Behind the walls of Cuernavaca - Palacio de Cort
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    Behind the walls of Cuernavaca - Palacio de Cort

    Behind the walls of Cuernavaca

    BY JOHN MITCHELL/Special to The Herald Mexico
    El Universal
    November 06, 2005

    On the surface, Cuernavaca isn't an especially attractive place. Its narrow downtown streets are often clogged with honking traffic, and much of its architecture is unremarkable. However, it's what you don't see at first that counts in this sophisticated town. Cuernavaca is a city of walls, and it takes a little probing to discover the riches that hide behind them.

    Cuernavaca's spring-like climate and close proximity to Mexico City have always attracted writers, artists, and the rich and powerful.

    Perhaps Cuernavaca's most infamous resident was Hern?n Cort?s, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. His former home, the Palacio de Cort?s, was built between 1522 and 1532, making it Cuernavaca's oldest colonial building. Rumor has it that Cort?s not only lived in the palace until his return to Spain in 1540, but that he also used it to hoard gold stolen from the Aztecs.

    The Palacio de Cort?s stands guard over Cuernavaca's main square like a medieval fortress. Its intimidating stone walls now protect the Museo de Cuauhn?huac, a regional museum with rooms full of archaeological and colonial artifacts.

    A cycle of murals depicting Mexico's tumultuous history, painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera during the 1920s, emblazons the museum's second-floor balcony. Aztec warriors, Spanish Conquistadors, dour monks, and gun-waving heroes of Mexico's struggle for independence populate Rivera's dramatic murals. The sad remains of a pre-Hispanic temple pillaged by the Spanish can also be seen within the palace.

    Two other important historical figures who called Cuernavaca home were Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg whom Napolean III installed as emperor of Mexico in 1864 and his wife Carlota. This imperial couple chose the Borda Gardens in the heart of Cuernavaca as their summer residence. These elegant gardens were built during the 18th century by the son of Don Jos? de la Borda, a French immigrant who became fabulously wealthy from his silver mines in nearby Taxco and constructed that city's ornate Santa Prisca Church.


    The Borda Gardens are entered by an unassuming gateway which opens into a courtyard surrounded by galleries containing art exhibits and 18th-century memorabilia. Another building houses oil paintings showing Maximilian and Carlota entertaining visiting nobility. An air of faded grandeur hangs over these forgotten gardens. There is a murky duck pond on which Maximilian and his courtiers used to while away the hours in small rowboats. Pathways wind through groves of ornamental trees and shrubs to intimate patios adorned with splashing fountains and Grecian urns.

    In a large walled compound near Borda Gradens towers Cuernavaca's 16th-century cathedral. Except for a skull and crossbones, placed over the entrance by the Franciscans, there is little ornamentation on the cathedral's plain facade. Its cavernous interior was renovated during the 1960's using a minimalist approach . Above the pews, looms a large crucifix suspended by wires from the vaulted ceiling. At the far end of the nave stands a stark modern altar. Mysterious murals, uncovered during the early 20th century, decorate the walls of the nave. They are painted in the Japanese style and show Christian missionaries both spreading the gospel and being persecuted in Japan.

    One of Cuernavaca's biggest surprises is the Robert Brady Museum secreted away behind tall wooden doors on a street next to the cathedral. Robert Brady was a U.S. artist and designer who settled in Cuernavaca in 1961. He purchased an old mansion that had been part of a 16th-century convent. A constant traveler, Brady filled his home with paintings and folk art from Mexico and around the globe. When he died in 1986, he left instructions that his house was to become a museum.

    The Robert Brady Museum opened in 1990 after Brady's former home had been extensively renovated and preserved. Over 1,300 works of art are now on display. The collection reflects their former owner's flamboyant personality and eclectic tastes. Brady arranged things as he wished, putting pieces from disparate parts of the world next to each other in order to emphasize similarities in color and design. He also painted the rooms in wildly clashing colors. A peek at the museum's guest book shows that the house has attracted famous artists and celebrities from around the world.


    Cuernavaca's newest art venue is appropriately named MUROS, which means "Walls." This two-story cultural center was built primarily to house the Gelman Collection of Modern Mexican Art. Jacques and Natasha Gelman were two immigrants from Eastern Europe who fell in love with Mexico and devoted their lives to collecting paintings by 20th-century artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo. The original collection of over 300 paintings has been expanded to include avant-garde sculptures, photographs, and installations by contemporary Mexican artists.

    The MUROS cultural center occupies the grounds of what was once a large casino and hotel. The Casino de la Selva was home to a series of impressive murals depicting scenes from Mexico's history since pre-Columbian times. When the derelict casino was torn down, its damaged murals were literally peeled from the walls using an Italian method called strappo or "stripping." The murals have been reapplied to the walls and ceiling of a giant Hall of Murals in the MUROS building. Visitors can now watch artists restoring these vibrant paintings to their original splendor.

    John Mitchell is a writer and photographer specializing in Latin America. He can be contacted at



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