The Casa del Dean: a New World Renaissance urban palatial residence in Puebla

There is no building in the City of Puebla that speaks about the presence of Renaissance humanism louder than the urban residential palace of Don Tomas de la Plaza Goes, the Dean of Puebla’s Cathedral Chapter in the late sixteenth century. His residence demonstrates how Puebla’s elites brought humanist culture to this city through the patronage of architecture, staking a public claim for European cultural authority in the New World, but that ultimately resulted in a hybrid architectural artifact.

The urban palace of the early modern Spanish-Atlantic world is key to understanding the urban culture of the period. In the medieval period in the Iberian Peninsula, such residences were known as casas mayores (grand houses) or casas principals (principal houses), while the term palacio or palace referred only to the main hall of the residence, the public space where the family would display its lineage and economic power.69 The term palacio shifted to mean the whole of the residential complex during the subsequent centuries, akin to the Italian Renaissance palazzo, which defined the model for the urban palace in Europe. Furthermore, while traditionally, the concept of the Renaissance palace evokes images of the Florentine palazzi, in reality, the urban residential palace can be said to be a transatlantic architectural phenomenon, found as much in Mexico City or Lima as in Valladolid, Spain, or Florence, Italy.

In general terms, the urban residential palace, as a typology, signals the importance that towns acquired as centers of regional and transcontinental imperial power, and such palaces are the product of sophisticated material and intellectual local and global exchanges. In the palace, the aristocratic classes devoted substantial resources to magnificent personal residences alongside their patronage of other urban projects, including churches, male and female cloisters, hospitals, and civic buildings and works.70

In effect, Renaissance theorists promoted architecture as a tool for maintaining cultural authority through the Aristotelian notion of magnificence.

Around 1403, Leonardo Bruni’s Laudatio florentinae Urbis or Praise of rhe City of Florence posited that the magnificence of Florence resided not in its great fortune nor in its political leadership but in its magnificent buildings, whether these were civic, religious, or private. Such notions had circulated in the Hispanic world since at least the medieval period in, for example, the notion of polici'a, a term that described the essence of a commonwealth upheld by its citizens, of which the urban fabric was an expression of its success.

The dominant class in New Spain consisted mostly of Spaniards, criollos, and a small Indigenous nobility who maintained some privileges in return for their services during the war against the Mexica or Aztecs. Perhaps in memory of that conflict, the first palaces built by the conquering Spaniards in the nascent Tenochtitlan-Mexico City used fortress imagery, with crenel- lations atop their outer walls and with bare masonry. A well-known plan of Mexico City’s central plaza, from c. 1565, shows a series of buildings with crenellations and unplastered ashlar masonry, alongside some with Classical features in their main portals. As the viceregal institutions in Central New Spain stabilized, the colonizers’ palaces became more refined and cosmopolitan. The masonry walls acquired a plastered finish, lost their crenellations, and acquired more ornamented features, particularly in their main portals, as the plan of Mexico City’s central plaza from 1596 reveals.

For the most part, sixteenth-century urban palaces had one or two stories. Their rooms were arranged around open courtyards, the main one, and one or two service yards at the back of the property. Many courtyards in civic and private buildings employed Italianate decorative elements in their configuration, such as Classical columns and Roman arches. The roofs in Mexico City, Puebla, and in other principal cities were flat, allowing them to act as terraces. Stylistically, the palaces of New Spain in this period were in the taste of the late Renaissance, with Plateresque and Mudejar features, and as Martha Fernandez points out, distinctive regional traits.71 These characterizations emerge from the small number of surviving sixteenth-century palaces in Mexico: the Montejo residence in Merida; La Casa del que Mato al Animal in Puebla; the Casa de la Sirena in San Cristobal, Chiapas; and the Casa del Dean in Puebla, which is the best surviving example of Renaissance architecture from the New Spanish viceregal period.

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