Casa Del Deán

A Renaissance Urban Residence In The New World

Juan Luis Burke

Introduction

The city of Puebla de los Ángeles, located in the central part of present-day Mexico, was founded in 1531 and became the second most prosperous city in the viceroyalty of New Spain. Puebla was founded as a Spanish administrative center, strategically located in the middle of a predominantly indigenous region, in a fertile valley that was largely uninhabited upon the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. Its early prosperity led its ruling class to make Puebla a center of cultural and architectural development in the viceroyalty of New Spain. 

The urban residential palace is a typology that marks the rise of urban centers in the trans-Atlantic world, as well as the intellectual and material exchanges they embodied. This short essay considers the importance of the late sixteenth-century palace now known as Casa del Deán to show 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. 

Urban Residential Palaces in the Hispanic World of the Early Modern Period

The urban palace of the early modern Spanish-Atlantic world is key to understanding urban culture of the period. In the medieval period in the Iberian Peninsula, such residences were known as casas mayores or casas principales, 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. 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. 

And 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 trans-Atlantic architectural phenomenon, found as much in Mexico City or Lima, as they are in Madrid, Spain or Florence, Italy.

Urban Palaces in the Hispanic World of the Early Modern Period

In general terms, the urban residential palace, as typology, signals the importance that towns acquired as centers of regional and trans-continental imperial power, and 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.

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 the City of Florence,” posited that the magnificence of Florence resided not in its great fortune or its political leadership but in its great buildings, whether these were civic, religious, or private. Such notions circulated in the Hispanic world since at least the medieval period in, for example, the notion of policía, a term that described the essence of a commonwealth upheld by its citizens, of which the urban fabric was an expression of its success. 

Urban Palaces in the Viceroyalty of New Spain

The dominant class in New Spain consisted of mostly 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 Tenochtitlán-Mexico City used fortress imagery, with crenellations atop their outer walls and with bare masonry. The famous plan of Mexico City’s main 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 main plaza from 1596 reveals. 

For the most part, sixteenth century urban palaces were built on one or two stories. Their rooms were arranged around open courtyards, a 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 other principal cities were flat, allowing them to be used as terraces. 

Stylistically, the palaces of New Spain in this period were in the taste of the late Renaissance, with Plateresque and Mudéjar features and, as Martha Fernández points out, distinctive regional traits. These characterizations are drawn from the small number of surviving sixteenth-century palaces in Mexico: the Montejo residence in Mérida; La Casa del que Mató al Animal, in Puebla; the Casa de la Sirena in San Cristóbal, Chiapas; and the Casa del Deán in Puebla, which is the best surviving example of Renaissance architecture from the New Spanish viceregal period.

The Casa del Deán in the City of Puebla

There is no building in the city of Puebla that speaks to the importance of Renaissance humanism to Mexico’s Spanish colonizers more clearly than the urban palace of Don Tomás de la Plaza Goes, the dean of Puebla’s cathedral chapter dating from the late sixteenth century. The residence, located just a few steps away from the city cathedral, shows how Don Tomás used architectural magnificence to undergird his social and political standing in Puebla and its hinterland, by producing a work of architecture inspired in Spanish Renaissance tastes but touched by local indigenous artistry. The residence now known as La Casa del Deán, or The Dean’s House, was Tomás de la Plaza Goes’ principal residence. 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 carried out 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.

In 1576, a Spanish architect, Francisco Becerra (c.1540-1605) was named maestro mayor in charge of Puebla’s new cathedral. For this reason, the remodeling of the Casa del Deán, including its new façade 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 façade and two upper-level halls still exist to this day. These halls contain a series of extraordinary murals that are, along with the façade, a testimony to the presence of humanist culture in the New World.

Architectural Analysis of Casa del Deán

The Casa del Deán is directly linked to the rich tradition of Renaissance palatial architecture in Spain. The first Italian models for palaces arrived in Spain through the experience of Spanish architects who had visited in Italy and 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, likely served as model for the first Renaissance palace in Spain, the Palacio del Cogolludo in Guadalajara, built ca.1492-1495. 

With the [new international standing of Italian models] Renaissance classicism began to displace Gothic and Mudéjar ornament while new approaches to domestic planning also transformed traditional elite house planning. 

As in Italian models, novohispanic palacios had an entry directly from the street into a lobby, called zagúan in Spanish, connected in turn to a courtyard, with a series of interior, covered spaces around it, a model followed at the Casa del Deán in Puebla. 

Similarly, the design of the Casa del Deán’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 Deán 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 Deán, and the fluted Doric columns are reminiscent of Serlio’s engravings in his Book Four. 

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 Tomás de la Plaza’s family crest of arms, which is today in a fragmentary state, as it was destroyed in the early nineteenth-century. The frieze still displays the words “Plaça 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, and three finials. The other four windows (which are balconies today), were probably identical in their design to the existing ogee windows (see the hypothetical reconstruction.

The rest of the Casa del Deán’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 façade and interior courtyard. 

The plan shows how the Casa del Deán occupied a solar, the standard plot in sixteenth-century Puebla, which measured 50 x 50 varas, or one eighth part of an urban block. When Tomás 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 zaguán, or entry hall. The house originally belonged to Martín de Calahorra, a conquistador that became a Puebla citizen as early as 1533. The residence’s layout follows the typical Pueblan upper-class residence from the viceregal period: access from the street led to a zaguán connected, in turn, to a rectangular or square courtyard around which a series of spaces were arranged. Staircases in two-storied residences, such as Casa del Deán, were located either right across the zaguán at the other side of the courtyard or close to the entry, as was the case with the Casa del Deán. At the back of the house, there would usually be another courtyard where the service spaces were found.[i] The only sixteenth-century courtyard extant in Puebla is the one found in the Casa de las Cabecitas, which has some similar features seen in the photographs of the Casa del Deán’s central courtyard, 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 Deán 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 Fernández de Córdoba, 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 last will and testament, as well as an aerial view that provides little useful detail. 

The Murals

Besides its architecture, a most intriguing aspect of the Casa del Deán are 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 Deán 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 that was a favorite theme of poets and artists throughout the late medieval period and the Renaissance. At the Casa del Deán, 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, a representation of the Triumph of Fame was not carried out at the Casa del Deán.  The triumphs all ride in chariots against a backdrop of landscapes that are even more richly populated than those in the Hall of the Sybils. An array of various scenarios, from urban 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 are interlaced 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, and as demonstrated by the likes of Erwin Walter Palm, Serge Gruzinski, and Penny Morrill, 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. 

In the Hall of the Triumphs, particularly, the representations of animals in cartouches, with anthropomorphic attributes, represented as scribes, musicians, or dancers, and the presence of indigenous objects, such as a jaguar as warrior, holding a macuáhuitl, an indigenous mallet used as a war weapon, and a typical pre-Hispanic round shield, render evidence to the indigenous origin of the artists. In fact, Morrill has argued the artists at work in the Casa del Deán were most likely trained at a Franciscan monastery in the Puebla-Tlaxcala region.

Conclusions

The Casa del Deán is as a relic of the translation of European humanism to the burgeoning New World city of Puebla de los Ángeles. It testifies to the aspiration of an intellectual class made up of singular characters like that of Tomás 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 New World, but who did not hesitate to flaunt imagery and symbols drawn from the indigenous culture of his adopted land. 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 Deán’s architectural characteristics, on the other hand, has been overlooked. This, evidently, stems principally from its near-total destruction and shortage of evidence, however, despite the limited information available, this short essay showed the attempts at hypothesizing the residence’s sixteenth-century features, utilizing all evidence at hand. This exercise in historical reconstruction makes the claim of how urban residential palaces as an architectural and historical typology, acted as artifacts that, when analyzed, expressed a series of traits that are able to provide a broader picture of urban life and cosmopolitan aspirations in the New World.


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