Redefining the Renaissance

To develop this discussion, the employment of the term “Renaissance” deserves some commentary. On the one hand, the word Renaissance has traditionally been employed as an encompassing term to refer to European expressions related to the revival of Classical culture in various fields, including architecture, literature, the visual arts, and more, from roughly the midfifteenth to sometime in the seventeenth century. Synecdochally, talk of the Renaissance has generally come to be a reference to the Italian Renaissance. A notion coined, in turn, by nineteenth-century historiographical works such as Jacob Burckhardt’s “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1860), which has spawned myriad discussions, mostly on account of the term’s appropriateness to define the phenomenon, as well as Burckhardt’s dismissive attitude toward the Middle Ages’ contribution to the concept.

However, the term has retained its relevance, given that its principal traits - namely, the emergence of a series of conditions that prompted a novel social and cultural order, specifically located in northern Italy - remain relevant.12 The Renaissance is also intimately tied to the revival of the Greco-Roman architectural tradition, encompassing the fields of architecture and urbanism, as well as its theoretical underpinnings, and to visual and literary traditions, concepts that are tied, in turn, to Renaissance humanism, a term that refers to the revival movement surrounding the study of ancient Classical Greek and Roman culture. Humanism or studia humanitatis, as it was known during the period, was based on medieval Aristotelianism or scholastic philosophy, which ruled the curriculums of important centers of study in Europe and later in New Spain as well.

Unlike in Spain or other European contexts, in New Spain and the rest of the Iberian Americas, architectural Classicism cannot be understood as a stylistic or - even more broadly speaking - as a cultural development within the sphere of Renaissance humanism, instead, the introduction of architectural Classicism in New Spain and the whole of the Iberian Americas should be seen as a violent discontinuity in the way the built environment was shaped and understood by the native peoples of New Spain and the rest of the continent. In other words, the concept of Classical architecture in the context of viceregal New Spain and other Spanish American territories served as a strategy that was part of a broader colonial enterprise. As scholar Valerie Fraser noted: “Colonial architecture cannot be value free: its very existence presupposes the suppression of native culture and the exploitation of native labor.”13 Succinctly put, Classicism was both a statement and imposition from those in power, and ultimately, it was also a form of deploying the conquerors’ “civilizing” efforts through the imposition of a new urban and territorial culture, which ordered land and people through the establishment of urban forms, borders, and delimitations that were both physical and social. In this scenario, the establishment of cities and the buildings to represent colonial institutions played a critical role.14

In a colonial context, the term “Renaissance” can also serve to contrast and gauge the processes of cultural translation or hybridization, as the native and mestizo populations participated in the materialization of the built environment under the European notions of humanism and Classical culture.15 One of the arguments in this chapter will be that the Spanish civic and religious authorities actively attempted to associate Classicism with an eminently Spanish or European civil and religious decorum. However, the uneven clash between the Iberian, mestizo, and native cultures (with all the ethnic and cultural diversity all of those terms carry) ultimately produced a distinctive regional architectural tradition, which was both uniquely novo- hispanic and poblano (Pueblan).

In this way, a discussion of poblano architecture during this period can serve to reframe our understanding of the Renaissance, to the point that, ultimately, it might prove itself unable to define the cultural processes that took place in colonial settings.16 In the end, new terms and definitions might be necessary to define poblano and novohispanic art, architecture, and urbanism in general, as European terminology and chronologies will not adequately describe the urban and architectural developments in these settings. The discussion in this chapter adds to an ever-growing list of scholarship headed in that direction.17

The contemporary understanding of what continues to be termed “Renaissance architecture” to this day is dependent on works such as Rudolf Witt- kower’s “Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism,” published in 1949. In this landmark study, Wittkower established a notion of Renaissance humanism as being, as Liane Lefaivre characterized it, “an almost mythopoeic golden age for architecture.”18 In reality, the truth might be more complicated than that.19 Instead of an idealized view of the works that emanated from the Italian Renaissance, interpreted as the product of an impeccable system of harmonious proportions and neoplatonic correspondences, the scholarship on the Italian Renaissance from the last decades has presented a period characterized instead by inventiveness, and one far less orderly and idealized than Wittkower would have us believe.20

While the scholarship on the effects and influences of the Renaissance beyond the Italian Peninsula are still highly underexplored, looking at the reception and development of Classicism and the humanities in Puebla, the picture that emerges is of cultural processes characterized by vitality, transformation, and inventiveness. Ultimately, the purpose of examining Puebla’s Classical architectural culture is that it will help us calibrate Hispanic humanism’s importance within novohispanic culture, enriched, as it was, by the Indigenous and mestizo contributions.

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