Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 12, 2003
Richard L. Kagan and Fernando Mariás Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493–1793 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 240 pp.; 136 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300083149)

An impressive and fascinating book about paintings and prints, atlases and travelers’ tales, Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493–1793 spans three hundred years and covers a vast geographic and visual landscape. It surveys civic spaces from the manicured parks in Mexico City and Lima to the Cerro Rico of Potosí and public works in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Richard Kagan’s perspective on urban forms differs from much of the traditional literature on Spanish American architecture. Urban Images says little about the daily experience of civic life, and even less about bricks and mortar or the planning and building of particular towns. Instead, and provocatively so, Kagan considers the cities of Spanish colonial enterprise as sites of visual description. How civic space takes form via paint on canvas and print on paper, what constitutes the image of a city: these are the book’s primary themes.

Working in collaboration with the architectural historian Fernando Marías, Kagan draws explicit boundaries for this project. The volume privileges “public images,” works intended for publication or created to circulate beyond the dusty shelves of military and legal archives (vii). Beyond this, he identifies two principal categories of civic imagery: the “chorographic” and the “communicentric.” The chorographic view emphasizes urbs, the physical setting and topography of a city. Kagan argues that those who visit but do not reside permanently in a particular place tend to create chorographic modes of representation. The second way of seeing and depicting posits a communicentric view, which is bound to civitas. These images highlight the human associations with and the symbolic elements of civic space, elements most familiar to those who call a city home. While this dichotomy pervades the entire study, Kagan anchors his claims in the language of early modernity. Consequently, his conceptual framework emerges as one with strong ties to the period.

Originally published in Spanish in 1998, Urban Images is, in effect, a cross-Atlantic narrative. Like many stories of the New World, this one opens in Europe, with the work of Johannes Vermeer, Anton van den Wyngaerde, Ambrosio de Vico, and Pedro de Medina setting the stage. The book closes back on European shores, with El Greco’s paintings of Toledo. Together, these images convey in a subtle yet powerful way just how complex and varied representations of civic space could be in the seventeenth century. In particular, El Greco’s melding of allegory, metaphor, and cityscape serves Kagan well. In teasing meaning from the Toledan paintings, the author demonstrates what can be gained, both intellectually and visually, from sustained attention to painted depictions of civic space.

Europe plays a definite role in Urban Images, yet the crux of the book concerns images created in, or about, the cities of Spanish America. Major urban centers command the most attention: Mexico City/Tenochtitlán, Cuzco/Qosqo, Lima, and Potosí. And the impressive array of views published here makes it possible to understand Spanish American urbanity in a new way. Moreover, the reproductions in this book are excellent. This is no small feat, given that Kagan drew his material from disparate museums, libraries, and collections.  In offering his readers such an incredible resource of visual imagery—some well known, some rarely seen—Kagan’s book traces an implicit narrative of archives and preservation, a tale about how colonial images have been valued over time. This provides another critical piece of scholarship for those invested in the historiography of Spanish American visual culture.

In working from Europe to America and back again, Kagan seems to privilege no particular viewing position. There is a chapter on European travelers’ accounts and their images of the Americas, and another that considers pre-Columbian and other indigenous modes of conceiving and depicting geography. The vision that wins out in this volume, however, is that of the Creole elite, those patrons of the arts and stewards of colonial rule who sought to picture themselves and their cities for each other. For instance, toward the end of the book, in a chapter on four Spanish American cities, Kagan discusses maps and plans, paintings of processions, portraits, and genre scenes. At one level, this collection of image-types appears oddly eclectic. Yet the mix itself constitutes part of Kagan’s point: these are precisely the kinds of images Creoles commissioned and owned. Admittedly Urban Images offers little on representations crafted for or by those who occupied other rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Nevertheless, the volume explains with clarity how Spanish America’s major urban projects were represented for those who benefited most from spending time in their civic plazas, markets, and churches.

Kagan’s book also serves as a fine model of interdisciplinary study. The volume does not merely juxtapose historical inquiry with architectural or art-historical research; Urban Images allows distinct disciplinary inquiries to shape one another. This book thus raises a number of important issues that have remained underdeveloped in Spanish American urban history. For example, this book implicitly asks what kinds of images were valued as civic depictions in the early modern world. Beyond this, Urban Images inquires into the ways in which colonization shaped not only cities but also their representation and, consequently, perceptions of them. More might have been said about how specific paintings or prints were read in colonial La Paz or Quito. I also wished for something more on the tensions between images: Did they all do their work equally well? Did some civic representations challenge others? But to be fair, depiction, not reception, is the theme that motivates this study. And in explicating strategies of representation, Kagan invites us to think about how desires for visual complexity infused Spanish American life. Urban Images also calls attention to the allegorical and fantastical aspects of civic imagery. While the author does not fully explore the imaginary of these images, he aptly raises the question of how the “not visible” performs in the context of civic representation.

For many reasons, readers of Urban Images will be well rewarded. In the last several years, scholars studying the ways in which medieval and early modern cities took form—not only physically but psychically and metaphorically—have produced a compelling and varied literature. This book ranks among the most stimulating of this new work and should be a fundamental source on representations of place in Spanish America and the early modern world more broadly. North Americanists seeking a comparative perspective will also find much to work from. While readers most committed to postcolonialism and its theory will find less to grapple with on the surface, they too can benefit from the material presented here. For Urban Images eloquently argues that contending with the history of early modern urbanity requires serious engagement with visual culture and its meaning. This is a project that Kagan has nobly begun. It is now up to the rest of us to both follow his lead and ask further hard questions about materials that have, for too long, received less attention than they deserve.

Dana Leibsohn
Department of Art, Smith College