Removal of Colonial & Church Influences

Benito Panunzi (died 1890) – Colección César Gotta

In the building you’re standing next to, in 1810, while the Spanish were embroiled in their war with Napoleon, the elite and nobles of the colony which would become Argentina – and at the time included parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil – voted to remove the Spanish Viceroy in charge, and establish a local government. Sneakily, the initial government pretended to swear fealty to the crown so they could cement their position and power and avoid counter-revolution by royalists. This meant they didn’t officially declare independence until 1816.

It was the first ‘successful’ revolution in South America, but it also began the tumultuous Argentine War of Independence which was long, convoluted, and involved a lot of bloody battles we’re not going to get into here. Sufficed to say that once things had stabilised the public started to loudly voice their opinions about wiping Spanish influence from the colony. One of the easiest ways to do that, was to knock down all visual reminders of Spanish influence such as this building in which the revolutionary Cabildo occurred. The people felt the building was a constant reminder of the simple, poor nature of the colony when Spain was in power.

 According to Juan, after the first local government and mayor office was set up in 1880 there was a long discussion about this building because everybody wanted to demolish it. They wanted to make something similar to a French building with Mansa and Dom, they said the construction of this building was too poor, that it had no value. There were also a few people that wanted to keep it because this is the place where the revolution started. So, they came to a consensus, let’s keep it, but let’s add a lot of French ornaments.

“So, they renewed it with French ornaments.

“Then, believe it or not, there was a nationalist revival in the 30s and 40s, where they said, ‘We don’t care about the poverty of the colony, because that shows that the origins of Argentina have high value, spiritual values, even when it’s poor.’ There was a kind of a Catholic Nationalist revival.”

During this nationalist revival, and after 100 years of rejecting the poverty of the Spanish past…

“…they started saying it was a good thing. So, they hired an architect to restore all the colonial buildings that had survived until the ’40s…”

Basically, to make them look white and simple again. So, everything you see here is not original, it’s a reconstruction of the Old City Hall. In fact, the hall used to be much longer on either side, but those outer arches were removed to construct these large avenues through the city.

“Every kid at school knows this building, because this is the place where Argentina was born.”

However, very few know this icon was invented by an architect in the 1940s.

“It’s not original at all.”

This seems to be a reoccurring theme in Buenos Aires, money being wasted by governments across the centuries to knock down historic buildings only to later be like, no it has cultural value, and then returning it back to its original state. If you look back the way you came to the right is the mosaic dome of the cathedral – this was also forced through change.

“That’s in some of the Cathedral now we will see it.”

According to Juan, just after independence the first President in the 1820s, upheld the ideals that Buenos Aires should be very liberal, very secular. After sharp disagreements with the Catholic church over their influence in the country, and the Pope’s condemnation of their revolution, the president decided to expropriate the Cathedral. He kept the original colonial cathedral, but he decided to replace the facade with a secular facade, by using the neo-Roman style. He made it look more like a public building, like a court of justice than a cathedral. He said, ‘Even the cathedral will show a symbol of Republican democracy.’

You see this in the old capitals of the original states of the USA, they use this same style, the old Capitol are all neo-Roman temples. Because Roman architecture is a symbol of republic, while Baroque architecture is a symbol of monarchy.

“The Catholic Church had many chapters in Argentine history. It has always been strong.”

But the oligarchy – the ruling elite – had a very secular policy when they ruled. Before the first coup d’etat in 1930, what we call a military coup these days, the oligarchy had stripped power from the church by separating them from controlling births and deaths, as well as dictating that compulsory universal education be secular, and introducing civil marriages. You can imagine the church was… displeased. In the coup, the army took advantage of the international crisis after the Wall Street crash in 1929. Argentina had suffered a lot from that crisis because it depended on commodities of the four or five things they exported. So, there was a coup d’etat, and this new dictatorship during the ’30s, helped the church regain much of their power.

They lost this power again when Peron, who we’ll talk about soon, began his presidency and started pushing forward laws to allow divorce, legalise prostitution, and promote separation of state and church. The church was accused repeatedly by Peron for sabotaging his government and it is also believed by many that the church was partly responsible for the coup d’etat that ended Peron’s first presidential reign.

 These days, Argentina is quite a secular, liberal country. But as Juan says, things can still get a bit murky.

“We were the, one of the first 10 countries for having the gay marriage law, for example, but we have the Pope so, I don’t know.”

That first dictatorship thanks to the coup d’etat in the 1930’s set the stage for the string of coup d’etats that came after it. The first saw illegal executions of political members as well as fraudulent elections and public pressure for corrupt official to resign. Then one of Argentina’s most important political figures, Juan Peron entered the stage. We’ll talk about the first dictatorship and the Rise of Peron at our next location, so let’s get moving!

Next Location – First Dictatorship and Rise of Peron: When it is safe to do so, use the pedestrian crossing at the corner to cross over to the corner of the Plaza de Mayo central square. Turn left and make your way towards the Church, and then turn right up the central path. The next stop is halfway between the obelisk like pyramid at the centre and the avenue behind you.