Architectural analysis of Casa del Dean

The urban palace of Don Tomas de la Plaza Goes, the Dean of Puebla’s Cathedral Chapter, is located just a few steps away from the city cathedral, which evidences how he employed architectural magnificence to display his social and political standing in the city. He was a diocesan priest born in Spain and educated at the University of Salamanca. In 1538, he migrated to New Spain at the age of nineteen, where he built a successful ecclesiastical career and died in 1587. The post of dean was the second most important in the diocese after the prelate. In this role, he was in charge of the essential administrative and organizational duties of a Catholic diocese, such as overseeing processions and other religious festivities and ensuring the maintenance of proper decorum in all such activities.72

In 1576, the Spanish architect Francisco Becerra (c. 1540-1605) was named maestro mayor in charge of Puebla’s new cathedral.73 For this reason, the remodeling of the Casa del Dean, including its new facade design, has been attributed to this Spanish-born architect. Both de la Plaza and Becerra were natives of the province of Extremadura in Western Spain and both were working on the new Puebla Cathedral in the 1570s, so it is easy to imagine the Dean hiring Becerra to remodel his official residence.

The Dean’s residence is an architectural relic whose very existence is a source of wonder, even in its unfortunate, fragmentary form. Indeed, in 1953, the building was nearly destroyed in its totality when the majority of the viceregal palace was demolished to make room for a modern cinema. The little that remains is thanks to a small group of activists who protested the demolition and managed to preserve a small fraction of it. It is to their credit that the facade and two upper-level halls still exist to this day. These halls contain a series of extraordinary murals that are, along with the facade, a testimony to the presence of humanist culture in the New World. 4

The Casa del Dean is part of the rich tradition of early modern Flispanic Renaissance palatial architecture.75 The first Italian models for palaces arrived in Spain through the experience of Spanish architects who had visited Italy and had drawn the remains of ancient Rome or via published treatises circulating among the European nobility. In this way, Filarete’s design for the Medici Bank in Milan, illustrated in his Trattato di Architettura (Architectural Treatise), likely served as a model for the first Renaissance palace in Spain, the Palacio del Cogolludo in Guadalajara, built с. 1492-1495.76 With the new international standing of Italian models, Renaissance Classicism began to displace Gothic and Mudejar ornament while new approaches to domestic planning also transformed traditional elite house planning. As in the Italian models, novobispanic palacios had an entry directly from the street into a lobby, called zaguan in Spanish, connected in turn to a courtyard that articulated and served as circulation element of a series of rooms around it, a model followed at the Casa del Dean in Puebla (see Figure 3.6).

Similarly, the design of the Casa del Dean’s entry portal uses an explicitly Classical vocabulary, whose design is reminiscent of Sebastiano Serlio’s instructions on the design of the Doric and Ionic orders. The entry of the Casa del Dean consists of two levels. The lower is a linteled entry flanked by two engaged Doric columns on pedestals, with fluted shafts and a robust entablature. Serlio recommended placing the Doric column on a rectangular pedestal as at the Casa del Dean, and the fluted Doric columns are reminiscent of Serlio’s engraving on folio XXVIIIr of Book Four.77 The frieze above the street-level entry carries the words Semper sit in nomine JHU ingressus et egressus (May your entries and exits always be in the name of Jesus). The entry’s entablature carries the second-story balcony, which is fitted with a pair of rusticated jambs and lintels, flanked by Ionic-engaged columns, likewise fluted in their shafts. These support a frieze that develops into a cartouche that originally included Tomas de la Plaza’s family crest of arms, which is today in a fragmentary state, partially destroyed in the early nineteenth century.78 The frieze still displays the words Plaga Decanus (Plaza, the Dean) and the building’s year of completion, 1580. Flanking the upper- level balcony are two ogee, Moorish-style windows with prominent Classical pediments above them, each with a scallop shell at its center - a possible sign of devotion to St. James, patron saint of Spain - and three finials. The other four windows (which are balconies today) were probably identical in their design to the existing ogee windows (see Figures 3.5 through 3.7).

The rest of the Casa del Dean’s physical and programmatic description is difficult to convey, given the little evidence left to reconstruct the building. Among the extant evidence is a 1918 plan and an assortment of early- twentieth-century photographs of the facade and interior courtyard. The plan shows how the Casa del Dean occupied a solar, the standard plot in sixteenth-century Puebla, which measured 50 by 50 varas, or a one-eighth part of an urban block. When Tomas de la Plaza arrived in Puebla, he was

given an existing, half-built residence under the condition that he finish its construction, including the house’s zaguan. The house originally belonged to Martin de Calahorra, a conquistador who became a Puebla citizen as early as 1533.79 The residence’s layout follows that of the typical Pueblan upper-class residence from the viceregal period: access from the street led to a zaguan, connected, in turn, to a rectangular or square courtyard around which a series of spaces were arranged. Staircases in two-storied residences, as in the Casa del Dean, were located either right across the zaguan at the other side of the courtyard or close to the entry, as was the case with the Casa del Dean. At the back of the house there would usually be another courtyard where the service spaces were found.80 The only sixteenth-century courtyard extant in Puebla is the one found in the Casa de las Cabecitas (House of the Little Heads), which has some similar features seen in existing photographs of the Casa del Dean’s central courtyard prior to its demolition, such as half-arches, upper-story corridors supported by typical Pueblan stone brackets, and plastered masonry rails along the upper-story corridors.

Another outstanding feature of the Casa del Dean was a tower on its eastern end, a common element of palaces throughout Spain, such as the Palacio de los Condestables de Castilla in Burgos, the Palacio de Monterrey in Salamanca, or the Palacio de Fernandez de Cordoba in Granada, among others. The hypothetical reconstruction of the tower draws heavily on these and other prototypes because the only evidence for the tower’s existence is its mention in de la Plaza’s testament (see Figures 3.6 and 3.7).

 
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