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An introduction to New Spain

Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Embank and Dr. Steven Zucker — learn more art history on http://www.smarthistory.org. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Male Narrator] We're in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, the main cathedral in Mexico City which stands on the ruins of the old Aztec capital but was transformed into a new capital, the capital of New Spain. - [Woman Narrator] New Spain was a Spanish viceroyalty. A viceroyalty is basically a political entity under the Spanish crown and it was ruled by a viceroy. - [Male Narrator] This is stand-in for the king. - [Woman Narrator] So, let's go back in time a little bit, and talk about the events of the Spanish Conquest that led to the establishment of this viceroyalty of New Spain. - [Male Narrator] We can begin with Columbus bumping into the Americas as he's trying to get to what he would have called the Indies, that is to Asia. - [Woman Narrator] And decades later, Hernan Cortes, had heard these tales of gold. And so, illegally, left Cuba, arrived on the coast of Veracruz, the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and made his way inland, and as he did that, he encountered numerous people who were angry at the Mashika, or the Aztecs, whose capital city was here, in Tenochtitlan, what today is Mexico City. - [Male Narrator] So, Cortes, was really off on an adventure to enrich himself and what he found was one of the largest, most impressive cities in the world. - [Woman Narrator] And have lots of accounts of what happened during those years. But in the end, in 1521, the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards and we have the beginning of what we call, New Spain. - [Male Narrator] It was important for the Spanish that they convert the Aztecs, and other peoples here, to Christianity, to Catholicism. They, of course, imposed political order and took control of the vast natural resources of the American continents. - [Woman Narrator] One of the clearest ways that they had tried to signal this change in political and religious order was building on top of former pagan temples, or sites. So, the earliest cathedral was actually constructed using stones from the sacred precinct of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, and you see this across New Spain. The earliest Christian buildings are typically made reusing former indigenous temple stones. - [Male Narrator] And they were built by indigenous peoples. So the labor was indigenous, the materials were indigenous, but, of course, the religion was imported. And these weren't any Christians, these were Spanish Catholics that had recently, and successfully, retaken Spain from the Muslims. - [Woman Narrator] And this reconquest atmosphere is something that came across the Atlantic with the Spanish Conquistadors. And so, this strategy of building on top of former pagan temples and reusing the stones is a strategy that we see being employed in Spain. A great example would be the great Mosque of Cordoba which now has a Christian church built and placed inside of it. - [Male Narrator] And just as the Spanish used force to retake Spain from the Muslims, the efforts to Christianize, here, in the New World, were violent and resulted in tremendous bloodshed. - [Woman Narrator] That, coupled with epidemics, the introduction of say, smallpox, here to the populations of the Americas were devastating. - [Male Narrator] Let's spend a moment talking about the scope of New Spain. New Spain reached as far north as Northern California. I think, for instance, of the name San Francisco, Saint Frances, or as far south as Central America. - [Woman Narrator] If we think of the width of it, not only California, but reaching all the way to Texas. So, you have this vast territory. What you typically see, though, is people were referring to the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain as Colonial Mexico. And so, it's typically used as a shorthand term. - [Male Narrator] The Spanish wanted control of this land not only because they wanted to covert these souls, but because of the incredible wealth that was here. The Spanish imported gold. They imported silver from the New World, but they also imported a whole series of new food stocks, including corn and tomatoes and potatoes from South America. - [Female Narrator] And chocolate. - [Male Narrator] And Cochineal, which was an insect that produced a brilliant red that was sought after. - [Woman Narrator] There were trade networks going from New Spain to Asia, particularly through the Philippines And Manila. And so, you have this vast global network of trade. - [Male Narrator] New Spain was the central point between the Atlantic trade and the Pacific trade. - [Woman Narrator] Eventually, New Spain will become a very cosmopolitan place because you not only have many different European peoples and Amerindian peoples, but you also have peoples from Asia and a significant number of enslaved Africans, here. - [Male Narrator] So, when we look at the art of New Spain, of this incredibly sophisticated and complex culture that has its roots in complex, indigenous cultures that has the overlay of the conquering Spaniards that has imports from East Asia, from Europe, and becomes tremendously wealthy. We look at an art that is truly original that draws globally, but produces something that the world had never seen before. (light piano music)