Architectural treatises in a viceregal context
The acceptance of Classicism is probably also linked to the presence of a good number of architectural treatises in the city. Puebla today possesses two important historical libraries. The first is the Biblioteca Lafragua, which contains a remarkable rare and historical book and document collection that belonged to the Colegio del Espiritu Santo, Puebla’s Jesuit College. The second one is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, a library with an outstanding rare book collection, which initially belonged to the bishopric’s seminary college and was enriched later with donations and significant parts of the Jesuit libraries’ collections when the Order was expelled from New Spain in
1767. Incidentally, both libraries possess a significant number of architectural treatises that reveal the influence of these books during the viceregal era, signaling how crucial the study and implementation of the Classical architectural tradition was in the city and region. Treatises found in these libraries range from various copies of Serlio’s treatise, Vitruvius’ treatise in multiple editions and dates, to Alberti’s De re aedificatoria and many others.
Before delving into the subject matter further, it is worth noting how critical architectural treatises were and continue to be for the architectural tradition. The architectural treatise is, in effect, a technical, scientific, and literary genre all of its own, which has existed in the Western tradition since at least Greek antiquity.50 However, the modern architectural treatise was undeniably born with the Italian Renaissance in the mid-fifteenth century, somewhat in tandem with the development and propagation of the printing press in Europe. For instance, Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, the most influential treatise after Vitruvius’ during the Renaissance, written around 1450, was intended only to be disseminated in manuscript form in closed humanist circles. Still, printed versions began appearing by 1485, popularizing it and making it a European-wide and then a transatlantic phenomenon.51 Other treatises followed a similar path. What is more, the Renaissance architectural treatise, usually treated as a solely European phenomenon, should be understood as having had a transatlantic and even a global impact.
Many factors contributed to the rise and popularization of these artifacts. The circumstance of how the Renaissance architectural treatise, the art of xylography, and the printing press developed along similar timelines is of utmost importance for architectural history. As Mario Carpo has suggested, “the mechanical reproduction of images was to have an important and long- lasting consequence for the transmission of scientific knowledge, and even more for technical subjects for the visual arts. Architecture was no exception.”52 Indeed, when the printed word and the woodcut image coalesced, books became the primary vehicles through which images concerning architectural design were disseminated.53
The reality is that Renaissance architectural treatises - understood as disseminators of rhetorical and visual messages - were nowhere near as powerful as in the New World, where the European colonizers encountered unimaginable expanses of territory that they set out to conquer and colonize. This colonization process was not only physical or geographical, as in the act of deploying, populating, exploiting, and settling the land, instituting norms and ordinances for managing territories and the peoples inhabiting them, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the Spanish set out to colonize the people and their territories - that is to convert them - culturally. The colonizers envisioned a built environment that would convey messages about the preeminence and all-encompassing power of the Spanish Crown (reflected in civic architecture and public spaces), the power and preeminence of the Catholic Church (reflected in the myriad buildings associated with the Catholic Church), and in the Spanish way of practicing domesticity
(reflected in residential typologies). Thus, architecture was, without a doubt, central in the forging of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, and the transmission and institutionalization of the Classical architectural tradition became, in no small measure, possible through the reading and studying of architectural treatises.
There is ample evidence of how a considerable number of architectural treatises made their way across the Atlantic, starting in the mid-sixteenth century and continuing throughout the viceregal period. Their presence to this day in the Lafragua and Palafoxiana Libraries in Puebla, as noted earlier, is further evidence of this.54 What is more, the research carried out on the presence and employment of architectural treatises by the likes of Vitruvius, Alberti, and Sebastiano Serlio in the Hispanic world of the early modern period demonstrates they had a strong impact in shaping the built environment of Puebla and New Spain.55
In viceregal Puebla and elsewhere, such as Mexico City, treatises constituted an invaluable tool for practicing architects.56 These books not only allowed their readers to build the knowledge needed to articulate Classical works of architecture on their own, ratified by what was considered the ultimate source of knowledge on the subject, moreover, being familiarized with the Classical canons eventually constituted an essential item for those wanting to join the builders’ guilds that controlled the profession in the cities inhabited by the Spanish and criollo (New Spain- born Spanish descendants) communities, such as Mexico City and Puebla de los Angeles.57
Classicism thus embodied the vocabulary for buildings that represented the civic and religious institutions in Puebla, that is, the city’s civic decorum, intimately linked, in turn, to the notion of policia humana. This concept combined the term urbs, loosely defined as the material fabric of the city (its buildings, urban form, and streets), and the term civitas, which constituted the city’s institutions, as well as the city’s religious and spiritual beliefs, ordinances, its municipal council - the cabildo, in Spanish - and more importantly, its citizens.58
In effect, what set Hispanic culture apart from the rest of Europe, according to Richard Kagan, was the “emphasis accorded to the Aristotelian concept of the city as the locus of civilized life.”59 Indeed, for Kagan and other scholars such as Valerie Fraser, the Spanish were perhaps the most urban- centered European culture in the sixteenth century, and the foundation of cities was the central strategy in their program of conquest and colonization in the Americas. As Kagan wrote:
For Spaniards, therefore, policia signified life in a community whose citizens equated a republic. This idea, in turn, was intimately linked to the notion that the town was, again, citing Kagan, an ‘antidote’ for ‘what Spaniards perceived as an alien environment inhabited by hostile peoples.’60
This “antidote” was undoubtedly employed in the Iberian Peninsula’s Recon- quista (reconquest) and was used again in the conquest of the New World.
However, the question of why Classical architecture would have been the preferred vocabulary to convey Spanish civic decorum, either in Puebla de los Angeles or in other republicas espanolas (Spanish Republics) in the Iberian Americas, is tied to a public display of political and ideological values. In effect, if Spanish architecture during the sixteenth century was characterized by a panoply of styles, such as Gothic, Mudejar, and Plateresque among them, with buildings sometimes combining many vocabularies at once, why would the viceregal authorities choose Classicism as a prevalent style to represent their institutions? The answer lies in the way that architectural Classicism slowly became the vocabulary that embodied the Spanish monarchy’s political-ideological agenda, exemplified by the Mannerist Palace of Charles V in Granada, begun in 1527 and continued by Philip II in 1572. In effect, it was Philip who would adopt architectural Classicism as the definitive representative of the Spanish Empire and the monarchy. His patronage revealed his preference for Classicism in works such as the Alcazar of Madrid, the Alcazar of Toledo, and the summit of his architectural indulgence, the Royal Palace and Monastery of El Escorial, designed and directed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera. This unique complex, finalized around 1584, was characterized by a severe Classical vocabulary, which crowned Classicism as the architectural vocabulary that effectively represented the King of Spain and his global monarchy.61 It follows then that in the New World, the Spanish colonizers’ efforts to evoke a sense of polia'a humana in the cities they established in territories previously inhabited, as they saw it, by barbaric and pagan peoples, would have made the Classical architectural tradition an obvious choice for articulating decorum for the colonial institutions.62