Tag Archives: history

Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States by James Early

There’s something new going on in my life…I’ve gone back to grad school! I am working towards an M.S. in Historic Preservation. It is a lot of work, but I really am loving it. I’ll be posting more things related to the field, especially as I work on my research and thesis. The following review is of a book on my “recommended reading” list. It caught my eye, since I’m Puerto Rican. Read on to see my thoughts:

 The history of the United States has generally taken a British-centered approach. Other inhabitants, have often been simply a foil for the story of the British, and later American, conquest. In Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo, James Early endeavors to fill in the missing history of the Spanish and Hispanic occupants. His account is extremely detailed and provides not just a study of buildings and construction techniques, but is, in fact, a truly anthropological view of the period from 1526 and the first Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, through to the occupation by American forces in 1846. As Early points out, this is a length of time greater than that from the American Revolution to the present day.

Early begins with an overview of the development of Spanish settlements on the mainland. Following the instructions laid out for the West Indies in the “Ordinances of Settlement”, water-front development required a town square built at the head of the port, with the central church facing the water. In-land settlements were to be designed around a central square containing the church. Without water to restrict growth, the settlement would radiate out from the square.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the Spanish settlements, organized by modern U.S. State and, within each state, by region. Florida, with early settlements up the coast, is the first state. Early explores the reasons for the development of St. Augustine as the regional capital (not the first choice of the adelantado for the region). He further explicates the process of constructing the city, the Caribbean influences to the stone and shell-concrete construction, and the dangers of attacks that demanded it become a heavily fortified town. He moves on into the area of present-day New Mexico, where native Pueblo construction techniques were preferred, due, in part, to the lack of masons or engineers versed in any other building styles. It is as Early moves into the West that the Spanish Mission system becomes the driving force behind the architecture. Whereas St. Augustine, a cosmopolitan city with ties to the Caribbean, attracted many settlers, few Spaniards were interested in the hinterlands of New Spain. This led to missionaries, intent on the conversion of native peoples, and soldiers (to protect the missionaries), being the primary inhabitants of these regions. The structures in Texas, Arizona, and California best exemplify this history. Possessed of well-trained military engineers and masons from Mexico, the missionaries in these regions guided the construction of large churches made of stone and wood, with vaults and soaring arches. The structures, usually covered in white stucco, look simple and humble from the exterior, but are often filled with wooden and stone sculptures and paintings in a riotous array of colors.

Insightful and expansive, Early’s book should be read by anyone interested in a fuller exploration of architecture and culture in the United States.


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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Book Reviews


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Book Review: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Galileo's Daughter CoverThe title is misleading. The subject of this biography is not, in fact, Galileo’s daughter Virginia (or his other daughter Livia). It is a biography of Galileo himself. As such, it is an interesting approach.

Galileo’s three children were born to his married mistress. Due to their bastard status, the girls would not be good marriage candidates. Instead, Galileo paid a dowry to the church and his young daughters were taken into the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, first as charges, later as cloistered nuns. Virginia became Suor Maria Celeste and Livia became Suor Arcangela. Maria Celeste took well to this sheltered life, becoming her father’s pen-pal, confidant, intellectual and spiritual sounding board, and doctor. It is the letters between Maria Celeste and Galileo (only her end of the conversations is extant) that Sobel uses in writing the biography.

Unfortunately, the fit is not quite right. At times, the letters seem shoehorned into the narrative. Rarely do they shed more light onto the man who was so hated by the church, apologies were not given until 2000, long after the church had accepted his findings as facts. Part of the blame must fall on Suor Maria Celeste’s situation. As a cloistered nun, even the most vital period of her letters (when she was running her father’s household on his behalf) is made lesser by simple fact that all of her information is second-hand. She may have been keeping his books, but all of her news of the goings-on had to be delivered to her by those on the outside. Had she been able to more freely move through the city, imagine what a resource her letters would have been. Among discussions of wine going bad in its casks, she could also have shared the mood of the people, the general attitude to his predicament, and perhaps some pertinent advice.

As it stands, Galileo’s Daughter is a decent read but a disappointing biography. By trying to force these letters into the narrative, Sobel has left us with something that is neither here nor there. It’s certainly not the biography it purports to be, and it is an unnecessarily self-limited biography of its true subject.

Fascinating Fact: Galileo bought a special dispensation for his son to legitimize him as his heir. Another example of the crappy hand women have been dealt throughout history. While Suor Maria Celeste was content in the convent, her sister was quite miserable, yet had to endure it, as she outlived her father and both siblings.


Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Book Reviews


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