April 13, 2021

Urban republics in the viceregal America

Urban republics in the viceregal America

"Until almost the end of the 20th century, the old manuals supposed that you could only make history from written documents and that other sources, iconic or otherwise, were not very reliable," says Tomás Pérez Vejo, professor at Escuela Nacional of Anthropology and History (Mexico), in the introduction of his new book "Urban Republics in an Imperial Monarchy. Images of cities and political order in the viceregal America "(Criticism, Colombian Planet). This essay is based on the use of images as a historical source, based on the intellectual conviction that iconic documents can be as rich and revealing as written ones. The thread is the dozens of urban views, landscapes, generated by viceregal painting from the mid-seventeenth century until the imperial collapse of the early nineteenth century. The objective is not the real city and its evolution over time, but the reconstruction of the imagined city from the iconic representations that its contemporaries left us. "From the 80s and 90s the idea that there are other types of sources – paintings, engravings, maps, monuments, architecture, ruins, etc. – that complement the written sources because they tell things that in others do not appear began to be affirmed. so clear In that sense, iconography has become an essential tool, "he says.

"Historians have explained societies as they were, but we have left something aside how they were lived and perceived by their own protagonists. What I argue – the professor continues – is that these urban views left by the painters, the representation of the principal cities of the viceroyalty of New Spain and Peru, are not landscapes as we understand them today, but rather moral allegories, that is, , the interest is not so much to represent the real city, but as a symbol of its political organization, its conception as a self-sufficient urban republic, encompassed in the order of the Monarchy, but which functions as an autonomous political order ". Pérez Vejo distinguishes two ways of understanding the city according to two etymological origins, the Latin terms "urbs", referring to the physical structure or sum of buildings, squares and streets and "civitas", which referred to the Greek concept of polis in which the The city is fundamentally a legal entity. The urban views represent the urbs, since buildings appear, but not so much as physical realities but as realities of the political order, therefore, as a representation of the civitas.

The professor analyzes in these paintings "how the political order of the Catholic or Hispanic Monarchy in America was lived. Authoritarianism was not lived as in Europe, they had the consciousness of belonging to societies ruled by order, not arbitrariness. Politics did not go through the king, because his role in daily life was marginal, but by the ordinances dictated by the town council. " This allows him to affirm the idea that "the Monarchy was understood as a confederation of urban republics, on whose upper level the king was, but where political life did not pass through him, but for each city, autonomous political subject with rights, fueros and privileges. Their self-government is understood as a natural right, not as a concession of monarchs. When a territory is colonized, the first thing that is done is to found a city and it is done with a document as a previous republic, including the construction of buildings, laws, privileges, ordinances are given, the council is named … That is, the legal city is founded before physics ". Societies whose political ideal was not equality but functional and status inequality. "A political order is better the more unequal -explains-. Societies that do not understand or imagine themselves formed by autonomous individuals, but as organic societies formed by corporations and estates in which the individual does not participate in public life in isolation, but as a member of a family, social group or guild " . According to the author, "in contemporary societies, homogeneity is something desirable and sought, the better the more homogeneous, but in the Old Regime or in the American kingdoms, society is richer the more heterogeneous. In the analyzed urban views, there appears that willingness to show the heterogeneity of the groups that inhabit it, of the neighbors that live in it, that here add the phenotypic or racial differences, ethnic groups that from the pictorial point of view are easy to represent, not only because they dress differently according to each group, but because of the color of the skin. "

Main square

Within these paintings the Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor stands out, as the axis of urban life, authentic political allegories in which the greatness of the city and those who lived in it was represented and exhibited. "In the square are the symbols of the three powers, the Church -cathedral-, the town hall-council- and the royal houses for the royal administration or the palace of the viceroy if it is a viceroyalty" -explains Pérez Vejo. "But it is also the commercial and economic center – he continues -, the place where the market develops, where the neighbors are supplied with everything they need. Perhaps the most spectacular case is that of the city of Mexico, in whose Plaza Mayor the Parian is built – literally "Chinese market" -, which is a kind of gigantic market, built in stone with all kinds of shops ". On the other hand, the book also analyzes the city as a great theater, as a center of public life and a place where every year dozens of shows, parades and processions take place that roam the streets for the most diverse reasons, religious festivals -like the Corpus-, the death of a king, the visit or taking of possession of a viceroy, a royal marriage, petitions for petitions – that a plague or a drought would end, by natural disasters, the transfer of the image of a virgin, etc. In all of them the political order of the city was staged, because they were not spontaneous processions, but perfectly regulated by custom or by written law, which indicated who went first or behind ". The city as a living being, sum of corporations and unequal estates staged in the images of urban views with great detail.

The portrait and the painting of castes

Another valuable historical document for the reconstruction of the imaginary of the time is the bourgeois portrait and the painting of castes – also analyzed by Pérez Vejo, as a form of display of wealth and lineage, characteristic of a class society. "This is a lesser known aspect, a genre that only exists in New Spain. They are a series of paintings where the different racial mixtures are represented. The typical scheme is formed by the father and the mother, each of a group and the result of the crossing. For example, from Spanish and Indian comes mestizo, and thus a kind of gibberish of mixtures and denominations, such as "wolf", "try in the air", "zambo", "mulato", "coyote", "cambujo" .. .o "I do not understand you", because there were already so many mixtures, that they did not know what to call it. This painting of castes is fundamentally an expression of the richness of American societies, "he clarifies.

There is no doubt that the images of urban views are an apparatus of propaganda and persuasion, a kind of pedagogy of political and religious power, indistinguishable from one another since they are one and the same here. The question is: How a political structure as extensive as the Spanish Monarchy was able to survive three centuries in America without intervening in the army and with hardly any revolt? Among other things, by an enormously effective propaganda apparatus in which images played a decisive role in securing the legitimacy of power, in order to raise awareness that this order was good and just and that is why it achieved the loyalty of its subjects.


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