Expert opinion
The Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum in the Palace of Hernán Cortés in Cuernavaca

The Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca (as the Spanish conquistadors transcribed the original name of Cuauhnahuac) is a historical building of great interest from different points of view, as it is one of the oldest sixteenth-century buildings and the only one of its kind on the American continent. It occupies a former pre-Hispanic Tlahuica settlement that functioned as a Tlatocayancalli (in Nahuatl, “the house where streams converge”), the role of which was to gather tribute from the towns within the domain of Cuauhnahuac (“near the trees”). This was destroyed by the conquistadors and a monumental palace-castle was built on its foundations. It is perhaps one of the best examples of the architecture of power, of one of the most powerful jurisdictions after the Conquest, the Marquisate of the Valley of Oaxaca.

In this sense, it marks the continuity of an important geographical and geopolitical area which we can date back to the Postclassic period, and even further back to the collapse of Teotihuacan in the Classic period, the city which occupied the center of the Mesoamerican world.

The palace-castle, built at the command of Hernán Cortés by reusing materials from Tlahuica constructions and indigenous labor, was one of the first public and military works erected in the newly-conquered territory. It was one of the first military parade grounds to be created after the temporary construction of one in Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, its closest predecessor. As a museum, it currently houses an important collection of archeological and historical pieces, as well as one of Diego Rivera’s most beautiful and valuable murals. It is often compared and related to other buildings on the Iberian Peninsula, and attempts have been made to establish a direct reference with the Alcázar of Admiral Diego Columbus in the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Thanks to archeological, recovery and reconstruction work performed between 1971 and 1973, a sequence was established for the building’s evolution over six centuries. This allows us to understand the various functions these architectural spaces had and the modifications they have undergone. The sequence comprises the following periods:

Tlahuica Period (1325-1521)

This consists of four stages of construction. Stage III is the one that can be seen through the archeological windows opened up inside and outside the building, as stage IV was demolished by the conquerors when subjugating Yoatzin (or Itzcohuatzin), chieftain of Cuauhnahuac, the central city of the domain formerly located where the city of Cuernavaca stands today.

Part of the platforms, sloping staircase frames and steps have been preserved at the front of the palace and beneath it, as well as a few circular stone and stucco structures that formed part of the pre-Hispanic plaza, all of which was razed and burned when the indigenous city was taken.

There are various monoliths carved with inscriptions on the palace’s west side, which were found in different parts of the city, such as the Eagle of Chapultepec, the Lizard of San Antón and the Chimalli or Stone of Enchantments, found in the area of the López Mateos market.

Encomienda (1521-1529)

The Encomienda period has a sub-phase known as Altar (1521-1523), which left very faint traces found during exploration, although it was not possible to leave these visible. There are two circular boreholes almost a yard in diameter in the pre-Hispanic floor, distributed parallel to the base of a colonial wall. The marks suggest the presence of columns or pillars that held up the roof of a primitive Spanish altar, whose brief existence was confirmed later in the historic record.

The first permanent construction, which consisted of the core of the Palace of Cortés, consisted of three large rooms and a terrace with arches, which looked to the east towards the volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl beyond the steep peaks of Tepoztlán.

Chapel (1525-1531)

Cortés left on a long expedition to Las Hibueras (Honduras) during military incursions there to reassert control over the conquered territory. Taking advantage of his absence, other recently-arrived Spaniards wished to seize the extensive territory that Cortés had taken for himself in Cuauhnahuac, accusing him of contravening the crown’s instructions. Fray Pedro Melgarejo de Urrea, who had stayed behind to administrate this region, decided to build a chapel on the ruins of the Tlahuica palace, and declared it “holy ground” so that the crown’s emissaries could not confiscate it.

Cortés returned to Cuernavaca in 1527 and took back his "encomienda” together with chapel built by Melgarejo. He then added another section to the first stage to integrate both constructions into a single complex.

Marquisate (1531-1535)

On his return to Mexico from Spain in 1531, Cortés now had a noble title. He decided to extend his palace in Cuernavaca to furnish an appropriate abode for his wife, Marquise Juana Zúñiga Ramírez de Orellano, and son Martín Cortés, who was born in the palace in 1532, three years before it was finished.

Construction (1531-1535)

An indigenous inscription with a calendar date was found in the columns of the east gallery on the second floor, giving the year in which construction was completed: the date, 4 reed nahui-acatl, corresponds to the year 1535.

Inheritance (1535-1629)

Martín Cortés inherited the title of Second Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca on the death of his father in 1547. Doña Juana Zúñiga Ramírez de Orellano then requested his protection and lived in the palace until 1568. Martín Cortés, who had been accused of conspiracy against the crown and imprisoned, was absolved and returned to Mexico to recover his property. He had some repairs and modifications made, which appear in his will of 1589. The inheritance passed to his son Fernando, the third Marquis, who died in Madrid in 1602. His heir was his younger brother Pedro, fourth Marquis of the Valley, who died in Italy in 1609. The succession of property continued among the family heirs.

Abandonment and Public Occupation (1629-1747)

The palace deteriorated due to its owners’ neglect and abandonment. The 1971-1973 excavations found evidence of various uses by craftsmen, such as the remains of installations, implements and adaptations to use the spaces as workshops for ironwork, textiles, tanning and other trades, which led to a rapid deterioration of the building. There are reports of an initial restoration project following a visit by crown inspectors in the eighteenth century.

First Restoration and Royal Prison (1747-1821)

Preparations for the first restoration project fell to master builder Ildefonso Iniestra Vejarano. These would not be carried out until twenty years later, by Gregorio Cayetano Durán, who left carved testimony of his involvement with a sign in stone above the archway of the master bedroom on the palace’s second floor.

The “Royal Prison of Cuernavaca” was later installed to justify the restoration with a practical use for the building. It was used for this purpose during the War of Independence (1810-1821), and it is very likely that the structure also suffered severe damage at that time.

Palace of the Republic (1821-1870)

The site was the seat of government for the Republic in 1855 and was later occupied as the office of Maximilian of Habsburg from 1864 to 1866 (the conservative monarch liked to spend periods in Acapatzingo, where he left a summer home also converted into a museum, the Ethnobotanical Garden and Museum of Traditional Medicine).

Remodeling and Miscellaneous Restoration (1870-1970)

The palace was restored in around 1872 to be converted into the seat of government for the recently created State of Morelos. The entire north wing of the building was in ruins and needed to be rebuilt. A project in accordance with the fashion for French neoclassical architectural design which had spread throughout the world prevailed in the work. This not only included the new wing of the building, but also remodeled the original sixteenth-century structure. This remodeling added entirely new architectural elements, as well as transforming and subdividing those which already existed. It changed the design of the staircase to the second floor and reshaped interior spaces, altering the levels of floors and ceilings. The Hall of Congress, Town Hall and Government Headquarters were installed in the palace. The prison remained there too. The renovations were damaged by earthquakes, and other repairs continued to be made until the fall of General Díaz’s government in the Revolution, which was led in Morelos by the popular leader Emiliano Zapata.

The military were evacuated from city of Cuernavaca between 1916 and 1918. At the beginning of 1919, the regime of provisional governor Don Benito Tajonar moved to Cuautla while the Palace of Cortés underwent restoration. Once the revolutionary violence was over, the government fully occupied the palace from 1928 onwards. After the scenic highway to Cuernavaca had been paved under the government of President Plutarco Elías Calles, the rise of tourism by car invaded “the city of eternal spring." Diego Rivera completed the murals of the arched courtyard on the second floor in 1930, and Salvador Tarazona decorated the entire Hall of Congress with paintings in 1938.

Continual refurbishments had their effect on the palace’s interiors and exteriors, before and after 1949, when an entire new section of offices for courts was added on Leyva street (on the east side). This was necessary due to the collapse of an abandoned colonial aqueduct above the ruins of the Tlahuica pyramid, which had been hidden under a layer of rubble accumulated over more than two centuries. Work to reinforce unstable parts of the building began on August 15, 1949. This work was led by the architect Miguel Salinas López, and completed on September 8 of the same year at a cost of 54,000 pesos. The same architect was in charge of removing the palace’s stuccoed exterior, which left scratch marks in the naked stone. The stucco on the facades was cleaned in 1951, and remains of pre-Hispanic construction were found beneath the foundations.

INAH Restoration (1971-1973)

The work commenced by the INAH in 1971 was intended to restore the sixteenth-century construction. It succeeded in distinguishing the various aforementioned phases, following the restoration standards that had been internationally agreed and adopted at the congresses of Venice in 1964 and Quito in 1971. Although the restoration successfully recovered the basic layout of the sixteenth-century building, parts of the previous (Tlahuica) period and the later periods described in this summary were respected and exposed.

INAH Preservation and Maintenance (1973-2001)

The monolith of the Chimalli or Stone of Enchantments which had been standing on a traffic circle was relocated to the pre-Hispanic plaza in front of the palace (1992). The sculpture of Don José María Morelos made in 1946 by Juan Fernando Olaguíbel was relocated in 1992 to the former Morelos Garden on the south side of the palace. As there had been no preservation or maintenance work done to the building for nearly 20 years (1973-1993), its state of preservation was critical.

The following preservation and maintenance work was carried out from 1993-1995: full architectural restructuring of the current Cuauhnahuac Museum building, for documentation and registration of new electrical, emergency power plant, hydraulic and sanitary installations, as well as security alarms. Maintenance was done to remove damp and all the roofs were waterproofed. Remodeling and functional adaptations were made in the area of management, general and sanitary services. A reversible structure was placed in the window frame of the top floor east gallery where Diego Rivera’s murals are located to protect them from wind and rain.

Nevertheless, the building has also occasionally suffered damage at the hands of the municipal authorities of the city of Cuernavaca, including the following: authorization from the Town Hall in 1992 to knock down and demolish ancient constructions that may have formed part of the annexes to the palace’s orchard on the property in Leyva street on the east side of the building. A late nineteenth-century building was demolished and a three-story building put in its place, the top floor of which obstructed the view from the palace’s low gallery to the valley of Cuauhnahuac. Although it was possible to limit the obstruction to two stories and remove the concrete columns on the third floor, this affected a project to recover the areas adjoining the palace on the east side, where we are certain the complex’s former orchards were located. In 1998, the Town Hall also authorized the construction of premises for street vendros on the south side of the palace in the area of the Morelos Garden. It also authorized the construction of public bathrooms on the garden entrance’s southern staircase. This involved the demolition of a substantial early twentieth-century fountain embedded in the wall of the staircase terrace, where there had been a viewing platform with benches.

Despite these inconveniences, the Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum in the Palace of Cortés is one of the most valuable, beautiful and visit-worthy sites in our country, due to its wealth of pre-Hispanic, colonial and national content, as well as the splendid nature of its architecture, which has been so wonderfully restored.

Under translation
Under translation

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