I recently traveled to Mérida, Yucatán to vacation with some of the best people in my life. To spare you all the mushy friends-on-vacation-in-an-incredibly-beautiful-place-with-amazing-food-and-sights talk, I’ll get straight to the part about a Spanish conquistador who, along with his family, destroyed a few Mayan cities to “tame” this region of Mexico and claim it for the Spanish crown.
His name is Francisco de Montejo, and after cutting his teeth on expeditions to Cuba and Mexico under the likes of Juan de Grijalva and Hernán Cortés, he and his son made multiple unsuccessful attempts to conquer the Yucatán Peninsula. Despite his failed ventures here and elsewhere in Central America, he built himself a home in the center of Mérida with “the most dynamic sixteenth-century residential façade extant in Latin America.” And of course, it’s all dedicated to himself, his family, and their exploits (including atrocities committed against the local Maya).
Montejo’s authority was enabled by a system that has origins dating back to the middle ages. The Spanish monarchy used this system to build a fleet of conquistadors, called adelantados, responsible for expanding their massive empire with little risk to the Crown. In this post, I’ll discuss this system, and how it shaped the empire’s conquests in Mexico and abroad (including, unfortunately, Florida). Then I’ll describe the iconography of Casa de Montejo’s façade, and contextualize it within the greater sociopolitical climate of the Spanish empire.
Most of this post is drawn from the research of Cody Barteet, who has literally written entire books on this façade alone. Head to the sources at the bottom of this post and check out some of his work.
Yucatán’s First Adelantado
Montejo was the first adelantado of Yucatán. Adelantado was a formal title bestowed upon Spanish nobles (men) by royalty that allowed them to become the political ruler of a region (typically Governor or Justice) that had not yet been colonized by that political power. In exchange for this authority, the adelantado was expected to fund the voyage, exploration, settlement, and “pacification” of the region.
This system was a very valuable tool in the colonial arsenal, as it allowed the Spanish monarchy to gain vast territories outside of Spain at almost no risk to the crown or its coffers, no matter the outcome. Bartolomeo Columbus, brother of Christopher Columbus, was the first appointed adelantado in the Americas, and outside of Europe, this system was used to conquer territory in other areas of Mexico as well as in Hispanola, Florida, Biminí, Panama, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Chile, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Colombia, and the Canary Islands.
Before he could earn the title of adelantado, Montejo needed two things: nobility and money. He got them both from his wife, Beatriz Álvarez de Herrera. By marrying Herrera, Montejo secured the pedigree required to hold the position of adelantado, and the money necessary to fund his expedition.
Montejo was named adelantado by King Charles V (Fifth of his name, Holy Roman Emperor; King of Spain, Germany, and Italy; Ruler of Castile and Aragon; Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy; and Lord of the Netherlands) on December 8, 1526. He subsequently attempted to conquer Yucatán on two separate occasions, and failed both times thanks to resistance from the local Maya. Charles V gave him some other duties for a while, and during that time, his son, Francisco de Montejo (“el Mozo”), successfully conquered Yucatán, but not before failing himself, on three separate occasions. El Mozo eventually founded San Francisco de Campeche in 1540 and Mérida in 1542.
“Founding” in this case means he destroyed the Mayan cities that occupied these spaces previously, and used the cut and worked stones from the Mayan structures to erect his own. Can Pech, the city that was razed to establish San Francisco de Campeche, had over 3,000 residential structures and monuments housing a population of over 36,000 people. Mérida was built atop the Mayan city of T’hó (also called Ichkanzihóo), which was already partially destroyed upon Montejo’s arrival, but still had at least 1,000 residents.
The practice of constructing colonial centers on top of the remains of conquered cities helps to physically and visually impose the colonizing (Spanish, in this case) power, structure, and organization upon the indigenous space and populace. Certain places of particular colonial power–churches, government buildings, military structures, etc.–were often placed in the most visible, central locations for this very reason.
Another factor to consider in the establishment of a colonial center is the presence of a large indigenous workforce that can be marshaled to dismantle existing structures and build new ones. For example, the Cathedral of Yucatán (San Ildefonso), the oldest in Mexico (1562-1567) and one of the oldest in the Americas, was built by Mayan laborers using Mayan stones, some of which still carry their original glyphs and inscriptions. Indeed, Montejo’s mansion was reportedly built by a workforce of three to four hundred Maya, not including those that became servants for his family.
Since the elder Montejo was done failing at his duties elsewhere (which were assigned to him after failing at his duties in Yucatán), Charles V outdid himself with another very questionable decision, and named Montejo Governor and Captain General of Yucatán.
Now that his mission–funded by his wife and carried out by his son–was complete, all Montejo had to do was build a palace in the center of Mérida flamboyantly embellished with iconography dedicated to himself and his “successful conquests.”
Iconography of the Case de Montejo Façade
Construction of Casa de Montejo was commissioned and completed sometime between 1542 and 1549. The façade is the only unaltered element of the building. In general, the designs represent typical Greco-Roman styles, with vines, busts, halberdiers, crests, shells, and “grotesques.” Specifically, it’s design elements are meant to express Montejo’s conquests, and his family’s political authority in the area.
In the lower half of the façade, the jamb of the entrance in lined by recessed panels divided by roundels containing male and female busts set in scalloped shells (blue). The male bust on the right of the entrance, glancing down, is Montejo’s son, el Mozo. The female, on the left, is his daughter, Catalina. Catalina glances up and to the right, eyeing another female bust, accompanied by another male, both carved in higher relief and set in the top of the lower register of the façade (green).
The male is Montejo himself in warrior’s garb, donning a breastplate and helmet. He looks to the right in the direction of Mérida’s main plaza, where the cathedral of Mérida now stands. The female is his wife, Beatriz Álvarez de Herrera. She is wearing a crown and looking off towards the town square, where, at the time of the façade’s construction, a ruined Mayan pyramid still stood. The crown and her placement as a focal point in the lower half of the façade are likely a nod to her influence on Montejo’s conquests and the colonization of Yucatán.
The “divine sanction” of Montejo’s colonization of Yucatán is highlighted in the top center portion of the lower register (red). Plaques on the left and right of an Atlas-like figure display “Amor Die” and “Vincit.” The inscription on the figure in the center reads “Omnia.” Together they read “Amor Die Omnia Vincit,” or “the love of God with conquer all.”
The Atlas-like figure seen crouched, supporting the upper register on his back represents Hercules. During his labor in the Garden of Hesperides, Hercules was forced to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders while Atlas gathered the golden apples necessary for him to complete his task. Montejo uses this imagery to illustrate his perseverance in the face of the daunting task of colonizing Yucatán. Likewise, Herculean imagery was commonly used as visual rhetoric by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (Charles V) and many other sixteenth century nobles to express virtue, perseverance, strength, and ‘Christian morality.’
The upper portion of the façade has a balcony sitting on a pedestal embellished with hanging pine cones, which also appear at the very top of the building (brown). In the center is a coat of arms set in a bed of vines, topped by an eagle resting on a helmet (green). The coat of arms itself is fairly complex, and includes the shield created for Montejo by Charles V in the upper left, Herrera’s paternal and maternal coat of arms in the upper right and lower left, and Montejo’s family coat of arms in the lower right.
Standing guard on either side are two halberdiers (Orange), which are specialized guards that were responsible for the protection of monarchs and other political bigwigs. Here again, Montejo asserts his political authority, particularly when he takes to the balcony to look down on those he has conquered. On either side of the halberdiers stand the grotesque tamed “wild men” (red). They carry rough knotted wooden clubs, and are covered in matted hair from head to toe.
The halberdiers stand atop severed Mayan heads in brutal juxtaposition to the scrolls above their heads, which read “IHS” (Christ) on the left and “MA” (Mary) on the right (yellow). This is another reference to Montejo’s divine mission to “tame” the peninsula using any means necessary.
Above this is a run of seated, winged felines with three more busts, two female and one male, none of which have been identified (gray). An upper cornice is decorated with more pinecones (brown), and supports a decorated triangular top. On this top are two lions, with manes rough and knotted (like the “wild men”), rearing upon an inscripted panel that reads “Esta obra mando hacer el adelantado don Francisco de Montejo año de MDXLIX” (This work was commissioned by don Francisco de Montejo, the year of 1549). Above this is a final unidentified male bust.
Montejo on the Defensive
As adelantado, Montejo and his descendants were granted the authority to distribute land, house plots, and encomiendas (large land estates), to appoint public officials to local offices, and even to initiate new colonization efforts. Using this power, Montejo attempted to form a feudal state, or adelantamiento, by taking control of Tabasco, Honduras, and Higueras.
Naturally, this effort was met with resistance from other colonizers, religious institutions, and indigenous groups. Not surprisingly, his campaigns–and those carried out by others under his authority–were brutal. So much so, that even among some of his Spanish peers, Montejo was seen as “a tyrant who held little regard for the ingenious peoples of Yucatán.”
These efforts to secure additional power and territory for himself (and not at the request of the monarchy) was not well received by Spanish authorities, as they saw the actions as a violation of the requerimiento (requirement) found in Montejo’s adelantado patent: “The requerimiento was a legal formula originally intended to protect Native Americans from abuses caused by the Spanish; it stipulated that colonizers were not to enslave or wage war against Native Americans as long as they pledged their allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Christianity. However, if the indigenous populations refused to comply with the requerimiento, then military action, under the guise of upholding Christian doctrine, could be taken as just, legal, and necessary.”
Additional attacks on Montejo’s character and methods roughly coincided with a formal questioning of his authority in and economic control of Tabasco by the Audiencia de los Confines (High Court of Guatemala/viceregal government). Montejo retaliated by marching to Tabasco with armed troops, seizing royal revenues, and imprisoning the Guatemalan ambassador.
This was a massive oops by Montejo, because the Audiencia was basically an extension of the Spanish monarchy. He knew that he couldn’t retain his wealth and lands (that he stole from others) without the support of the Spanish monarchy. Thus, in fairly short order, he returned everything (and everyone) to its rightful* place, but his actions taken against the Holy Roman Emperor could not be undone.
*By “rightful” I mean it was returned to the people who had seized it through aggressive colonization tactics.
The Monarchy’s Clapback
The façade is meant to express many things, including the Montejo family’s dynastic, inherited legitimacy (coat of arms), Montejo’s conquest through force (halberdiers opposite “wild men,” severed heads), and his ‘divine authority’ to carry out his mission (religious inscriptions). But chief among these expressions is Montejo’s self-imposed, absolute authority in Yucatán. These last two elements stand in direct opposition to the viceregal government, as the audiencia were the real authority in the region, and they actively opposed his methods and “extracurricular conquests.”
As tensions rose over the conduct of Montejo’s governorship, rumors of philandery, thievery, and tyranny were tossed around. The situation was only exacerbated by Montejo’s need to express his power and authority over this colonial space on his façade. In the end, Montejo’s political ambitions–and his desire to visually impose them upon the main square in Mérida–ultimately contributed to his political demise.
Barteet argues that the façade is itself a direct response to this opposition, and to combat the unpopular perceptions of himself, Montejo “turned to the public realm of façade design. The Casa de Montejo’s façade allowed him to celebrate his colonizing accomplishments while conspicuously affirming his political power.” In this way the extremely elaborate façade, which stood near institutions of the crown and church, “challenged the space of the monarchy’s carefully constructed and guarded sanctum.” Thus, the façade of Casa de Montejo created conflict with monarchical administrations similar to the conflicts fueled by Montejo’s own political actions.
This did not go unnoticed, as Charles V issued a decree restricting “architectural displays of magnificence” in urban centers. The legislation was, on paper, directed toward religious institutions, but in practice, it applied to all façade decoration.
Barteet’s research suggests that this law was probably written with Casa de Montejo in mind. The façade of the Casa de Montejo was completed in 1549, and Montejo was stripped of his authority as governor of Yucatán the very next year (lol). This decree was issued in 1550, the very same year the crown stripped Montejo of his political power in Yucatan.
Adelantados in Florida
Ok so I know by now you’re wondering what this all has to do with Florida history. Well, here’s the deal. Colonization! The same adelantado system that wreaked havoc in Central and South America brought to Florida the likes of Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto, and Pedro Menendez de Avilés.
Together, these conquistadors are known for the first European expedition of Florida (de León), getting very lost and eventually resorting to eating their horses (Narváez), looking for those who got very lost (de Soto), leaving behind what would become a permanent population of feral hogs (de León, De Soto, and Avilés), founding St. Augustine and serving as the first Governor of Florida (Avilés), and not finding any gold and in general failing to such extents that the Spanish government forbade any future expeditions to Florida (pretty much all of them). They are also guilty of committing brutal atrocities against native Floridians (and some other European colonizers), and introducing many new diseases that wreaked generational havoc on indigenous populations.
Additionally, most of these guys were contemporaries. Montejo’s authority as adelantado was bestowed upon him by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on December 8, 1526. De León obtained his adelantado patent from Charles V in 1512, Narváez was named adelantado of Florida by Charles V just one year after Montejo’s appointment, and de Soto was named adelantado of “the Lands of Florida and governor of Cuba” just ten years later. Avilés was authorized by Charles V’s successor (as King of Spain), King Philip, in 1565.
Despite the many attempts, the Spanish had failed to establish a single successful settlement in La Florida for most of the 16th century. St Augustine was founded by Avilés in 1565, but not before the monarchy’s concession that Florida just wasn’t worth the risk. The Spanish seemed willing to let Florida to fall into obscurity, and on September 23, 1561, King Philip II announced that Spain was no longer interested in commissioning colonial expeditions to Florida.
Where are they now?
Following the stripping of his power and authority as governor in 1550, Montejo returned to Spain in 1551 to plead for their return. His wishes were granted, and the role of adelantado was returned to his heirs, but only as a ceremonial title. After his death in 1553, his only daughter Catalina inherited the title, but she lived out the rest of her life in Mexico City. El Mozo spent the rest of his days in his father’s house in Mérida with his wife, three children, and almost no political power.
Members of the Montejo family occupied the residence until the 1980s, and part of the space is now a museum. Perhaps the universe just won’t let this place free of its colonial roots, because the rest of the shared space is occupied by the National Bank of Mexico.
Barteet, C. Cody, 2010. The Rhetoric of Authority in New Spain: The Casa de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán. RACAR XXXV:2, pp. 5-20.
Barteet, C. Cody, 2019. Tihó-Mérida and the Casa de Montejo. In Architectural Rhetoric and the Iconography of Authority in Colonial Mexico, pp. 116-130
Barteet, C. Cody, 2019. Architectural Rhetoric and the Iconography of Authority in Colonial Mexico: The Casa de Montejo. Routledge: New York.