Art in Latin American Architecture

By Paul F. Damaz | Go to book overview
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Colonial Art and Architecture

The treachery and cynicism displayed by the conquerors of the New World in the systematic destruction of the native cultures and the transplanting of their Latin-Arab civilization had no parallel in any historical precedent. While Cortés and Pizarro were razing the great cities of Tenochtitlan and Cuzco, Emperor Charles V was melting tons of precious gold jewelry into coins, and Bishops Juan de Zumárraga and Diego de Landa were deliberately burning the invaluable codices in which Mayan and Aztec history was pictorially recorded. To make sure that there was no misunderstanding, the new capitals were built on the same sites as the old, the viceroys' palaces in the locations where the emperors' palaces had stood, and the cathedrals on the foundations of the former temples. Much has been said in condemnation of leaders of the invasion. One might point out, however, that they were no different from military men of any. period or any country--brave and ignorant.

The colonial era in Latin America is remarkable for the abundance and richness of its religious architecturee, sculpture and painting. For the purpose of simplification, it may be divided into three main periods: The 16th century, when most activity took place in Mexico;

The 17th century, when the artistic center of the New World moved south to Peru and Ecuador; The 18th century, which saw the development of Portuguese baroque in Brazil.

In all three periods, art and architecture remained essentially Iberian and were only occasionally and superficially modified by climatic conditions and existing local cultures.

Throughout the 16th century, construction activity in Mexico was extraordinary. Spurred on by the fever of evangelization, Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian orders, with the help of free labor, built some four hundred monasteries in seventy-five years. A great variety of styles were used, sometimes in the same building: Romanesque decorations, Gothic structure, Mudejar and Renaissance elements given a local flavor by Indian stone carvers. This native influence is revealed by the flat technique of carving, used in church ornamentation as it had been earlier in the reliefs around Indian temples. Wood or plaster polychrome statues and gilded wood were already part of church interiors. The paintings and frescoes that covered the walls of churches and monasteries were conceived in the impersonal Valencian manner imported straight from Spain. Although Indian painters tutored by friars helped to paint them, we can discern in them none of the characteristics of the Aztec codices.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the maturity of Latin American colonial art and the establishment of baroque architecture. The period of conversion having come to a close and the civil administration being now well organized, the major builders became the secular clergy, who needed churches and cathedrals, and the civil authorities, who required public buildings and palaces. During the first half of the 17th century, baroque remained moderate and sometimes even severe, following the style created by Juan deHerrera

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