Friday, May 18, 2012

Mexico City - The Centro Historico

I disembark from the crowded train at the stop in the central historical district, the oldest part of the city. It has a massive square, the Zocolo whose immensity was diminished as there were bleachers and fencing around it due to an exhibition either coming up or just finished. It was around the time of year of The Day of the Dead, a major holiday in Mexico. Street performers wandered around the city's 16th century cathedral dressed in costumes and wearing skull masks. One of the bell towers of the cathedral was being worked on and was covered in netting, thus diminishing it's full visual impact.

The inside of the cathedral is dark, as Mexican cathedrals can sometimes be. Having had the privilege of being inside some of the most famous and awe inspiring cathedrals in the world I did not spend a lot of time there.

I am an amateur student of history and architecture, so, when I travel I do seek out and enjoy wandering the streets of the oldest portions of the cities I visit. Mexico City did not disappoint. At the end of one street lined with venerable buildings I discovered another church. The bell tower slanted off at an angle, either the result of the unstable soil of the city, or one of the strong earthquakes it has experienced. The stone pillars by it's massive wooden doors were elaborately carved. I stood, marveling at them for some time. Coming back toward the park at the other end of the historic area the colonial influence was everywhere. Arched doorways and arcades and the rich ornamentation on some of the buildings displayed an decidedly Spanish flavor.

The horseback police in the Parque Alameda, Mexico City's oldest park, wear traditional embroidered Mexican costumes, short jackets and tight toreador like pants, and large sombreros. Along the sidewalks of the park blankets are laid out everywhere selling everything from CD's and DVDs, many involving wrestling or bloody action movies, to traditional Mexican crafts and souvenirs.

The two most memorable moments of my visit to the old city involved attractions located directly across the street from one another. One is a great art treasure, the other a great historical one.

After much controversy a decision was made to demolish two colonial era homes across from the cathedral. During the demolition a large stone disk was discovered covered with Aztec markings. Demolition was halted and excavation began revealing the remains of the major temple pyramid of the Aztec civilization. Each Aztec emperor expanded the pyramid to make his reign more important the the preceding one. Museums and historical sites are partially state sponsored, as is the mass transit system, so after paying a modest fee I descended the catwalks that wind around the temple, which lies several feet below the street level. Signs in both Spanish and English relay information on the sights viewed from the catwalks. At one point a sacrificial altar was found in a mural filled room. It was in an amazing state of preservation due to it's being underground for so long. It was so well preserved that they were able to scrape the altar to analyze what had been sacrificed there. After the catwalks you go through the museum. Unfortunately, most of the information in this section is only in Spanish which left me somewhat bewildered as to what I was seeing.

As I exited the museum and started up the ramp leading to the street I encountered a group of very young school children, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, dressed in their uniforms. As I walked up the ramp their wonderful, cherubic faces lit up and they began to smile and wave to me saying "Good morning, good morning!" I waved back realizing that those may be the only two words of English they knew. They brought a smile to my own face. This was also the first time I came to the full realization that in Mexico City, I do not blend.

Across from the pyramid is Mexico City's Palacio National. Originally the site of Aztec emperor Montezuma II's castle, it was destroyed by Cortes who built his own palace on the site. For me, the highlight of this building is the mural by Diego Rivera. It covers the side and back walls of a staircase in the building and tells the history of Mexico from the Aztecs to the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century. One particularly disturbing image can be found in the lower left hand corner of the back wall where a group of friars are pulling out the tongue of an Aztec. A more uplifting image is on the left wall of the stairwell where Mexican revolutionaries are depicted publishing a socialist newspaper. Seen from a distance the piece is deeply moving due to it's sense of history and the mastery of the artwork. You can truly feel the sense of pride and love Rivera held for his native country.

What I found remarkable, for such a national, not mention world art treasure, is how close you are allowed to get to the work. I was able to observe the brushwork, as well as the underlying sketchwork from mere inches away. It is as moving a piece of art as I have ever had the honor to witness.

No comments:

Post a Comment