Drama flourished throughout the colonial period, reflecting the popularity in Spain of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Calderon de la Barca. The chief cities had theaters in which the luxury of trappings and wealth of offerings mirrored the varying fortunes of their mines. Potosi at the peak of its wealth had a theater, which vied with the most pretentious in Spain. The viceroys of Mexico and Lima installed private theaters in their palaces. The plays of the Spanish masters were staged, as were many others written in America, most of which are Iong since forgotten.
The most popular early dramas were religious allegories, thoroughly Spanish in tradition and designed to convey the truth of the gospel to unlettered Indians. Their pageantry and color were effective in conveying the lessons of creation and salvation, as well as the record of Spain's greatness. Indian pageantry was amalgamated with the Spanish to produce a hybrid folk drama in which Indian dances and music were overlaid with Christian and Spanish legend. To this day, a traveler in Mexico may see Indian festivals in which the ancient conflict between Christians and Moors is re-enacted, with much heroic posturing, crackling of fireworks, and the final destruction of the hated Moors.
If the traveler asks an Indian the identity of the Moors whom he belabors so assiduously, he receives no clear answer.
Spanish America produced dramatists, but few were more than pallid imitators of the Spanish immortals. Sixteenth century Mexico boasted GonzaIez de Eslava, whose allegorical comedies were so simple, direct, and well contrived as to give the Mexican stage brief distinction. GonzaIez is remembered for his imagined insults to a pompous
viceroy who promptly ordered his arrest.
Spanish America's sole dramatist to win international acclaim was Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, who left Mexico at twenty, studied at Salamanca, returned briefly to his native land, and spent the bulk of his life in Spain. Alarcon, a creole hunchback tortured by the jeerings of the peninsulares, wrote sensitively and brilliantly, and his twenty three plays gave him a firm place among Spanish men of letters in el siglo de oro.
Meager in quantity and quality as was Spanish colonial literature, it was superior in both respects to that of the English and French colonists in the New World.
Spanish America made but slight contribution in music. The music of Castile and Andalusia was introduced to America, there to be modified by the rhythms of Indian and Negro, yielding a large volume of popular songs. The plaintive songs that came from these mingled sources were sung by the common people to the accompaniment of the Spanish guitar or the African marimba. Meanwhile, well born and proper daughters of the wealthy peninsulares and creoles picked out traditional melodies on the harp or clavichord. The chief cities boasted orchestras. The churches continued the Spanish tradition of sacred music.
The architects, painters, and sculptors of Spanish America had a superb heritage from the Spaniards who, for more than 500 years, had been building some of the most splendid churches in Christendom; carving wood and stone figures for their facades, choirs, and altars; and painting glowing canvases to add a final touch of glory. The soldiers, civil rulers, traders, and farmers who settled America brought memories of the cathedrals of Seville, Leon, Toledo, and Avila; of the delicate grace of the Giralda and the Alhambra; of the sculptured power of the Portico de Gloria at Santiago de Compostela; of the tombs and altars of Valladolid, Saragossa, and Salamanca; and of the paintings of El Greco, Zurbaran, Ribera, and Velasquez. This was the heritage of even the humble builders of America.
The colonists brought a love of beauty with them, and throughout the colonial period they sought to emulate the Spanish tradition. They, too, would have churches enriched by noble sculptures and paintings. However, the sculptors and painters of Spanish America were imitators, seldom creators. There is beautiful carving of stone and wood in the choir stalls, finials, pediments, reredos, corbels, and cornices of churches in Puebla, Morelia, Guatemala Antigua, Lima, Quito, Sucre, and Arequipa; but their grace is generally a borrowed grace. Over altars and in sacristies are smoky paintings of saints, virgins, angels, cardinals, and bishops.
Many of these canvases were brought from Spain, and an obliging sacristan is always ready to tell the visitor that this is an authentic Murillo, that a Titian, the other a Zurbaran. Some are genuine, but many are poor imitations. The borrowings continued as American painters made pale copies of the masters or, painting on their own account, followed the styles of Ribera and Murillo. There were a few painters of considerable technical skin, among them the Mexicans Juan Herrera, Jose Maria Ibarra, and Miguel Cabrera, and the Ecuadorian Miguel de Santiago.
Artists never lacked support. Schools of fine arts were established toward the end of the colonial period. Mexico's Academy of Fine Arts, organized in the late eighteenth century when Goya was renewing the prestige of Spanish painting, was well housed, amply financed in fact, it had everything except artists.
In architecture, Spanish America made best use of its cultural heritage. The wealth of field and mine and the labor of docile Indians were early dedicated to the rearing of palaces and religious edifices. Some few fine examples of secular buildings have survived, but Spanish America is spotted from end to end with cathedrals, churches, and monasteries of such symmetry and power as to attest the fervor and artistry of their creators. They are, however, unevenly distributed. Such regions as Chile and La Plata, yielding neither gold nor silver and producing only prosaic grain and cattle, built only modest temples. Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico boasted the finest and most richly ornamented churches and cathedrals, but with Mexico far in the lead.
The architecture of the thousands of churches and monasteries built in the colonial years faithfully recapitulates the development of architecture in Spain. Moslem motifs appear almost everywhere in geometric caprices of decoration and, above all, in the thousands of varicolored tiled domes of Mexico. Eleventh century Italian influence is clear in the constantly recurring sculptured and rounded arches of the Romanesque. Thirteenth century French Gothic is widely represented; the more than 400 fortress churches and monasteries built by the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Dominicans in Mexico are usually Gothic in feeling, although with frequent addition of Romanesque arches, Moslem designs in decoration, and plateresque details.
Sixteenth century Italian Renaissance appears in the jewel like plateresque; the cathedral of Morelia in Mexico, perhaps the loveliest church in America, is a splendid example; the facade of the convent of Acolman is another instance. Philip 2nd's late sixteenth century retreat to classicism, represented in Spain by the gloomy Escorial, had its influence upon the cathedrals of Mexico City, Puebla, and Lima. Seventeenth-century Italian baroque (sometimes described as the child of Michelangelo's exuberance), which was elaborated in Spain and exaggerated by the Salamanca architect Churriguera, dominated American builders during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, yielding big and little churches adorned with tumbling angels, riotous fruits, and tossing flowers on their pediments and facades; Taxco, Tepozotlan, and Ocotlan are a few of the many instances in Mexico; the churches of the Jesuits and the Franciscans in Quito are among the finest in South America. The late eighteenth century brought a brief burst of creative imagination in architecture, chiefly in Mexico; there Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras built the lovely Carmelite church in Celaya, and Manuel Tolsa elaborated the exterior of the cathedral in Mexico City.