the city’s development, each chapter should be understood as a cross section along Puebla’s timeline that captures a period in the city’s architectural and urban sphere. The book opens with a chapter that contextualizes Puebla’s founding in 1531 within the broader topic of urbanism in the Spanish world of the early modern period. It closely examines the events surrounding Puebla’s establishment, the key players involved, and the town’s founding site. It then shifts over to stake a claim to understand Puebla not as a Spanish town but rather as an incipient Spanish settlement that would not have survived had it not been for the early establishment of native communities in the city’s peripheries. This chapter also introduces the reader to the concept of the altepetl, the Nahua, pre-Hispanic notion of an urban community, which acted as a social model for the Indigenous barrios or neighborhoods of Puebla’s periphery. The chapter also explains how the city operated politically through the cabildo or city council and how the native communities adopted and participated in that model to gain political representation. The chapter ends by describing the city’s early characteristics, placing the importance of the town’s urban form as a segue into the second chapter.
Chapter 2 analyzes how Puebla’s powerful inspirational archetype, the Heavenly Jerusalem, materialized in two distinct forms: Puebla’s urban form and its Via Crucis. The discussion surrounding the grid model as urban form revises some classic notions regarding this topic but also recent scholarship to trace the grid’s origin and development. The urban form’s analysis also examines the validity of the hypothesis that links Puebla’s urban design to the neighboring, ancient pre-Hispanic City of Cholula. The chapter ends by placing forward the idea that, contrary to the understanding of gridded urban forms as an “ideal of the European Renaissance,” the gridded urban form was a highly effective and loaded colonizing strategy.
Chapter 3 investigates the period ranging from the 1570s to the 1630s, interrogating the arrival and development of the Classical architectural tradition in Puebla, a New World Renaissance, arguing how Classicism became the foundation for the city’s architectural culture for the rest of the viceregal period. This chapter’s discussion starts by investigating the arrival and reception of Classical culture to Puebla in the form of books, people, and images. The presence of architectural treatises in the city is investigated and the arrival of Spanish architects who will institute Classicism in the city too. The last part of this chapter analyzes the few remaining buildings from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in closer detail.
Chapter 4 takes a different narrative approach by discussing Puebla’s architecture and urbanism during the first half of the seventeenth century by focusing on Puebla’s most notorious viceregal character: Bishop Juan de Palafox у Mendoza (tenure 1640-1649). Palafox, a high-ranking Church and Crown dignitary, prolific writer, theologian, and political actor, championed the construction of the city’s cathedral, its most notable viceregal landmark while articulating a plan to turn Puebla into an “ideal Christian republic,” a term coined by scholar Maria Dolores Arriaga to refer to the notion that Palafox, based on his theological-political ideas, attempted to make of Puebla the experimentation ground for his visionary politics. This chapter places forward the idea that architecture and art were crucial in building Palafox’s ideal Christian republic, which is proven by analyzing his promotion of the cathedral’s completion (the cathedral works had been stalled for years before Palafox arrived in Puebla) and Palafox’s sponsorship of a series of chapels in majority-native barrios, as well as other relevant art and architecture works in Puebla and its hinterland.
Chapter 5, the final chapter, examines Puebla’s Baroque era (c. 1680s— 1790s). It narrates the city’s decline in the eighteenth century and how epidemics and a demographic decrease worsened the economic crises. However, it also recounts the contrastingly outstanding architecture produced during this period and how a series of simple construction materials and forms, an excellent building culture (in terms of labor standards and the adequate handling of construction materials), as well as an array of grandiloquent ornamental vocabularies, managed to produce a string of monumental landmarks, residential, civil, and religious, which, it will be argued, marked a summit for the city’s architectural culture.
In terms of architectural interpretations and in order to prove the varied and rich forms of Baroque architectural expression, the discussion places the famed Rosary Chapel and theTonantzintla church, the former a Spanish and criollo urban monument and the latter a native chapel in Puebla’s hinterland, and examines their similarities and differences face to face. The chapter then performs a Baroque architecture survey in the city, registering some of Puebla’s most accomplished landmarks. The discussion ends by fleshing out some of the differences and similarities between the European and Spanish American Baroque, attempting to establish discussion points for future studies, arguing how the Baroque of the Spanish world has been consistently neglected and understudied. The chapter ends by suggesting how Baroque architecture in Puebla expressed a level of sophistication grounded on hybridity, complexity, and an exhilarating form of sensuality - a mirror, at least in some capacities, of New Spain’s mature cultural and philosophical environment at the time.
This book is an imperfect but honest expression of love for the city where I was born. In some ways, these pages reflect how I became enamored with architecture when walking down the streets of Puebla’s centro historico, as the historical city district is known today. Even as a young boy, I came to comprehend architecture’s capacity to engage and enthrall the human mind, thanks to Puebla’s amazing architecture. Furthermore, this manuscript is based on my doctoral thesis; however, this work, thoroughly revised and adapted, bears little resemblance to my doctoral project. I wish to acknowledge and thank for their support, first, my mentor and research supervisor at McGill University, Prof. Alberto Perez-Gomez. Further, Prof. Gauvin Bailey and Prof. Ricardo Castro, members of my doctoral committee, who provided crucial feedback. Further thanks should go out to Prof. Juan Manuel Heredia, at Portland State University, who also read my dissertation as part of my doctoral process. As a doctoral student, I benefited from the support of the Mexican Council for the Sciences and Technology (CONACYT).
As this project took on the shape of a book, my current institution, the University of Maryland-College Park, and specifically interim Dean Prof. Donald Finebaugh, as well as Architecture Program Director, Prof. Brian Kelly, showed me their full support. As a faculty member at UMD, I was the recipient of a research grant to complete my research. Finally, I also wish to thank the editorial team at Routledge, particularly Grace Harrison, Trudy Varcianna, and the Routledge Research in Architectural History series editor, Prof. Nicholas Temple.
In Puebla, I wish to thank the staff at the Archivo Municipal de Puebla, at the Archivo de Notarfas, at the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, and the Biblioteca
Lafragua. In each case, they were all willing to help and open their collections to me and other researchers.
1 Antony Higgins, Constructing the Criollo Archive: Subjects of Knowledge in the Bibliotheca Mexicana and the Rusticatio Mexicana (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2000), 4.