Urban palaces and architectural treatises: The New World Renaissance in Puebla de los Ángeles (c. 1570s–1630s)

The New World Renaissance in Puebla de los Angeles (c. 1570s-1630s)

The question of a New World Renaissance

Nihil homirti tarn naturale, vel Aristotele teste, quam sponte ferri et rapi in sapienta cognitionem.

(Nothing comes

so natural to humanity,

according to Aristotle,

as feeling a strong and

swift inclination to acquire knowledge.)

- Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Mexico City, 1554.1

The reception of Renaissance humanism in the Hispanic world of the sixteenth century has been a contested matter. A few decades ago, scholars argued that humanism had never really taken root in Spain, given that its isolation from the rest of Europe and its Catholic orthodoxy hindered humanist thought and Classicism from establishing itself there.2 In recent decades, however, the spuriousness of such a claim has been exposed to make way for a better calibrated image, that of a culturally vibrant society that took an interest in Classical culture, producing, along the way, a body of literature, philosophy, and architecture influenced by Classical sources and humanist thought.3 By the late sixteenth century, in turn, novohispanic (New Spanish) society expressed an interest in Classical culture, which, quoting Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, “exalted the precepts of Christian humanism.”4 The circulation of books, not just those imported from Europe but those printed in New Spain as early as 1539, the year the printing press was introduced,5 was highly responsible for the transmission of humanist ideas in the viceroyaltv.6 In Puebla, specifically, the establishment of the Jesuit Colegio del Espiritu Santo (College of the Holy Spirit), together with the Tridentine College of San Juan, in 1578 and 1595, respectively, marked the beginning of the forging of a letrado culture in the city.7 The letradoss were the group that made up the bulk of the educated class in Puebla, who possessed a humanist education and who would go on to become high-ranking clerics and civil servants.9 The letrados, together with the encomenderos (large estate owners, usually former Spanish conquistadors), the business and elite merchant class of Puebla, many of whom, according to Biihler, were highly educated,10 found in Classical architecture a medium to express their cosmopolitan aspirations, asserting their colonial powers via the built environment.

In this context, the rise of humanist culture in novobispanic urban centers operated through the colonization process, which, in turn, posited a series of epistemological challenges to both parties involved: the colonizers and the colonized. On the one hand, the Spaniards began charting, exploring, founding cities, and establishing borders of a colossal territory, thereby putting forward new theological, judicial, and scientific discourses to deal with the countless issues presented to them as they attempted to colonize and subjugate the native societies and native bodies. On the other hand, the Indigenous peoples of New Spain were systematically subjugated in all aspects of life.

They were forced into abusive labor regimes and to convert to a new religion and were compelled to accept a new understanding of the world that collapsed and radically transformed their understanding of the world and religious universe. Forced to deal with the language of the conquerors, with novel artistic and architectural forms and, in general, with new ways of public and private life, the Indigenous peoples, mestizos (of mixed race), African communities, and the colonizers together reshaped and transformed the built and cultural world around them. In this context, and from early on in its timeline, it would be accurate to say that Classical culture played a critical role in shaping colonial discourses and their material expressions, including architectural and urban forms. Puebla de los Angeles is an urban center where the traces of Classical culture are forcefully legible to this day and is capable of revealing the roles that it played in shaping the built environment during the early viceregal period in Central New Spain.

This chapter is therefore dedicated to charting the introduction and development of Classical culture in Puebla de los Angeles during the latter part of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The buildings, urban culture, images, and books discussed in this chapter speak of how Classicism helped establish the foundations for a rich architectural and urban tradition in Puebla that was to develop over the next two-and-a-half centuries, employing European, mestizo, and native practices.11 Ultimately, this chapter carries the message that instead of conceiving the Renaissance as a solely European phenomenon, it should be thought of as a transatlantic one, as global connections between Spanish America, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and other parts of Europe created a global network of artistic and ideological exchanges that demand an expansion of the terms “Renaissance,” “Classical culture,” and “humanism.”

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