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Photographs of the Castillo: Close Looking at the Art and Architecture of Chichén Itzá

Frida Plata, Student, MA Program in the Humanities (MAPH)

In order to study Mesoamerican art, we must frequently ask ourselves an important question – what elements can we derive from the objects themselves, and what are we deriving from our imagination to fill in the gaps of knowledge? The buildings and art of Chichén Itzá can help us consider how the imagination fills knowledge gaps, especially for a discipline like Mesoamerican art history that requires a substantial amount of information derived from the object itself. Close looking of the objects at Chichén Itzá helps us to reconsider posited theories about the site’s art and architecture, especially because of the limited primary sources available to us about Chichén Itzá. Much of the site’s documentation was destroyed by Diego de Landa (a Spanish Bishop who proselytized to the locals and helped colonize the region) upon his arrival during the sixteenth century. So, the codices that would have helped us decipher Mayan script have left us with many unanswered questions about the history, architecture, and art of Chichén Itzá [1]. Still, despite our limited primary sources, Chichén Itzá’s remains provide the visual information that can allow us to decipher the site’s meaning and aesthetic contributions to Mesoamerican art. In the fall of 2019, the Art History department offered a traveling seminar, led by Associate Professor Claudia Brittenham, to conduct the close looking necessary to reconsider methodological approaches taken thus far toward investigating Chichén Itzá and Mesoamerican art.

One different methodological approach when examining Chichén Itzá’s material evidence includes re-visualizing the site through the eyes of other artists. One artist in particular, American photographer Laura Gilpin, captured images of Chichén Itzá that allow us to see the complex designs of the site’s art and architecture. In 1932, Gilpin captured the first important documented photograph of the Castillo before sunset during the equinox [2] (Fig. 1). The north side of the Castillo depicts a serpent made from light and shadow that appears to slither down the pyramid’s west balustrade. This sophisticated projection of the great “Plumed Serpent,” an important supernatural figure in Mesoamerica, just begins to demonstrate Chichén Itzá’s sophisticated and fascinating architecture.

Figure 1. Laura Gilpin, Steps of the Castillo, Chichen Itza, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 35.4 x 26.7 cm

Another one of Gilpin’s significant images of the Castillo is Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan (1932) (Fig. 2). The photograph depicts six people scaling one of the Castillo’s stairways at Chichén Itzá. Even though the Castillo technically has four stairways, Gilpin features only one of the stairways in her photograph, thus simplifying the use of the space and eliminating any other possible processional pathways leading to the temple that sits on the ninth (and last) platform at the top of the building. From the top of the building to the bottom of the stairway, Gilpin photographs the Castillo from a centralized low angle, making the stairs seem gargantuan and thus seeming to create a monument of the Castillo while also adding a sense of drama to the long and steep trek to building’s entrance. Despite the elaborate, open-mouthed serpent heads on either side of the stairway entrance, Gilpin crops out most of the serpent heads from the photograph, emphasizing the stairway in the photograph more than any other architectural or ornamental feature of the Castillo.

Figure 2. Laura Gilpin, Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 34.5 x 24.3 cm

As one moves their eyes towards the top of the Castillo’s stairs, they notice the temple’s entrance, awaiting the people scaling the stairs to enter it. The temple’s entrance appears perfectly aligned with the stairway, emphasizing a centrality and symmetry in the photograph. Symmetry and centrality are further emphasized by the design of the temple itself—two rounded columns evenly divide the temple’s entryway and help to unify the symmetry of the photograph.

One can also note the symmetry in Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan by the linear repetition throughout the photograph. For example, the repeated horizontal pattern of the stairs helps to emphasize the symmetry of the photograph as the pattern takes up the center of the page. In addition to the repeated horizontal linear patterns in the photograph, the vertical lines that comprise the balustrades also play an important role within the photograph. The vertical lines in the image not only frame the symmetry of the repeated pattern of the stairs, but these vertical lines contribute to the monumentality within the photograph. They provide a sense of stability and strength to the image, much like the rounded columns at the temple’s entrance also provide a sense of stability, strength, and monumentality to the photograph. With the way that Gilpin utilizes line repetition to frame the stairway that leads to the temple, in addition to the people scaling the stairs that look toward the temple’s entrance, we are compelled to consider what resides beyond the temple’s doorway. Though one can visibly see the doorway’s entrance at the top of the stairs (as this photograph was captured during the day), they cannot see within the building because it is concealed in complete darkness. Still, even though we cannot see inside the building, we cannot help but wonder how the Maya utilized the space within and what they conceived when they were constructing the Castillo.

Regarding the people photographed in this image, they all wear seemingly traditional Maya dress. The women in the image appear to wear huipiles, the traditional white and embroidered dress of Maya women, their skirt hems decorated with detailed embroidery [3]. The men wear huaraches and straw sombreros (though short pants and tunics are more common), providing some shade against the strong Yucatec sun as they scale the Castillo’s steep stairway. As these people scale the stairs, their bodies create a diagonal line across the stairway, breaking the centrality and symmetry of the photograph. The young boy sitting and leaning against one of the serpent heads at the end of the balustrade at the bottom of the stairway also functions within the image in a similar manner, breaking the symmetry in the photograph as he sits alone, observing the others scale the Castillo’s stairs. In addition to breaking the centrality and symmetry within the photograph, the diagonal line created by the people in the photograph gives the image a sense of action and dynamism, which contrasts the stability provided by the horizontal linear repetition of the stairs and the vertical repetition of the balustrades.

Upon actually seeing the Castillo during the traveling seminar, we realized just how the ancient Maya strategically employed certain optical illusions to emphasize the pyramid’s monumentality. For example, the area surrounding the Castillo remains empty, thus making the Castillo appear much larger than the other buildings distantly placed from the pyramid. In addition, the Castillo itself incorporates an optical illusion of sorts in its design. As one moves their eyes form the bottom to the top of the pyramid, they can observe that the squares on each platform incrementally decrease in size toward the top, thus making it seem as if the Castillo is much larger than its somewhat modest size, especially compared to other pyramids in Mesoamerica (such as Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon and the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Puebla). Naturally, actually being able to visit Chichén Itzá through this traveling seminar opened up many more questions about this fascinating site. It will certainly continue to perplex and fascinate art historians as we continue to investigate and uncover its meanings.


[1] Linnea Holmer, et al., Lanscapes of the Itza: Archaeology and Art History at Chichen Itza and Neighboring Sites (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018), 37.

[2] John B. Carlson, “Pilgrimage and the Equinox ‘Serpent of Light and Shadow’ Phenomenon at the Castillo, Chichén Itzá, Yucatán,” Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 14, no. 1 (1999): 138.

[3] Phillip Hofstetter, Maya Yucatán: An Artist’s Journey (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 107.

Investigating the Past in the Present: Archaeology and Community in Cusco, Peru

R. Sandy Hunter, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

Peru’s ‘Sacred Valley,’ the drainage of the Urubamba River, is flooded with foreign tourists daily. They flock to its many famous archaeological sites, and use it as a jumping off point for treks and trains to Machu Picchu. By contrast, the Patacancha Valley, which is immediately adjacent, sees very few foreign visitors. Most gringos who visit the Patacancha Valley go for a specific purpose: to visit the archaeological ruins of Pumamarka, an immense Inka settlement surrounded by an impressive wall that sits on a ridge above the valley floor.  A few continue beyond Pumamarka, passing by another archaeological site—Marca Cocha—to visit the Quechua speaking community of Huilloc. In Huilloc they have the opportunity to spend the night with local families, witnessing first hand the lives of agriculturalists living in the Andes Mountains. In Huilloc, tourists might, for instance, accompany local herders as they care for the alpaca and sheep that provide the raw wool for the incredibly intricate textiles produced by hand in the community.

Like those tourists, I am an outsider in Huilloc. I am in the village to speak with community members about the possibility of collaborating on an archaeology project. I am interested in the lesser known of the major archaeological sites in the Patacancha Valley. Marca Cocha, I think, would be an ideal site for my dissertation research on the social and ecological changes that accompanied Spanish Colonialism in the region. Having visited the site numerous times, I know that there is evidence of occupation at the site during both the Inka and the Colonial periods. I want to begin an archaeological project investigating the transition from Inka to Colonial administration, but I must first speak with the community of Huilloc—will they support a project as collaborators?

Each month, the entire community meets to discuss issues that impact them all: land and water rights, the election of community officials, and the administration of community buildings. The meeting is conducted in Quechua. I only know a few words so I am only able to follow along at certain moments, taking my cues from the body language and quick translations whispered to me by other Spanish speakers. The first speakers are not from Huilloc. They came from a larger town within the same municipality to speak against the mayor of the region, they claim corruption and malfeasance, and make their point over the course of almost an hour.  An hour up, they are followed by the very official they are speaking against. The mayor had arrived midway through the speeches against him in order to have the opportunity to defend himself—word does travel fast.

A property dispute is settled, the leader of the community watch ‘ronda’ is elected, and finally it is my turn to speak. As I get up, it is immediately clear that only a few of the several hundred people at the meeting have any interest in what I have to say. I introduce myself and my intentions: I want to initiate a collaborative relationship with community members, wherein we can together investigate the past of the region. There is little reaction. The possibility of a future collaboration with an archaeology project not yet even established is of little relevance compared to the immediate importance of land rights and political corruption.

I am initially disappointed by the lack of lack of interest in my project. Having been unable to catch a car back out of the Valley, I am forced to walk the twelve kilometers. During this walk I reflect upon the meeting and my perspective changes. The meeting reminds me that as much as the landscapes and ruins of the Patacancha Valley fascinate me as historical artifacts and as much as I can see the past through them, these remnants are more than historical reminders of the past in the present. These ruins connect that past to the present, and act in it. They have a contemporary existence that is embroiled in local politics—they are managed by the community and occasionally bring tourists—however, they do not take precedence over the pressing affairs of day to day life.  My concerns—those of a hypothetical archaeological project, a year away—are not important. As an archaeologist I had been concentrating on the past of the Patacancha Valley, the Inka and Colonial ruins that initially drew me to the area. While studying the site of Marca Cocha—its seventeenth-century chapel, Inka buildings, and the ruins of pre-Inka structures—the contemporary Patacancha Valley had faded from prominence. My reception at the community meeting reminded me that an archaeology project based in the Patacancha Valley will only be a success if it both informs on the historical past and contributes tangibly to the lives of the people who live in the Valley.


A group of classic Inka elite structures at the archaeological site of Marca Cocha, in Peru's Patacancha Valley.A group of classic Inka elite structures at the archaeological site of Marca Cocha, in Peru’s Patacancha Valley.

A group of classic Inka elite structures at the archaeological site of Marca Cocha, in Peru's Patacancha Valley.A colonial chapel at the site of Marca Cochca, this chapel has been in use for at least 250 years.

 dying, spinning, and weaving are all tasks completed in the community.A woman weaving in the community of Huilloc. In Huilloc textile manufacturing begins with herding sheep and llamas, and includes each step of the process: dying, spinning, and weaving are all tasks completed in the community.



The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.


Havana in Miniature: Nostalgia, Utopia and City Ruins in a Scale Model

María A. Gutiérrez Bascón, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures 

It was on a rainy afternoon in Havana, in the summer of 2012, that I set out to visit a rather intriguing object that several people had mentioned to me. La Maqueta de La Habana was one of the largest scale models of a city in the entire world, if not the largest!, I had been told. But where was this seemingly impressive rendition of a Havana in miniature? Nobody had been able to tell me the exact location, besides the fact that the city replica was somewhere in the neighborhood of Miramar, between 1st and 3rd Avenue. I carefully looked through my comprehensive visitor’s guide of Havana in search of more information, but there was no mention to this huge scale model. The only maqueta referenced was the relatively small one located in one of the touristy streets in Old Havana.

As interested as I am in the ways in which the city of Havana has been imagined and portrayed by writers, filmmakers, visual artists, architects, and urban planners after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I knew I had to visit the Maqueta de La Habana before leaving the island. My time in Cuba was coming to an end, so I decided to embark on a trip from my apartment in Old Havana to Miramar. Crossing Havana in the rain can become quite a task sometimes, as I was reminded that afternoon. Bus delays and a pouring rain that often flooded certain parts of the city put me in the neighborhood of Miramar at a later time than I had planned, but I still thought I had made it on time. I seemed to be on the right street, but I couldn’t find the maqueta. After asking at the nearby bar, I was given more concrete directions. When I finally found the building, I saw that the doors were closed. Very, very closed, as if they hadn’t been opened in quite some time. “They’re probably closed today because of the rain,” the friend that came with me that afternoon told me. “Well, I guess I’ll never know,” I said. I was leaving Havana the next day!

Fortunately, I was lucky to go back to Havana the following summer. The very gracious Gina Rey, Havana-based architect, received me in her house that summer. I had met her the year before, but I wasn’t aware that she had been one of the creators of La Maqueta de La Habana in the late 1980s. Architect Rey told me that the scale model was indeed closed to the public, and had been for some time, because the pavilion that hosts the maqueta was in an advanced state of disrepair. “There are some problems in the ceiling, and they don’t want anybody to get hurt,” she said, “so they don’t let tourists in anymore.” A quick Internet search about the maqueta retrieved a comment from a Canadian tourist who had been able to visit the small-scale Havana before it was indefinitely closed to the public: “I was told that it is ‘under renovation’ because a tourist had an accident there last year.” It is not without irony that this idealized depiction of Havana—as all scale models are, in their abstract, almost utopian character—was being threatened by the ruinous pavilion that hosts it. The ideal city could perish under the ruin of a crumbling ceiling.

This contradiction between the ideal character of a Havana in miniature and the rubble that the pavilion could potentially turn it into made the maqueta all the more captivating. Architect Gina Rey was very kind in arranging a visit for me. She would call the security guard and tell him to let me in the pavilion so that I could take pictures of the model. When I got there the next day, I noticed that the enormous panels of the maqueta had been disassembled. As if the scale model was acquiring part of the ruinous condition belonging to the ceiling above it, its panels stood a few inches apart from each other. It was a striking view —the city in miniature looked fractured, as if it had been affected by some unexpected catastrophe. It was a huge scale model indeed, as I had been told. Approximately 144 square meters (472 square feet) in size, the model took 18 years to build, according to one of the brochures left on a table at the maqueta pavilion. According to Cuban writer Antonio José Ponte, who has reflected upon this small-scale Havana in several of his texts, the maqueta would be the second largest of its kind in the world, only surpassed by “The Panorama City of New York.” In addition to its size, the color code of the maqueta is probably one of its most salient aspects. Each building is colored according to the time when it was built. Constructions built in the colonial period appear in terracotta, while buildings from the republican era are painted in ochre and edifications planned by the Revolution are beige. Interestingly enough, both cemeteries and projects that have not yet been built are painted in white. Antonio José Ponte has noted that there’s some irony in the fact that both the past— those who have passed—and what is yet to be born share the same color in the scale model (1). Does this somehow point to the relative constructive paralysis that affected the period after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, linking revolutionary architecture in Havana to stagnation, or to death? In fact, as the maqueta shows, Havana has a lot of ochre—buildings from the pre-revolutionary period—and not so much beige (revolutionary architecture) in it.

This relative constructive inactivity during the revolutionary period has been the perfect backdrop for numerous depictions of Havana as a city frozen in time, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not having suffered any major renovations in a few decades, the Cuban capital seemed like the perfect projection screen for those affected by a feeling of nostalgia for a time when certain utopian projects were still thought possible. Various glossy photographic albums that portrayed Havana as a crumbling city stuck in time started to circulate widely in the early 1990s, with the onset of the so-called Special Period on the island. And however cliché the image of a Havana suspended on the verge of collapse might be, there is a certain truth to the claims of disrepair that many have raised when referring to the Cuban capital during the last twenty years. Even by conservative governmental accounts, more than 52% of the buildings in the country—not only in Havana—are facing decay (2). To address these issues, the Office of the Historian of Havana put in place a plan to restore the old city. While successful in recovering and protecting a number of buildings of great architectural value, the scope of the plan has been limited to the intramural city. The rest of the city is left to fend for itself, facing serious problems such as poor housing, overcrowding, and deteriorated infrastructure.

After having crossed the crumbling Centro Habana to get to Miramar and see the scale model, I reflected upon these questions surrounding nostalgia, ruins, and utopia. As I gazed over the maqueta, I asked myself how a miniature of Havana—this miniature, or any miniature, for that matter—could capture the ruins of a city. In fact, the catalog of the scale model claims that the replica has an absolute faithfulness to the real city. But how can that fidelity even be possible, with the frequent collapses of buildings in Centro Habana after each storm that hits the city? Does a wooden block from the maqueta disappear every time a building partially or completely falls to the ground in the real city?

Interestingly enough, I thought, this Havana in miniature wasn’t shaped with the usual materials of which scale models are made. Built during the Special Period, the maqueta had to be made of a more affordable and readily available material at the time: the discarded wooden boxes of Cuban cigars. If we consider the place that tobacco holds in well-known imaginings of the Cuban nation—which have one of its most important articulations in Fernando Ortiz’s essay Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1940)—, it’s not hard to see the maqueta as being made, in a quite hopeful gesture, out of the rubbles of the nation.

Perfect in their straight lines, the maqueta blocks made of discarded tobacco boxes seem to point to the (im)possibilities of making utopian gestures towards the (re)construction of a city that holds a significant place in our political dreams and nightmares. How do we imagine and cope with the ruins—not only the ruins of Havana, but of the great utopian projects of the twentieth century, for which the Cuban capital is an important signifier? Ponte has criticized the scale model of Havana for its inability to account for a crumbling city. I would argue, however, that the maqueta does capture the ruin, but in a less obvious way. Within the utopian impulse that any scale model presupposes, there is always a fracture. In the maqueta, the rubble makes its way through the discarded tobacco boxes, as to quietly remind us, perhaps, that utopia is not without its ruins. And that ruins, possibly, may themselves be the material from which to build our new utopias.

Maqueta Picture


(1) Ponte, Antonio José. “Carta de La Habana. La maqueta de la ciudad.” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, 649-659 (2004): 251-255.

(2) Data quoted by Ponte in “La Habana está por inventarse.” El País 21 Jan. 2006.

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The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.