Surveying Patterns

Foundational plan of San Juan de la Frontera,
Argentina, 1562.

Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain.

Cloister, Convent of Las Capuchinas, ca. 1730.

Antigua, Guatemala.

Portrait of an Indian Lady, Daughter of a Cacique. 1757.

Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico.


The city street, the nun’s cell, and the gentleman’s chamber—these spaces framed daily life in Spanish America. So too did the local church, the indigenous house, and the market. Today, these sites and the things that people created for them suggest the ways that visual culture in Spanish America was patterned by the mundane and regular as well as spontaneous rhythms of everyday life.

People in Spanish America, like people in Spain, held cities to be the source of civilized life, and it was in cities that a distinct visual culture was first shaped. The Spanish American city, for instance, was to be set out on a grid—that is, adhering to an ideal Renaissance city plan. This physical space was further modified by social and political ideals. Spaniards made idealized divisions in their colonies between separate “republics” of different peoples, each with different roles and responsibilities. In the ideal of the city, they were to be carefully segregated (although, in practice, strict segregation rarely occurred). The elite home, the convent, the monastery likewise, were to be worlds whose architecture would set them apart from the bustle of the marketplace and the rowdiness of city streets. These interior spaces, in turn, were intended to mold inhabitants and shape the practice of everyday life.

Often, separate spaces were set up for or by women, a byproduct of a culture that valued female chastity, domesticity, and spirituality and held them apart from the values and practices of more traditionally public and masculine spheres. For instance, a convent of cloistered nuns was seen as largely a female world, protected by thick fortress-like walls from mundane intrusions. And the elite house also created careful distinctions between home and the world. In Count Xala’s 18th-century mansion in Mexico City, for instance, the street level resounded with the tramp of horses and rattle of carriages as business was carried out, but the upper floor was reserved for family and friends. It may be hard to imagine today, but the women of the Xala family would spend most of their time, even their lives, on this floor.

Models of female roles were conveyed and reflected in visual images. Portraits of elite women showed them as wives of powerful men, daughters of wealthy families, usually ripe for marriage, or brides of Christ. Portraits often emphasized and promoted female religiosity; even in secular portraits, women grasp rosaries, as if the artist had interrupted them at prayer.

But religiosity was not only the province of women, and almost everyone participated in some degree in religious life. Men, as bishops, monks, or cofradía members, were typically the leaders of organized religion. And the tempo of the days—in metropolitan centers and native communities alike—was set by the Catholic Church, where the vivid eruption of feasts and saints’ days overlaid the regular pattern of the seven-day week, with Sunday at its lead.

While buildings and objects show us the contours of powerful ideologies, the messy practice of living has also left its residue in the objects and places of everyday life. While some maps of the cities of Spanish America display grid plans and segregated neighborhoods, in actual neighborhoods, Spaniards, Indians, mulattos and mestizos lived cheek by jowl. Convent, monastery and elite households offered spacious quarters for their wealthy residents, and then tiny cells or rooftop shacks for the servants who came and went to markets and public spaces. Despite imposing façades, these buildings were places open to the world.

Ideals about social roles conjoined with everyday practices to shape the visual environment, as did available materials. This section of Vistas includes objects that are distinct to Spanish America, often because of available products and materials. Glorious tapestries made in Peru were woven of local cotton and the wool gathered from llamas and vicuñas. Some used natural colors, but reds often came from cochineal, a dye made from the bodies of crushed insects that had been in use since pre-Columbian times. A silver teapot called a pava was designed to brew tea made out of maté leaves, a popular drink then and now. The heavy and nearly pure silver used in this and other objects came from rich mines in northern Mexico and Bolivia.

Class also played a definitive role in the creation of visual culture and in subsequent understandings of it. Elites were not the only ones to document their lives and possessions through portraits, legal contracts and wills, but more of their effects survive, as do their diaries, travel accounts and spiritual biographies. The objects the wealthy owned and commissioned, because of their durable and often precious materials, are also the ones most likely to have been passed down and preserved through generations, as was the portrait of an indigenous woman, shown below. Reflecting the higher survival rate of elite documents, objects and architecture, Vistas by default offers a clearer picture of high-status lives and spaces. Surviving elite objects from Spanish America often register the powerful influence of both Spanish and broader European traditions. Style and function, in particular, suggest how much the upper classes in Spanish America admired and emulated the visual culture of Spain. Their campaign to import European things and ideas into the New World was helped by presence of large cities. For new ideas spread quickly within these concentrated milieus, and then made their way outward to more provincial towns and communities.

Through time, the visual culture of Spanish America, first colored by transatlantic trade, picked up a distinct tincture from transpacific commerce. The galleons that were loaded down with New World silver returned from Asia carrying Chinese silks and blue-and-white porcelain. By the 18th century, elite homes were likely to have Spanish-inspired chests inlaid with bone alongside Asian-inspired lacquered furniture and ceramics, all made by local artists and craftsmen. So attractive was this urban elite visual culture that even places on the far frontiers picked up its pulses like signals on a radio, as urban products and ideas were transmitted along internal trade routes. Along the dusty Chihuahua trail in New Mexico, wealthy residents of Santa Fe wore imported European brocade and ate off painted pottery from Puebla, just as did their counterparts in Mexico City, thousands of miles away.

Because of the predominance of elite objects among survivals, it is possible to mistake elite culture and urban culture for all of visual culture, but this is far from the case. Rural areas and small towns lay at a distance from the network of cities and the pulses of international trade. Here, the particulars of geography, available materials, and the inheritance of distinct native traditions were more strongly felt. While it might be easy at first to mistake a coffee pot from Lima for one from Mexico City, it would be impossible to confuse a set of woman’s clothes from Cuzco, Peru with one from Antigua, Guatemala.

In rural areas and small towns, it was regional markets, offering local products, both natural and man-made, that allowed for the development and expression of local taste. Many such markets had a long history, dating to well before the arrival of Europeans. Indeed, some survive today. While the physical appearance of colonial markets rarely exists, the occasional surviving document offers a glimmer of the market spectacle and hints at the visual culture of ordinary lives. As to the range of local styles that once came out of these markets, perhaps the best visual clues emerge in the spectrum of contemporary folk arts from Latin America, and in its craft traditions that are some of the richest in the world.



Patterns of the Everyday > Surveying Patterns    > Images    > Texts    > Bibliography