Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Caballito presides over art and architecture

In 1979 President José López Portillo ordered the equestrian statue of Carlos IV of Spain moved from a traffic circle on Paseo de la Reforma to a plaza where viewers could wander around and see it from every angle. The president reasoned few admired Manuel Tolsá's exquisite sculpture in the traffic circle.  Drivers maneuvering the traffic flow and even pedestrians put their lives at risk even attempting to view the statue in detail.  

Even though the statue has one of the largest and grandest horses ever seen in sculpture, it is referred to in ironic Mexican style as the Caballito -- the tiny little horse.  Once it was moved the traffic circle went from being the “Glorieta del Caballito” to “the Glorieta donde estaba el Caballito”-- where the Caballito used to be.  Yes, all reference is to the horse, not the rider.

In 1821, after independence from Spain, there was talk of melting down the statue and fabricating weapons from the bronze.  Cooler heads prevailed; it was preserved as art, not homage.  For safekeeping, it was moved from the Plaza de la Constitución (the Zócalo) to a university building.  It remained there until 1852 when it moved to the traffic circle on Paseo de la Reforma. 

Now the Caballito is in the middle of the esplanade in front of the National Art Museum and presides over one of the few open spaces in Mexico City's Centro Historico.  Although traffic flows through on Tacuba street, by eliminating curbs and sidewalks contemporary city planners allowed the Art Museum to share its open space with the Palacio de la Minería (the School of Mining) also designed by Manuel Tolsá, who besides being a sculptor and architect was rector of Mexico City's San Carlos Academy of Art.  The Palacio de Correos (main post office) and the old Senate building have toeholds on opposite corners of this marvelous plaza. 

As I sit on the stepped pedestal of the Caballito, busy contemporary Mexico passes by.  I am reminded of a tourism department poster that read "Mexico City, where the Renaissance went after it left Europe."  Tolsá's Mining Palace, built in the last years of the Viceroyalty period, faces the former Secretariat of Communications and Public Works building (now the art museum), symbol of Porfirio Diaz's idea of Order and Progress, built in the last years before the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  

Looking up at the top level of the main post office, designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari, it’s easy to imagine passing a Venetian palace in a gondola.   Step into that building at the corner of Tacuba and Eje Central and be wonderstruck by its beauty.   Inside is a statuette of a relay runner making his way from the Gulf coast to Emperor Moctezuma's palace with a giant fish on his shoulder -- Mexico's first postal system. 

The National Art Museum's facade is currently behind scaffolding, but the museum is open. It houses a number of magnificent marble sculptures in hallways and staircases but its extensive collection is mostly paintings.  One room exhibits various portraits, all by different Mexican 20th Century artists, of patron of Mexican arts and muse Maria Asúnsolo. 

You’ll see impressive mural-sized artist's views of imaginative events within Mesoamerican palaces, from a European perspective.  Contrasting with them are accurately portrayed photographic-quality landscapes by José María Velazco.  Velazco studied botany in order to paint leaves accurately.  His best known paintings are the view of the Pyramid of the Sun painted from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon in 1878, and a steam locomotive pulling a train around a curve, over a bridge, enroute to the port of Veracruz.  Snowcapped Citlaltépetl (better known as the Peak of Orizaba) is in the background.

Outside the museum art is also happening.  David Cerón Oropeza 'paints' with chalk on the pavement.  He 'puts up' a new painting each month.  The current one is Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring".  The pitch-black background of the masterpiece goes well with the Plaza's black volcanic paving stones.  

While admiring his rendition of the painting, tune out the traffic and listen for rattles like those worn around their ankles by Aztec-style dancers. They will be around the ankles of street saxophonist Oscar Gomezcesar, a.k.a. El Vampiro.  

When I emceed the tribute to John Ross in Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad last year, Oscar fulfilled John's request that El Vampiro play "The Internationale" on stage.  He'll gladly play it for you on request.  
Besides being part of the Manuel Tolsá Plaza, both Oscar and David are well-versed in literature, art, and current events, all likely from a point of view quite different from that you probably normally encounter.  They are interesting lunch guests. Don't worry about inviting The Vampire into a restaurant with you; he's well regarded in the Centro Histórico.

And going full circle, the traffic circle on Reforma is once again the Glorieta del Caballito, but with a very different Caballito.  Now it is Sebastián's schoolbus-yellow modern sculpture of a knight from a chess set.  Traffic flows around it smoothly. 

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