Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mexican treasures

The Iturbide Palace located in the Centro Histórico (Historical Center) is one of Mexico City's architectural gems.  This is an auspicious week to visit it.  The exhibit in its courtyard titled "Artificios -- Silver and Design in Mexico, 1880-2012" has been extended through Thursday May 23. 

If you recognize the styles of outstanding Mexican designers you'll be able to pick out their work in "Artificios".  Over 2,000 items are on display.   Silver jewelry, cutlery, tea sets, bowls, serving dishes, sacred vessels for liturgical celebrations, bishops staffs, pieces based on Mesoamerican prehispanic design, Art Deco, and computer generated design all compete for space.  Production techniques range from individually hand-crafted pieces to mass-produced pieces that allow producers to fill large-quantity orders for chain stores and online sales. Pieces made with 3D printers are the most cutting edge on display.

The exhibit occupies two floors of the Iturbide Palace at Madero 17. The building is a work of art in and of itself. Built between 1779 and 1785, it is patterned on the Palazzo dei Normanni (the royal place of Palermo, Sicily) and considered a masterpiece of New Spain's civil architecture.

Popular lore maintains that Juan Nepomuceno de Moncada y Berrio built the palace as his daughter's dowry.  By not giving cash as dowry Moncada guaranteed that his good-for-nothing son-in-law, the Marquis of Moncada of Sicily, would not squander his daughter's wealth nor take her to Sicily.

Agustin de Iturbide lived in the house for eighteen months between 1821 and 1823. Iturbide presided over Mexico after independence from Spain, first as president of the Regency Council and then as Emperor of Mexico.  In a bizarre twist, the Regency Council offered the throne of Mexico to Fernando VII (a Bourbon) on the condition that he abdicate his throne in Spain or be deposed from it -- as seemed imminent.  If Fernando did not accept the throne it was to be offered to his brothers and cousin.  If none of them accepted the throne it was to be offered to any Mexican.  Spain rejected the offer outright.  Agustin de Iturbide accepted it on May 18, 1822. Two months later, in a ceremony held in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, he crowned himself Emperor of Mexico against the backdrop of the Altar of the Kings.

Yes, Mexico's first government after independence from Spain was yet another empire, not a republic.

Iturbide's reign was short-lived -- he abdicated in March of 1823 and went into exile in Italy and later in the United Kingdom. He returned to Mexico in July 1824.  He thought he would be welcomed back but instead was arrested and executed by firing squad.  His remains lie in a glass urn in a side chapel in Mexico City's Cathedral, just a few paces from where his crowning ceremony had been held. 

Though fleeting, "The First Mexican Empire" did serve to soften the transition from Spanish monarchy to a republican form of government. 

After Iturbide went into exile the palace carrying his name went through various uses.  Its low point was when it was the horse-drawn carriage terminal in Mexico City.  Later it became an elegant hotel.  In 1965 the building was purchased by Banco Nacional de México (now Banamex), the nation's second largest private bank. 

Banco Nacional de México (BNM) restored the Iturbide Palace to it former grandeur yet housed a branch of the bank in its courtyard.  I remember cashing travelers checks there.

Recognizing the beauty of the building, BNM decided it appropriate to furnish the palace with period furniture and furnishings.  It went so well that BNM went on to purchase viceroyalty-period palaces and mansions in other Mexican cities.  As a result I've also cashed checks in the Montejo Palace in Mérida and the Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal in San Miguel Allende. 

When President Lopez Portillo nationalized private banks on the first of September 1982, Banamex owned the nations largest collection of viceroyalty period furnishings.  The bank and its possessions were re-privatized during the Salinas administration (1988-94) At that time art lovers attempted to have the palaces and furnishings turned over to the Institute of Fine Arts.  After all they had nothing to do with banking. The government decided that since the furnishings and artwork had belonged to the bank before the nationalization they should go the new owner of the bank. 

Years later Banamex was acquired by Citibank, whose headquarters is in New York.  So to add further absurdity to the mix associated with Agustin de Iturbide, Mexico's largest collection of viceroyalty-period furnishings, art, and palaces in which to house them is owned by a U.S. bank.

"Artificios -- Silver and Design in Mexico, 1880-2012" will be open through Thursday May 23 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., free of charge. No photos are allowed in the exhibit.

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