The murals at Casa del Dean

Besides its architecture, the most intriguing aspect of the Casa del Dean is its murals. In each of its two surviving halls, there is a cycle of mural paintings done al temple or tempera, each one with a specific program and visual imagery. There is the Hall of the Sybils, based on the figures of the Greek oracles-turned Christian prophets, depicted at Casa del Dean in a processional cycle, all of them riding on horseback, each holding a standard and a symbol or emblem of their prophecies. All are elaborately dressed, and their procession takes place against a landscape of varied, picturesque features: rolling hills, patches of woods, bodies of water, mountains, and hamlets.

The other hall contains a representation of the “Triumphs” by Petrarch, a series of poems that exalted an allegorical transition from sin to Christian redemption. It is a work written around 1351 and was a favorite theme of poets and artists throughout the late-medieval period and the Renaissance. At the Casa del Dean, the murals in the Hall of the Triumphs depict five Triumphs (as opposed to the original six in Petrarch’s work): Love, Chastity, Time, Death, and Eternity. The Triumph of Fame representation, on the other hand, is missing in the Casa del Dean murals. The Triumphs all ride in chariots against a backdrop of richly populated landscapes, more so than those in the Hall of the Sybils. An array of various scenarios, from urban

A computer model showing a hypothetical reconstruction of Casa del Dean, Puebla, from a bird’s eye view perspective

Figure 3.6 A computer model showing a hypothetical reconstruction of Casa del Dean, Puebla, from a bird’s eye view perspective.

Source: By the author and Trevor Wood, with some information taken from Penny Morrill’s “La Casa del Dean: New World Imagery in a Sixteenth-Century Mural Cycle.”

A hypothetical computer reconstruction of the Casa del Dean’s original facade

Figure 3.7 A hypothetical computer reconstruction of the Casa del Dean’s original facade.

Source: By the author and Trevor Wood.

to pastoral scenes, where human figures partake in various activities, such as dancing around a bonfire, unfold as the Triumphs, in chariots, parade around the walls of the room. In both halls, the murals are bounded by two friezes, one above and one below, where floral motifs interlace with cherubim, monkeys, birds, and insects.

At first glance, the Triumphs and the sybils closely resemble representations of European artistic imagery, the product of a complex Christian and humanist centuries-long tradition. On closer inspection, however, the array of animals depicted, some Indigenous to the Americas, such as jaguars, opossums, coyotes, and javelinas, reveal traces of Amerindian iconography that, according to the research, point toward notions of Nahua rhetorical and religious belief systems.81 In the Hall of the Triumphs, notably, the representations of animals in cartouches, with anthropomorphic attributes, as scribes, musicians, or dancers and the presence of Indigenous objects, such as a jaguar depicted as a warrior, holding a macuahuitl, an Indigenous mallet used as a war weapon, and a typical pre-Hispanic round shield, render evidence to the Indigenous origin of the artists.82 Furthermore, Morrill has argued that the artists at work in the Casa del Dean might have trained at a Franciscan monastery in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Region.83

The Casa del Dean is a relic of European humanism’s translation to the burgeoning Puebla de los Angeles. It testifies to the aspiration of an intellectual class made up of singular characters like that of Tomas de la Plaza, a high-ranking and educated cleric, well-read in the culture of the Renaissance, to emulate the culture of the metropole in the heartland of New Spain, de la Plaza, on the other hand, did not hesitate to flaunt imagery and symbols drawn from the Indigenous culture of his adopted land, granted, in a more private sphere, as public displays of de la Plaza’s admiration for Indigenous cultures might have been negatively viewed by some of his peers and fellow Spanish citizens.

Undoubtedly, the Casa’s murals have attracted the most attention from scholars given their unicity as sixteenth-century murals in a private residence representing secular themes. Research into the Casa del Dean’s architectural characteristics, on the other hand, has been overlooked. The lack of discussion stems, surely, from its near-total destruction and shortage of evidence. However, despite the limited information available, the digital models presented in this chapter attempt to hypothesize the residence’s sixteenth- century features, utilizing all evidence at hand. This exercise in historical reconstruction claims how urban residential palaces, as an architectural and historical typology, revealed traits that provide a broader picture of urban life and cosmopolitan aspirations in New Spain.

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