Palacio Nacional in Mexico City

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Mexico Series: Part 9

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We can look in front of us now at the Palacio Nacional, built by Cortes as his personal palace and government offices in the fifteen hundreds.The red stones used to build the Palacio Nacional are called tezontle, and they came from the buildings of Moctezuma—the private dwellings and pyramids of the Aztecs. Tezontle is a light weight volcanic rock and rather easy to chisel into bricks. The sober structure is embellished with Baroque touches in the Churrigueresque style, a particular kind of Baroque façade developed in Spain that reached its height in Mexico. Inside the Palace itself you will find yourself skipping ahead to the 20th century the magnificent murals of Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico. Just one thing, notice the window in front of the Palacio. The trim is Baroque, the bell is from the war of Independence and the little face above the awning — the face of the Aztec god Tlaloc — layers of Mexican history.

We’re going to leave the Majestic and walk around, over to the Cathedral, where we’ll notice the types of architectural styles employed during the 200 years it took to complete this cathedral — Gothic, Baroque, And Neo-Classical. We’ll look at two particularly exhuberant Baroque elements — the front of the Tabernacle and the Altar of the kings. This is what the wealthy merchant class spent money on — massive amounts of gold leaf.

As we walk, you’ll notice how uneven the stairs and so on are, that’s because the whole city is built on what was formerly a lake. After a big flood in 1630, the Spaniards had the whole lake drained, but needless to say the 17th century engineering feat was less than successful, which is why Mexico city to this day deals with sinking and flooding.

After that we’ll wander down a side street to the former 16th palace of one of Cortez right hand men, now the Museum of the City of Mexico. We’ll pass the giant serpent head used as a cornerstone of the building that came from the great pyramid itself, and then we’ll head down another street to the Cloister of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. No trip to Mexico City with a writer would be complete without a pilgrimage to her study.

So who was Sor Juana? Only one of the most important poets in the western hemisphere. She lived in the mid-16 century, achieved great heights of learning at a time when even well born women could barely read. She was the very beautiful illegitimate daughter of a wealthy creole woman. At age 13 or so she was sent to live in the court of the Viceroy in Mexico where she became the Vicereine’s favorite companion.

At 16 she entered a convent, where, because of her close relationship with the Vicereine, she was granted incredible privileges. Her study walls were lined with hundreds of books and she spent her time studying and writing poetry — many of them it is believed — were love poems to the vicereine herself veiled in formal verse and with religious allusions. The brooch at Sor Juana’s neck carried an image of the Vicereine and when the viceroy was commanded back to Spain, Sor Juana lost her protection was forced to confess her sins and to give away her books and live in a simple cell until she died a few years later.

Books, plays movies etc. have been made of her story, whole university departments are devoted to the study of her life and work. Perhaps the best way to get a feel for viceregal Mexico is to read some of these accounts.

Or you could do what I’m doing and read a trashy romance published last year by a California writer, a Harvard grad no less and another student of Sor Juana. The book is called the “Sins of Josefina.”

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