Who could walk away from The Alhambra in Granada, Spain feeling anything but awe? This vacation palace of the last European Islamic Caliphate was the crown jewel of tin-glazed tile decoration. All those shiny little Spanish tiles occupy a storied corner of pottery history.
Interior and exterior glazed tiles dominated Iberian architectural styles for centuries. One wonders why Iberians focused on tiles instead of carved stonework as in so much contemporaneous architecture elsewhere in Europe? Did Nasrid Moors and later Spaniards not have enough quality stone or qualified masons? Or did they simply play to their ceramic strength when looking for visually stunning ways to compete with French and Italian stained-glass wonders?
The Iberian tile tradition traveled to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) during Christian Spain’s ‘golden years.’ Tiles were initially imported, as ship’s ballast, until a sufficiently capable tin glazed industry was established in Puebla, Mexico City, and elsewhere.
Particular attention was lavished on the wealthy Viceroyalty’s church buildings. As a result, Mexico boasts many unique baroque tiled gems, including a convent’s kitchen. A local bishop commissioned the decoration to honor the kitchen nuns of Puebla’s Santa Rosa Convent in recognition of their spicy new chocolate sauce called mole poblano.
Then there’s Puebla’s “Casa de Muňecos,” or “Figurine House.” A cursory description might not place this edifice on the short list of “Mexican baroque tiled gems.” It wasn’t even a church building. It was built in 1792 as the home of Augustín de Ovando y Villavicencio, a local grandee.
One curious feature made the Casa stand out – it’s height. In a move intended to make a not so subtle point, the Casa was taller than the nearby Alcaldía, or local municipal building. This situation was either the cause or result of a spat between Ovando and his former cohorts on the local governing council.
A series of large tiled images along the length of the Casa’s facade didn’t help matters. Each image depicted a grotesquely distorted human figure – thus the building’s name. Legend has it these figures were intentionally designed to represent Ovando’s impression of each individual member of the town council. For all to see. Forever.
Cerámica y Cultura. Gavin, Pierce, and Pleguezuelo, eds. University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque, NM. 2003.
The Alhambra. Robert Irwin. Harvard University Press/MA. 2004.
Rose Windows. Painton Cowen. Thames and Hudson Press/London. 1984.