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Mexico Travel - Sights Around The Zocalo

[Mexico - A Growing Travel Field]  [Preliminary Hints]  [How to Get to Mexico]  [General Information]  [Sights Around the Zocalo]  [Sights Around the Alameda]  [The Business Section]  [Chapultepec Park and Castle]  [Villa Obregon, Coyoacan, Churubusco]  [Xochimilco]  [The Pyramids and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl]  [Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe]  [More Mexico Travel Tips] 

( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )

THIS GREAT SQUARE IS CALLED THE PLAZA DE LA CONSTITUCION. Although it is the terminus, or focal point, of most of the streetcar and bus lines, never once did I see a car or bus going there which read Plaza de la Constitucion; instead, the sign invariably read, "Zocalo," which is the name by which it is generally known. Officially, however, the name must still be Plaza de la Constitucion, if you can believe all the street signs around the square.

The Zocalo

The Zocalo ranks as one of the most interesting and historic spots in all Mexico. It is not only the administrative and sightseeing center of modern Mexico City, but it was also the center of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, destroyed by Cortes and the Spanish Conquistadors. The great National Palace stands on the site of the palace of Moctezuma. The Cathedral stands on the site of the greatest Aztec temple, and, although vast, is considerably smaller than the temple which it replaced. The present City Hall, facing the Cathedral, stands on the site of the old building of the Aztec municipal government. The Monte de Piedad, across the square from the National Palace, stands on the site of the palace where Cortes was lodged when he first came to Mexico City and where he later held Moctezuma prisoner.Practically every event in Mexican history has been intimately associated with this square ever since. At one time the Zocalo was covered with trees, but these were destroyed during the revolutionary period of ten to twenty years ago to permit the revolutionists to bombard the National Palace with better aim. Oddly enough, this is one of the few times that the deliberate destruction of natural splendor worked to good effect, for before the trees were cut down, it was difficult to obtain a good view of the fronts, either of the Cathedral or of the vast National Palace.

If you are taking organized sightseeing, you will, of course, be conducted from place to place and shown the various interesting sights around the square. If you are going alone, your first impulse will probably be a visit t0 the CATHEDRAL.The Cathedral

Admission is free during the daylight hours when the Cathedral is open. You are permitted to enter even when services are going on, provided you maintain a proper air of reverence, and if you are a woman, have your head covered, by either a hat or a kerchief.

Before you enter, you will probably wish to stop and admire the front of the Cathedral and the facade. of the small building adjoining on the right as you face it. In Mexico you will hear much architecture referred to as baroque, plateresque, churrigueresque, and neoclassic. The front of the Cathedral and the facade. of the building next door will give you a perfect example of the contrast between two of these forms. The main doorway of the Cathedral is plateresque; the very ornate building next door is churrigueresque. This little building next to the Cathedral, called the SAGRARIO, or TABERNACLE, can be seen only from the outside. It has been so badly wracked by time and earthquakes that it is no longer safe. It is a pity that it is no longer open to the public, but even without going inside, you can admire the decorations of the facade. which are so superb that it is almost worth a trip to Mexico City to see these alone. The churrigueresque form is a corruption of the baroque architecture which you will see at its best in other churches.

There is some question as to just when the present Cathedral building was started. Certainly, it is not the one which Cortes built on the Aztec temple. As far as I can discover, this building was started in about 1576. The foundations of the Aztec temple are the foundations of the present Cathedral, and the old city extends about ten blocks to the east. The Cathedral is still sinking very slowly, owing to the fact that Mexico City is almost entirely built on an old lake bed on marshy soil. This makes it difficult to provide a sturdy foundation for large buildings, but has proved to be one of the greatest protections against earthquakes, for the marshy ground forms a perfect cushion against almost any kind of shock.

At whatever time the Cathedral was begun, the fact remains that it was completed by the addition of the towers in 1813. Between the towers is an old clock which is floodlighted at night, lending a most peculiar effect to the entire front of the Cathedral.

The interior of the Cathedral contains many styles of architecture, all happily combined to give a harmonious effect.

As you enter by the center door, you will find that you cannot see the length of the church. The center nave of the church has been cut at either end by altars, and to obtain a view of the magnificent length of the Cathedral, you will have to step to one of the side aisles.

Just inside the main door of the Cathedral, and facing you as you enter, is one of the most interesting altars in Mexico, the ALTAR OF OUR LADY OF THE PARDONS. On the altar there is a square picture of the Madonna, painted by the Flemish artist Perines. Practically life size, it is enclosed in a massive solid-silver frame that is now black with age.

They tell an interesting story about the painting which may be a legend but seems to be so well attested that it is easier to believe it than to doubt it. The artist had been accused of heresy and was imprisoned by the Inquisitor. While incarcerated, he painted a picture of the Madonna on the inside of his cell door. When the painting was completed, he requested an interview with the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor visited him in his cell, and Perines, in an impassioned plea for his freedom, revealed his work. He based his appeal to the Inquisitor on the fact that no heretic could possibly paint such a portrait of the Madonna. The Inquisitor was so impressed by the beauty of the work that he immediately freed Perines. The cell door, complete with the picture, was subsequently placed in the altar. Today the altar of Our Lady of Pardons is used principally for masses for lost souls. When the masses are conducted for children, the altar is covered entirely in white.

Pass down the church by the left aisle, and you will have on your right the great CHOIR, standing in the center of the church and connected with the high altar, standing in the transept, by an ambulatory, enclosed by a balustrade. At one time the balustrade was solid silver, but during one of the revolutions a revolutionary general ran out of money, melted down the balustrade, and made pesos out of it! The silver balustrade was replaced by a bronze one of the same design.

The choir is of great beauty. There is some exquisite wood carving on the great organ and the choir stalls, and an important painting by CORREA, often called the Murillo of Mexico. The balustrade surrounding the choir and the altar loft was brought over from China, and its reputation is such that it is the first thing that every new Chinese minister to Mexico asks to see. You should note particularly the elaborately carved Palladian arches at the entrance to the choir. This Chinese balustrade (Chinese in workmanship but not in inspiration) is made of gold, silver, bronze, and copper, and was imported into Mexico some two hundred years ago.

As you pass down the church, observe how the floor resembles the waves of the sea. This effect is produced by the settling of the building.

The HIGH ALTAR, which faces the choir, is in the neoclassic style. It is a most ornate structure with green columns of Russian malachite supporting the usual semiclassic dome, decorated with plaster angels of rather insignificant design. Even without the angels, the altar, while magnificent, would seem somewhat out of place in this particular church. It is the only part of the church where the styles seem to clash.

However, behind the high altar in the apse of the Cathedral, there is another altar, which, although ornate, appears to belong there. This 1S the ALTAR OF THE KINGS. For many years it was the constant hope of the betterclass Mexicans that their sovereign would come from Spain to visit his possessions in the New World. Practically every hacienda had a room-the best room-never used, but always kept in readiness for the king. This custom was carried over into many of the churches, where a most elaborate altar would be set up in the apse, solely for the mass to be said at the time of the king's first visit. The Altar of the Kings is of unusual magnificence. It is covered with gold plate of unbelievable value and is done in the churrigueresque style. Although the symbolism worked into the altar is somewhat unimpressive, the whole effect is one of great beauty and elegance.

Passing the high altar on your right and the Altar of the Kings on your left, you will see, before you turn back down the church, the entrance to the SACRISTY, which contains some important works of BALTAZAR arid of ECHAVE, THE ELDER.

The treasury of the church is not open to the public and is shown only by special permission of the church authorities.

As you pass the high altar, you will see, standing on the steps above the collection box for masses for lost souls, a small statue. This statuette, a macabre representation of souls burning in hell, is a good example of the statues of startling realism that you will see in other churches in Mexico. They are the work of primitive Indian workmen and were designed to appeal to a primitive Indian people.

The SIDE CHAPELS in Spanish baroque, which you will pass as you go back down the church to the main entrance, are magnificent.

As you go out of the church, look both to the right and to the left, and in the corner of the Cathedral yard, observe the simple stone crosses, the sole remains of the original church, built on the destroyed Aztec temple by the Franciscan Fathers.

The Ruins of the Old Aztec City

By this time you will probably have heard so much about the original Aztec city that you will be determined to see at least some part of it. Turn to your left on leaving the Cathedral, pass the Sagrario, turn left again, continue until you are opposite the apse of the Cathedral, and then cross the street. In a vacant lot on the street corner, surrounded by a wire fence, stand the RUINS OF THE OLD AZTEC CITY, open t0 view during recon struction. They are of great interest to the archaeologist and are one of the sights that every tourist should see, if only at a glance. It is almost impossible to dig anywhere in or around the Plaza de la Constitucion without uncovering some remains of Aztec days. Some of the finest relics in the great National Museum were discovered by accident in this way.

A little further down the same street, I ran into something which, I am sure, my guide would never have shown me of his own free will. It is the little MUSEO HISTORICO DE MEXICO, situated in a section of the city that was once devoted exclusively to palaces, but is now a slum area. I found it quite by accident, and since the price of admission was a mere 1 o centavos, I went in without hesitation. Inside I found a collection of lifesize waxwork compositions, socially conscious in theme. Although crude in conception, they are extremely interesting. If you want a more accurate address, it is, or was, at number 21 a, Avenida Republica Argentina.

The National Palace

It is impossible to see the cathedrals, palaces, and museums without a good deal of walking. If you are not too fatigued at this point, I suggest that you go back down the street to the NATIONAL PALACE, which faces the Plaza de la Constitucion, and stands to the right as you face the Cathedral. The National Palace of Mexico City is one of the finest buildings in the world. Low and huge, it extends down the entire side of the square. The building has a colorful historic background, for it has housed most of the viceroys and the presidents of Mexico. Although the third story was added at a later date, the construction was done so skillfully that the difference is almost imperceptible.

Over the center door is the Liberty Bell of Mexicothe bell which was rung when the independence of Mexico was proclaimed, and every fifteenth of September an elaborate ceremony takes place in the square. Early in the day the square is closed to all wheeled traffic. Citizens entering the square are searched by the police for concealed weapons. At exactly eleven o'clock at night, while a big party is going on in the ballroom, the President steps out on the balcony over the center door of the palace, rings the Liberty Bell, and proclaims independence all over again. The bands in the square then play the national anthem, and the inevitable fireworks, so dear to the Mexican soul, are shot off, while the crowd yells itself hoarse. It is one of the great displays of Mexican enthusiasm, and if you are in Mexico City on the fifteenth of September, by all means go and see it, even though it may mean standing for many weary hours. As you pass into the palace and reach the inner patio, you begin to get an idea of the enormous size of the place when you see the number of automobiles that can be parked there. The patio is interesting, not only because of its extraordinary proportions, but because of its great simplicity. Too many people overlook it in their haste to get to the RIVERA MURALS, which decorate the main staircase.

Diego Rivera's mural of the history of Mexico is considered by many to be his most outstanding work. The best view of this great painting can be obtained from the balcony.

Adorning the right-hand wall are murals of ancient Mexico. This was the first part of the work finished by the artist. It is pure history expressed in symbols, fairly easy to comprehend, and beautifully executed. At the center of the mural at the extreme top sits the Sun of Superstition, in the figure of a god. The sun is surrounded by the fighting men of the Sacred Wars, and below him sits the god Quetzalcoat!.

In the great center panel, at the bottom, is depicted the history of the Conquest. The Conquest runs almost completely across the panel and supports the whole fabric of Mexican history which is symbolized above it. Here you have a sample of Rivera's strong sense of justice. He is, of course, a revolutionary and frankly antireligious in his opinion, yet, although he shows the bad priest mulcting the Indians of their gold, he shows also Fr. Bartolomo de la Casas, protecting the Indians from the extortions of his brethren. Of interest to the American will be the representation of the Battle of Chapultepec during the American invasion of 1847 at the upper right corner of the panel. The reforms under Benito Juarez are also shown, and at the extreme left, Maximilian and Carlotta. In the center is represented the independence period, showing Father Hidalgo bearing the first Mexican flag, with its painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and of Morelos, who championed the cause after Father Hidalgo's death.

On the left wall, the last part of the work to be executed, you have Rivera at his best. Unfortunately, a good part of this mural has been defaced by acid and by swastikas scratched into the side of the wall. Since the work is a true fresco painted directly on the wall, it will be difficult to repair the damage done by the vandals.

The central figure on the last wall is the Scientific Sun. Below the sun is the Virgin of Guadalupe, symbolizing Religion. From this symbol in the center wires lead to various other symbols, which are clearly apparent when you look at the fresco but are difficult to explain in words. For instance, you will see the wire leading from the money power of the church to the military power and to the executive power of the country. You will see the President of Mexico signing a bill which goes down through a chute to Wall Street, and many more of such symbols.

The President no longer resides in the National Palace, and it is used only as his executive offices. Many of the rooms once shown to tourists are now closed. However, you will be allowed to see the CABINET ROOM, with its tables of fine wood; and the GREEN ROOM, again with fine carved wood and, like many rooms in many palaces, decorated with paintings of more historic than artistic interest, although the magnificent picture of Hidalgo has both. The green room was formerly used as a reception hall for ambassadors. In the superb BALLROOM you will see the original painting from which every representation of the coat of arms of Mexico is made.* Also, if you are alone with the guide, and he is in a good mood, he may show you one or two bullet holes in a chair or in the woodwork made during the revolutionary days.

The Merced Market

Only a few blocks from the National Palace is the great MERCED MARKET. If you will walk across from the palace, passing the building of the Supreme Court, now under construction, and turn left around the Supreme Court building into the Calle Venustiano Carranza, you will find this great market, not only in the market place itself, but extending over into the surrounding streets.

"Audubon's 'Caracara' has been characterized as neither hawk nor vulture nor eagle, yet in the guise of the last named, it appears on the coat of arms of Mexico."-Bird Flight, by Gordon C. Aymar, New York. Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1935.

Even the street along which you are walking becomes a great open market.

The main covered market itself occupies the Plaza de Merced. Here you can buy almost every conceivable type of merchandise-some of real value, some just junk.

Later in this book I will discuss in greater detail the merchandise you might purchase in the market, but here I am speaking of the market merely as one of the great sights of Mexico City. If you have a spare hour or so, wander through the market and look at the various interesting native products.

Don't overlook the great HERBOLARIAS On one side of the market. These are stalls where herbs and spices are sold for the making of the native sauces, dishes, and, it is said, secret potions. Walk through the very narrow streets surrounding the market, streets that are almost alleys, and notice how the stands practically overshadow the street. Since many of the wares are spread out all over the sidewalk and on the street, you have to be very careful not to step on the stock, and equally careful not to step on one of the vendors, for they frequently sit in the street beside their wares.

Monastery of NUcestra Senora de la Merced

The entire district behind the National Palace is a fascinating one. At one time this was a district of palaces, but now it is cut up into tenements for the very poor. A walk through this section is one of the most interesting experiences you can have in Mexico City, for here you will get fascinating glimpses of many of the old patios. The great sight in this vicinity is the MONASTERY OF NUESTRA SENORA DE LA MERCED, constructed between 1602 and 1620. The monastery is interesting chiefly for the exquisitely carved columns in the patio.

Monte de Piedad

Across the square from the National Palace is the great MONTE DE PIEDAD, or the national pawnshop. This building, much restored and altered, was the first viceregal residence. The old building was bought from the government by Pedro Romero de Terreros, and in 1775 he founded this remarkable institution to facilitate loans to the poor at a low rate of interest. All of the profits are given to charity.

The ground is historic for another reason. It was built on the site of the Aztec palace where Cortes was entertained as the guest of Moctezuma on the occasion of his first visit to Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma himself was later imprisoned here and killed by Cortes.

The organization is run in a most extraordinary way. Every article brought for pawning is appraised by an expert and then pawned at one third of its value. The pawner has six months in which to pay his loan, after which time he is required to pay interest. This gives him another six months in which to pay the principal, which he is permitted to pay in installments. If he is unable to pay either the principal or the interest, the article is sold at public auction. Still, the original owner is not entirely the loser, for the amount realized at the sale, over and above the original loan, together with any accrued interest due, is turned back to the original owner. The pawnshop limits itself strictly to 2 per cent a month.

The pawnshop has a banking department which is one of the most solvent in Mexico, and although it was far from the intention of its founder, they say that the shop is the biggest fence in town for small stolen articles. This is not the case with large articles, for if you try to pawn anything of great value, you will be required to prove legal ownership.

It has developed also another feature which certainly was not intended by Pedro Romero de Terreros. People who wish to store valuable articles in a safe place frequently pawn them and consider the interest that they pay a very cheap rate for combined insurance and storage. The national pawnshop has ten or twelve branches in the city, and instead of being a drain on the poor, it has proved to be a real source of help to them.

Sometimes unusual bargains can be found in the pawnshop. Articles which have not been sold at auction are displayed in the windows, but in general, unless one buys at an auction, the prices in the pawnshop are not much below those in other stores-at least that was my casual observation. Even at the auctions, they are careful to establish minimum price to prevent the sale of an article at any absurdly low rate. Since the auction is run solely for the benefit of the public, and not for the benefit of a grasping owner, the entire atmosphere is completely different from anything you have ever known at home.

The whole square of the Plaza de la Constitucion has been declared a national monument. In this way the construction of any private buildings that might mar the appearance of the square is prevented. Builders are required to submit their designs to the National Art Commission before beginning construction.

The National Museum

The NATIONAL MUSEUM is just behind the National Palace, in the same building. It was founded by Maximilian in December, 1865. Although it is not a very large museum, it contains one of the finest collections of early American art and archaeology existing in the world today.

As you enter by the main door and walk straight across the patio, you find yourself at the great AZTEC CALENDAR STONE. This is one of the great archaeological finds of all time. Some have claimed, it is true, that the stone was not a calendar, but merely an altar or a sacrificial stone, but because of the decorations and the carvings on the stone, I am inclined to believe that they are wrong. The stone weighs 2400 tons, and the sculptured portion has a diameter of 3.54 meters. It was discovered in the Plaza de Armas by accident toward the end of the eighteenth century, and for many years was in view on one side of the Cathedral before it was moved to its present position in the museum.

Second only to the Calendar Stone in importance is the GREAT STONE immediately to its right, which commemorates the inauguration of the temple of the Aztecs in 1487. This stone was discovered in Mexico City.

The third piece of sculpture in the central row to the right, a great round stone, is generally believed now to be KING TIZOC'S MONUMENT TO THE SUN. It was known for a long time as the SACRIFICIAL STONE, because there was a cavity in the center of the horizontal face and a channel leading from it. Now, however, it is believed that this channel was made by Spanish priests in an endeavor to destroy the stone.

I shall not attempt here to catalog all the treasures of the National Museum, but to point out only the more important things to see. Part of the collection was found in Mexico City itself; the rest has been brought over from other sections of the country. There is, for instance, the magnificent STATUE OF CHAC-MOOL, which was found at Chichen-Itza, and the GREAT CROSS OF PALENQUE, discovered among those magnificent ruins in the State of Chiapas which are still so inaccessible that they are practically neglected by tourists, or by any but the most enthusiastic archaeologists.

The museum is not entirely devoted to archaeology; there are HISTORICAL SECTIONS and ETHNOLOGICAL SECTIONS as well. However, the magnificent collection of ancient Indian relics so surpasses everything else in the museum, or any other museum of its kind, that if you saw only the one great room on the ground floor containing this collection, your visit to the museum would have been worth while. This is not to say that the other collections in the museums should be passed over. In the ETHNOGRAPHICAL SECTION there are magnificent bits of ceramics; handwork, both ancient and modern; colorful costumes of the various Indian tribes; and modern lacquer, needlework, carvings, and textiles. In the DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY there is an exceedingly interesting collection, and in the DEPARTMENT OF COLONIAL ART, You can find almost everything from a pistol to the state coach of Maximilian. There are fine collections, too, of fans, filigree, porcelains, religious vestments, rings, jewels, men's and women's clothing, and other things. No matter how limited your time is, the National Museum is one of the things you should not miss. There is absolutely nothing like it anywhere else.

The National Preparatory School

Near the Zocalo also is the NATIONAL PREPARATORY SCHOOL. It is, of course, most famous today for its Orozco murals, although even without these frescoes, it is a beautiful structure, constructed in the baroque style.

The orozco FRESCOES are in the main patio. They are seen at their best from the opposite side of the court, from which point they compose perfectly through the arches. After having viewed them from all three stories of the surrounding balconies, I came to the conclusion that the ground floor was by far the best vantage point. The murals on the first floor represent "The Rich Banquet While the Workers Quarrel," "The Trench," "The Destruction of the Old Order," and "Maternity"; on the second floor, "Justices and the Law," "The Final Judgment and Father God," "Liberty," "The Church" (the decoration above the window), and "Reactionary Forces"; and on the third floor, left to right, are "Wives of the Workers," "The Grave Digger," "The Mother's Benediction," "The Return to Labor," "The Mother's Farewell," "Peace," and "The Return to the Battlefields."

At the entrance to the stairway are "Thirsting Men" and "Engineering," and in the stairway vault, "Cortes and Malintzi," "Youth," "The Franciscan," "The Conqueror, the Builder, and the Indian Worker," "Ancient Races," and a panel called "Franciscan Monk and Indian."

The two murals at the top of the stairway are not the work of Orozco. One was executed by Fernando Leal, in encaustic, and represents a fiesta at the Chalma sanctuary. The other is the "Murder of Indians at the Chalula Temple," a fresco by Jean Charlot. In one of the entrances there is a mural by Revueltas, and opposite it, one by Ramon Alba de la Canal.

In the Anfiteatro Bolivar, you should see the stage decorations by Diego Rivera, and at the rear, the frescoes of the life of Bolivar by Fernando Leal. You should also visit the Salon El Generalito, where there are some exceptional carvings by Indian artists on the seats and the pulpit. The pulpit was taken from the San Augustin convent, now converted into the National Library. If the rooms are locked, apply at the office to have them opened.

If this collection does not satisfy your passion for frescoes, try the MINISTRY OF PUBLIC EDUCATION nearby. The building is a new one, built in the colonial style, and distinctive chiefly because of the RIVERA FRESCOES. The frescoes in this building are considered by many to be the greatest mural works of modern times. Whether or not you approve their theme, you cannot fail to be impressed by their extreme beauty. The frescoes represent the Indian at work and at play. In the first patio, Rivera has painted the various types of labor in which the Indian engages; in the back patio, the Indian festivals and other forms of amusement.

The second floor contains paintings of various symbols and state shields, done by a group of young artists.

On the third floor you have Rivera again, and here he has portrayed chiefly the revolutionary martyrs, on one wall showing the revolution that has been, and on the other, his hope of the new order to come.