Saturday, January 30, 2016

Grandeza Mexicana: Grandeur of Mexico City

Grandness on All Sides

Walking the streets of Mexico City, from its Centro Histórico to various of its colonias, neighborhoods, acquainting ourselves with their architecture and public art, we have noted the recurrence of what becomes a visual theme. There is a grandness to the architecture that communicates a message of wealth and power. If you were dropped down into the heart of the city without knowing where you were, you would quickly gather that it was, or has been and desires to continue to be, a seat of major political and economic power, one whose leaders wanted to present themselves with pride, with grandeza, grandeur.

The sheer size of the Zócalo, symbolic center of the city and country, is almost overwhelming. The world's second largest plaza or city square after Red Square in Moscow, the Zócalo is framed by the monumental Metropolitan Cathedral on its northside and the National Palace to the east.

Zócalo, central plaza, built atop the Aztec plaza
Metropolitan Cathedral stands at the north end.

The Palace, first of Cortés, then the Spanish Viceroy,
then of the Mexican government. 
Over nearly 500 years, 
the Palace has been rebuilt and expanded many times.

Spanish colonial palaces of the lesser nobility, wealthy businesssmen and the ornate Baroque Catholic churches, convents and colegios (schools), many now converted into government offices or museums, are found throughout the Centro Histórico, known as "The City of Palaces".

So-called Palace of Emperor Iturbide,
now Banamex Cultural Center,
on Madero Street

Antiguo Colegio Jesuita San Ildefonso,
now a museum,
on Justo Sierra Street

The 19th century added to the city such grand structures as the Ciudadela, Chapúltepec Castle and Paseo de la Reforma.

in West Centro

Chapúltec Castle,
with Monument to the Boy Heroes
from the U.S. "Intervention" of 1847.

CDMX, Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico City.

Paseo de la Reforma
seen from Chapultepec Castle.
Six White Columns are
Monument to the Boy Heroes
against the U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Photo by Carlos Cortés

Porfirio Díaz, President and dictator from 1876 to 1911, placed his own grand stamp on the city.

Palacio de la Secretaría de Comunicaciones
Now National Museum of Art
Photo: Scott Nicholay, Wikipedia

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Fine Arts,
begun by Porfirio Díaz in 1910,
interior finished in 1930's

by post-Revolutionary government.

Tollowing Díaz's lead, the nouveau riche of modern business built grand homes in new colonias north and south of Reforma. This impetus continued among the wealthy even after the Revolution (1910-1917). 

Home of Joaquín Baranda MacGregor,
now UNAM House of the Book
Culture Center.
Colonia Roma Norte.

French Second Empire-style mansion,
now a private school.
Colonia Benito Juárez.

The victors of the Revolution were not to be outdone by their predecessors' grandness.

Monument to the Revolution,
"World's Tallest Triumphal Arch",
built over the framework of Porfirio Díaz's unfinished Legislative Palace
at the direction of President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1930s.

National Lottery,
intersection where Avenida de la República,
coming from Monument to the Revolution,
crosses Reforma and becomes Avenida Juárez.
1930s Art Deco. 

Then there is the grand project of the Mexican Muralists to create grand works of public art to visualize the grandness of Mexico´s history, its Revolution and its future.

The New Creation,
portraying the new, Mexican Adam
emerging from the union of indigenous and European culture.
Diego Rivera,
Antiguo Colegio San Ildelfonso, 1922.

Man at the Crossroads,
between Past and Future.
Diego Rivera,
Bellas Artes, 1934

And the grandest of all, the world's largest mural:

Title #3
March of Humanity Toward the Cosmos.
David Siqueiros Polyforum

We could go on with more examples of grandness, and we will as we continue to explore Mexico City and write about our discoveries. But now we ask the question: Are there particularly Mexican roots to this impulse to grandeur?

Before proposing an answer to our question, let us note one last, yet to be realized, example of Mexican grandeza. President Enrique Peña Nieto has spoken of  "Una nueva grandeza mexicana", "a new Mexican grandeur". And he has initiated his potentially most public expression of it, a new Mexico City Airport:


Environment of Natural Grandeur

We believe the source of Mexicans' ongoing search for grandeur can be found in the country's natural environment and the human works of la grandeza, grandness or grandeur, that began to be constructed within that environment more than two thousand years ago.

Mexico City lies in the center of the Valley of Mexico. Its predecesor, the Aztec city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, was set on an island in the middle of a lake in that valley, then called Anáhuac. At 7,000 feet, the high valley is ringed by mountains rising around the city 10,000 to over 12,000 feet. Ajusco [extinct volcano]—which now lies within the delegación, borough, of Tlalpan, on the city's south side—rises to 12,900 feet, nearly 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Reaching this high valley on foot, as was the case for millenia, was in itself quite a feat.

seen from our bedroom window in Coyoacán

Moreover, forty to fifty miles southeast, but imposingly visible on clear days, rise the volcanos bearing the names given them by the Nauhua peoples of the valley:
  • Popocatepetl, Smoking Mountain, 'Popo' is an active volcano; and
  • Iztaccíhuatl, Sleeping Woman, is Popo's reluctant bride in Nahua mythology; unlike in Sleeping Beauty, Popo is unable to wake her up no matter how much he huffs and puffs.
Just recently, in January, 2016, "Don Goyo", as he is affectionately called, raised a new lava dome 1,000 feet above the floor of his crater, a sign that he is likely to "blow" again soon. He reaches an altitude of 17,802 feet, making him the second highest mountain in Mexico. At 18,000 feet, Pico de Orizaba, to the east, between Puebla and Veracruz, is the highest in Mexico and third highest mountain in North America. Popo comes in fifth. All mountains higher than these two are far from urban civilization in Alaska or Canada.

Popocatépetl, Smoking Mountain
At 17,802 ft. second highest peak in Mexico
 fifth highest in North America.
Rises about 50 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Popo blows, April 2015.

North of Popo, at the other end of a ridge of lower volcanoes, rests Iztaccíhuatl, Sleeping Woman.

Iztaccihuatl, Sleeping Woman
At 17,160 ft. third highest mountain in Mexico
and eighth highest in North America.

Valley of Mexico, late 19th century, by José María Velasco
Mexico City, still confined to the area of the Aztec island,

 lies in the distance, middle left.
Volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl form the southeastern horizon.

Popo and Iztacc, and numerous other volcanoes around the Valley of Mexico, are part of The Transverse Volcanic Axis that runs from the Pacific Ocean, north of Puerto Vallarta, east to the Gulf of Mexico near Veracruz.

Trasverse Volcanic Axis (yellow)
and related
Volcanoes and Earthquake Centers of Mexico

The Axis—and Mexico's ruggedness—was created by the pressure of four tectonic plates that underly and shape its surface. As a result, Mexico's topography is especially dramatic, one of the most varied in the world. It is reported that when Emperor Charles V asked Cortés to describe Mexico, he crumpled a piece of paper into a ball and tossed it on a table.

What is now Mexico lies at the southern edge of the vast North American Plate, which includes not only all of the North American Continent but parts of Siberian Asia and Greenland as well. To the west is the huge Pacific Plate. The Cocos Plate, smaller, presses up from the southwest. The combined pressure of the Cocos Plate (from the southwest) and the Caribbean Plate (from the southeast, on which Central America rests), creates the curved “hook” and mountainous terrain of Mexico’s western and southern regions, with its attendant volcanoes and earthquakes.

For more on Mexico's geography see: Geography: Ground of Mexico's History and Culture

Mesoamerican Sacred-Political Spaces

It isn't surprising that, within this dramatic environment of peaks and valleys, the indigenous civilizations that arose based on the cultivation of corn, sought not only to imitate its grandeur but to appease and ally with the powers of the gods, i.e., nature.

Entering one of the great cities of the Mesoamerican civilizations, you are surrounded by monumental architectural and artistic statements that totally dominate and define your sensory experience. As complete environments, they are aesthetic and physical statements situating you in the presence of unified sacred (natural) and political powers, the realm of gods and kings.

Teotihuacán: "Avenue of the Dead" looking toward
Pyramid of the Moon
(about 30 miles north of Mexico City)
(500 BCE to 500 CE)

Pyramid of the Sun
Third largest pyramid in the world

Plaza of Monte Albán, Oaxaca
(500 BCE to 500 CE)

Palace of Palenque, Chiapas
built by Pakal I and his sons
7th Century C.E

El Tajín, Veracruz,
6th to 12th Centuries C.E. 

For more on El Tajin, see: El Tajín: Beauty and Mystery
For more on Mesoamerican cities, see: God-Kings as Ctiy Planners

Tenochtitlán, with Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at the center.
Volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl form the eastern horizon
Painting in the Museum of the City of Mexico

The Grandeza of the Spanish Empire Arrives

When Hernán Cortés and his men passed between the two grand volcanoes, over what is now called Paso de Cortés and entered the wide, lake-filled valley, they were awed by both its natural drama and its extensive civilized development. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortés's lieutenants, wrote:
"Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were many great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowed with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico." (The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, translated by A. P. Maudslay, De Capo Press, 1996)
After Cortés and his men, with their indigenous allies, defeated the Aztecs, they leveled the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán and engaged in a massive enterprise of constructing a replica of their old world and its culture on top of that even more ancient one. In the Spanish Empire, as in Mesoamerican culture the State and religion were wedded. King Charles I was also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and thus God's secular representative on Earth. After conquering the Papal States in 1527, he won from the Pope the power to designate the bishops of the Spanish Church.

Thus, the monumental Palace and the Cathedral, framing the Zócalo, embody, in their grandeur, the power of the Spanish State and the Catholic Church. These archetypes of power were deliberately built over their respective political and religious predecessors, the "New Houses" which were the palaces of Moctezuma II, and the Temple or Pyramid of the Sun.

Idealized portrayal of Spain's King Charles IV as Roman Emperor,
erected in Mexico City in 1802, six years before Napoleon deposed him,
giving rise to Mexico's War of Independence from Spain.

Like the indigenous temple precincts, the Spanish Baroque Colonial cathedrals and churches of all sizes, found from the major cities to the smallest rural villages, also seek to surround and define the experience of those who enter them. Their message, like those of the Mesoamerican spaces, is that you are in the presence of God, allied with an earthly State that is both His chosen instrument and His defender.

Metropolitan Cathedral,
Mexico City

Grandeza Mexicana:
"This Famous City, Center of Perfection, Hinge of the World"

Around 1580, sixty years after the Conquest, a young man, Bernardo de Balbuena, came from Spain with his father. They had been granted land near Guadalajara, Jalisco. Bernardo later came to Mexico City, where he studied theology and became a priest. In 1606 he returned to Spain, earned a Doctor of Theology, and rose within the Church to become Abbot in Jamaica (1610) and Bishop of Puerto Rico (1620). Despite his priestly duties, he found time to write long and elegant poems.

Perhaps his best work is Grandeza mexicana (Mexico's Grandeur, published in 1604), in which he replies in elegant and lyrical verse to a nun who asked him for a description of the young Spanish Colonial City of Mexico. Balbuena presents a detailed inventory of the complicated, luxurious and beautiful city.

Mexico City is "the richest city the world enjoys, as the sun goes round it ... its site, its populous grandeur, its rare things, its wealth and its dealings, its illustrious people, their splendid work." 

Bathed in a temperate, fresh wind,
where nobody would have believed there was a world,
it enjoys its flowery, gifted site.

Within the zone where the sun passes overhead,
and tender April walks, wrapped in roses,
planting its odors,

on a delicate soft crust,
that sustains it over two lagoons,
surrounded by waves on all sides,

its features, carved in large proportion,
towers, spiers, windows,
present themselves with pride.

With beautiful landscapes and vistas,
highways, playing fields and open spaces,
orchards, farms, mills and groves,

parks, gardens, thickets,
various beautiful plants and fruit
in bloom, in bud, ripening, already ripe.

The sky does not have as many stars 
as it has flowers in its garland,

nor heaven more virtue than it.

"... its features, carved in large proportion,
towers, spiers, windows ..."

CLICK  on collages to enlarge them.

"... it enjoys its flowery, gifted site.
Within the zone where the sun passes overhead,
and tender April walks, wrapped in roses,
planting its odors ..."

"Here everyone is trading and bustling about, so no one has a moment of calm."

But, after praising Mexico City's physical beauties, the poet goes on to laud another grandeur:

And this great city on water has made
firm roads that, for the many people
who fill them, become crowded;

and at all times and all occasions,
people travel these roads and highways,
mounted on horseback,

on pack trains, wagons, carts,
carrying silver, gold, riches, supplies,
they come loaded; they enter in droves.

Of various looks and various movements
various figures, faces and demeanors,
various men with various thoughts;

mule drivers, officials, contractors,
gentlemen, soldiers, merchants,
gallants, litigants;

clergymen, priests, men and women,
of various color and diverse professions,
of various states and various views;

different in languages ​​and nations,
in purpose, goals and desires,
and even sometimes in laws and opinions;

and through all the shortcuts and detours
in this great city, they disappear,
turning from giants into pygmies.

... Its deafening noise and bustle entertains;
here everyone is trading and bustling about,
so no one has a moment of calm.

Ambition circulates,
and interests of one type or another
are dealt with and practiced everwhere.

This is the sun that gives life to the world:
preserves it, governs it, increases it.
protects, defends and strengthens it.

And if some of them help each other and agree,
men and their world
remain within this human interlocking and linkage.

Self-interest takes their hand,
reinforces the pleasure and increases the vigor,
and makes everything plain.

Take away the lordship from this giant, and
the laws it has imposed on mortals
shall turn harmonry into delirium.

The principal columns on which the world
and its grandeza rests will have fallen,
and everyone will be in equal confusion.

For this hidden force, the living fountain of
political life, the breath that enlivens 
the most tepid and frozen breast,

among its other assets, gave this famous city 
its site in mountains and water, and in its construction
laid the first foundation.

And insomuch as human ingenuity solidifies,
it achieves art,
and desire is given voice.

"And this great city on water has made
firm roads that, for the many people
who fill them, become crowded."
Calzada de Tlalpan follows original Aztec causeway
across Lake Texcoco.

"They enter in droves ..."

"Of various looks and various movements
various figures, faces and demeanors,
various men with various thoughts ...

"And if some of them help each other and agree,
men and their world
remain within this human interlocking and linkage."

The lagoons are pretty much all gone, as are the orchards and farms. Some still exist in the southern delegaciones, boroughs, of Xocimilco, Tláuac and Milpa Alta (High Field). We plan, someday, to visit them.

A woman poles her trajinera, flat-bottom canoe,
through the canals of Xochimilco.
Flowers and vegetables are still grown on the chinampas,
"floating gardens" of built-up soil (visible in background).
But she is selling beer to tourists.

But otherwise, de Balbuena's description of Mexico City still pretty much applies today. The grandeza of its "towers and spiers"—Spanish Baroque, Neo-classic, Art Deco and International modern—and its "zone where the sun passes overhead and tender April walks" (pretty much all year round) are still here. As are, of course, the ageless, encircling mountains.

But for us, as obviously for de Balbuena, while we are intrigued by the grand buildings, enjoy the varied public art and savor the tranquil plazas and parks, in the end we most value the humbler, everyday grandeza of the people, "trading and bustling about" in the markets and streets. 

De Balbuena called their motivation "self-interest" or even "greed", but clearly this priest saw "this hidden force" as positive, even crucial, "the principal column on which the world and its grandeza rest", "the living fountain of political life, the breath that enlivens the most tepid and frozen breast."

We call this the ánimo, the Life Force ... the ultimate grandeza.

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