Building that tells about the Novohispanic life
By Todito Centro
The history of the Museum of Mexico City, former Palace of the Counts of Santiago de Calimaya, dates back to the year 1527, when Mr. Juan Gutiérrez Altamirano arrives in New Spain from the island of Cuba where he had been governor in 1524; he takes the post of Corregidor de Texcoco, being this the second most important city after Mexico City and also became a seer of Hernán Cortés.
When Hernán Cortés Monroy Pizarro de Altamirano distributes the conquered lands; grants the lots closest to the old Teocalli -Templo Mayor- to the conquerors and to those who had helped him in some way, this is the reason why he gives this plot located in the old road of Iztapalapa nowadays Pino Suárez, to Juan Gutierrez Altamirano, who shortly before had married nuptials with Juana Pizarro, who was cousin of the conqueror’s cousin, but do not think badly of Mr. Altamirano, he did not marry Cortes’ cousin by interest, since he also was cousin of the conqueror’s cousin.
It is presumed that the construction of the first “manor house” that occupied this site, began in the year of 1536 and corresponded to the style of the Plateresque that was the architectural current of that time, that house had to be demolished for several reasons, the earthquakes, the little maintenance given to the property but the most important of them was the thrombus of San Mateo of 1629, this tromba flooded Mexico City for 5 years and the water level reached in some points up to two meters ten centimeters, which made that 16th-century city remain unusable and sent to demolish to begin building what we now know as the “City of Palaces.”
The Palace that we observe today was built between 1776 and 1779 and the work was in charge of the architect Francisco Antonio de Guerrero y Torres, the last baroque boast in New Spain, who also built the Pocito Church – in La Villa de Guadalupe- , the Teaching Temple, the Palace of the Counts of San Mateo Valparaiso and the Iturbide Palace – nowadays Banamex Art Museum -, in addition to this, works such as the Palace of the Counts of Heras and Soto and the Borda House.
This Palace gets its name because the third generation of Mr. Altamirano got the noble title of “Counts of Santiago de Calimaya” by order of Carlos V; from Santiago because they were devotees of Santiago el Mayor, Spanish patron; from Calimaya because that was the name of the town that was given to them in Encomienda and that generated great wealth.
On the facade of this portentous building we can admire the quarry and the tezontle, which in a romantic way can remind us of what Mexicans are, the red tezontle, representing the reddish color of the ancient Mexica and the white quarry remembering the color of the conquerors that together formed the miscegenation of which we are a product.
The original coat of arms of the family is worked in marble at the top of the cover; which is integrated in turn by the shields of the most important families belonging to the lineage of the counts: Altamirano, Velasco, Castilla and Mendoza, which we will see later. In addition to them we can see under the windows a geometric figures, which are said to be a type of signature of who built this palace.
The facade of the palace is surrounded by canyons carved in quarry stone, which adorn it as a symbol of its participation in the army as general captains of Guatemala; which is why it was also called “the cannon house”.
In the corner of this building on the street of the Republic of Salvador there is a snakehead that represents “Quetzalcóatl” the Plumed Serpent, this piece is said to have been brought from the remains of the Templo Mayor and placed there at the end of the century XVIII, when the Palace was built 1776-1779. The writer Salvador Novo wrote a phrase around her that says: “As if it arose from the earth to hold the burden of the Viceroyalty on its immortal jaws…”
The most beautiful detail of this enclosure, are its doors and perhaps the most beautiful in the Centro Historico. It is said that they were made with white cedar brought from the Philippines, and tells us some important facts about the family’s history; In both doors we find a Chinese dragon, which tells us about the noble title: “Perpetual Advancement of the Philippine Islands”, since a distant relative helped in the conquest of the Philippines and the sea routes that went from Acapulco to the Philippine Islands were traced; with which the trade between east and west develops in the famous Nao of China or Spanish Galleon.
On both doors, decorating the upper corners, a fragment of the Altamirano shield appears and on the other side a fragment of the Velasco shield; under these details there is another complete shield and in each door a different one, the one on the right is the shield of the Castilla family and the one on the left is that of the Mendoza. Continuing down we have the face of the deity “Eolo”, god of the wind of Greek mythology, whose mouth leaves wind and flowers, which along with the castanets that are on the sides makes us think of the excitement of their parties, whether for a saint, birthday or any other holiday; In fact, it is said that the hall of this palace, where all these celebrations were held, was one of the largest in New Spain. We also see a farming tool of sickle name, which describes us that they had agrarian lands entrusted, then some helmets or masks appear at each door, the one on the right side is open and the left one closed, which symbolized that according to the attitude with which a visitor arrived at the palace like this was going to be received; if he came in peace the doors of the palace would be open to him and he would be welcome, but if he came in war they would close the doors and in that same way he would be received. Then we have a medallion in which there are a castle and a fleur de lis, which tells us that the Counts had a direct relationship with Spanish royalty, that is, with the Bourbons, a family that has occupied the throne in Spain since that time; There are also crowned lions like war trophies.
Once we pass through the huge hall and leaving the gates behind, we enter the main courtyard where we find columns of Ionic order and arches of lowered point, appreciating the shields of the four most important families of this lineage in the arches which we already mentioned.
The first thing we can see in the courtyard is a beautiful fountain in the pure Baroque style, this fountain has a history and is the following: Legend has it that towards the end of the 18th century, while the construction of the palace was done, in the seventh Generation the Count in turn Don Juan Manuel and Lorenzo Altamirano Velasco Urrutia and Vergara who had four daughters, learned that the youngest of them had fallen in love with a horseman, a situation that of course made the Count so desperate and furious, as this would cause serious social and economic problems to the family, who decided to kill the servant and his own daughter to put an exemplary punishment and never again dare to make such a mistake. They say that she was buried in the main courtyard below where the fountain is today and behind it is a staircase where a water pile can be found.
According to legend, this fact coincides with the construction of the palace, so they say that when the Count took a walk in the courtyard to see how the work was going, he was overwhelmed with regrets and a woman appeared. Following these events, he commanded to build a fountain with the central image of a Nereid (nymph of Neptune) that represents Galatea who plays the guitar. If we pay attention we will realize that Galatea looks towards the Chapel, for some it may well represent a disguised gravestone and for others the Count’s daughter who looks towards the chapel asking forgiveness for her sin.
The fountain is empty, as the legend says that people said that sometimes at night you could hear the crying of a baby and you could see the figure of a woman who went from the music room to the chapel where it finally disappeared; until one day, by chance, when they were washing or repairing, both the fountain and the water pile, they realized that the crying was no longer heard nor the appearance of the woman was seen: From that moment on to any of They both put water on them.
Architecturally the fountain has as its main motive a nereid that seems to come out of a large shell, at the top it has a fleur de lis, in stone; guarding it some newts and below there are some children playing with sea snakes. The motives of the source are eminently maritime since the conquest of both New Spain and the Philippines was carried out in this way.
At the bottom of the first courtyard there is a corridor that connects to the backyard or service yard and 4 huge original gates, where the palace garages were located.
In the second courtyard of this house we find rooms that were used initially, as servants’ rooms and / or as warehouses; in the economically difficult times the family suffered, they rented; This gradually caused this courtyard to become a neighborhood.
This Palace, like some others in New Spain, unlike the European Palaces, was designed to house and live with other classes of society and we can confirm this by all the accessories that surround this property on the outside.
Returning to the main patio we find the staircase that takes us to the first level, known as the noble floor, on the sides of the stairs, some lions that have the function of guarding access to the rooms of the Counts and capturing the negative energies that are leave when passing through the octagon that form the banks of the stairs, with a tendency of feng shui, this octagon represents the infinite since if we place the number 8 horizontally it creates this figure that renews the energies of those who pass through it.
On the first level of this patio, finishing at the roof level, gargoyles can be seen in the shape of cannons, and in the lower part of each one a mask appears with the face of a manticore as custodians of this patio. On this floor we find the rooms of the nobility, where they carried out their day to day. the rooms we find are the following; the sacristy and chapel – If we look at the columns on the cover of the chapel of the foliage that surrounds them we will discover faces that are believed to be some Mexican deity, the 8-pointed cross that crowns the facade is the emblem of the Order of Carlos III and it is also the last noble title granted to them by the ballroom, which is the place where their lavish dances and receptions were performed. We also found the pleasure rooms, so named because if we remember the customs of yesteryear, the Spaniards did not bathe often and when they did it was a great pleasure, they would surely have people at their service that prepared the bathroom, a drink, a sandwich etc. Behind the pleasure rooms were the bedrooms. On this level there was also the dining room and the pantry, and finally the music room; in it the ladies were educated in the arts, the conversation, the embroideries, there were gatherings with family and friends, where they showed their advances.
On the top floor of this beautiful building we find the study of the first Mexican impressionist painter named José Joaquín Quirico Marcelino Clausell Treconis, which was made in the twentieth century, a jewel within this prodigious building that you must discover and admire with your own experience and not with this text.