As recent retirees, we are striving to reduce our time commitments, declutter our physical spaces, and lead more minimalist “more is less” lives. Here in Puebla; however, Mexican Baroque architecture reaches its most elaborate, where overflowing ornamentation, shiny gold leaf, and decorative talavera tile remind us that once upon a time, “more was more”.
When the baroque style emerged in Europe during the early 16th century, it broke with the clear definitions and orderly arrangements of classical antiquity. It was considered so exaggerated and bizarre that it was compared to an imperfect Portuguese pearl (pérola barroca).
Back when “more was more”, the maximalism of the baroque era implied affluence and progress. As a result, the style permeated all aspects of life, including language, art, entertainment, and fashion.
The fear of voids and empty spaces is clinically known as horror vacui. Where this phobia achieved its most public dimensions was in religious architecture. To fill the believer with awe, the Catholic Church lavishly worked their facades and profusely decorated their interiors.
In truth, I am filled with awe by baroque architecture. It is extremely beautiful and inspiring, and nowhere in Mexico is the baroque style better exemplified than in Puebla. According to UNESCO, Puebla’s 2.7 square mile (7 square km) historical center contains 2,619 buildings constructed during the baroque period.
One such structure is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. Founded in 1646 by the bishop of Puebla, it is considered the first public library in the Americas. Its interior includes ornately carved shelves containing 45,000 volumes, and its exterior is faced in a characteristic pattern of red brick alternating with blue talavera tile.
The talavera ceramics of Puebla (Talavera Poblana) is a tin and lead glazed majolica introduced by the colonial Spanish. Given the colonial baroque boom in church construction and the availability of fine local clays, there was a strong demand for talavera tiles as a decorative element.
To learn more about Talavera Poblana, we took a tour of Taller Uriarte, Puebla’s oldest certified talavera enterprise, operating continuously since 1824. Here, we observed the making of hand thrown and painted ceramics using mostly 16th century technology.
One of the utilitarian uses of talavera tile was in the kitchen. At the former Santa Rosa de Lima convent, nuns created Puebla’s signature food dish Mole Poblano. A visit to the convent kitchen revealed a space completely enveloped in talavera tile.
The baroque is so integral to the city of Puebla that it is home to the International Museum of Baroque. Opened in 2016, the collection is ironically housed in a modern minimalist styled building designed by Japanese Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyoo Ito.
To me, the overflowing ornamentation and curved elements of the baroque architecture of Puebla doesn’t seem excessive or overly cluttered. Instead it conveys the feeling of continuity and movement, and a look back in time when more was more.
Feature Image: Gilded dome of the Rosary Chapel, Puebla