A stark, imposing facade in the historic centre of Cuernavaca, the Palace of Cortes is a pretty clear testament to the brooding mind of its original lord. Hernán Cortés, a man with a singular mind for destruction, built the walls of his palace thick, dark and unadorned. There is nothing inviting or elegant about the palace.
In true obliterative conquistador style, the palace was built over the remains of a precolombian site. Today the palace is a cultural centre that has been partially excavated to reveal the ruins beneath. Although the subterranean ruins and the artifacts found there are being painstakingly preserved, the same can’t be said for the palace. A sense of guilt and penance hangs over the place, like the palace is being kept dark and ugly as a way of expiating its past.
As a part of this process, Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint a series of murals along the upper gallery of the Palace. Depicting local history from the conquest to the revolution, it is the usual Rivera work, full of bodies and energy and very obvious politics. Indigenous people suffer, conquistadors fight with Aztec warriors, nahuales add the usual touch of magic realism and nostalgia for the past (even though Rivera would never have considered himself a romantic).
In the middle of the mural is a portrait of José María Morelos, who assumed the leadership of the independence movement from the martyred Miguel Hidalgo. Morelos, who was imprisoned in the palace (after the Cortés clan quit the building it became a barracks and prison), was also executed on the road to independence. Just as Hidalgo is always identified by his bald pate, Morelos is identified by the signature hankie knotted around his head; he looks like a priest dressed as a soldier dressed as a pirate. Usually portraits of Morelos play up this swashbuckling image, making him lean, brooding and handsome-in-a-serious-way..
In Diego’s portrait, though, he looks completely different. Corpulent and ponderous, with puckered lips, bug-eyes and flabby jowls, he happens to look a lot like Diego.
Really Diego? I mean it was pretty audacious (and funny) to style one of the nation’s greatest heroes as a fat, lecherous egomaniac, but is this really how he saw himself? As a hero and martyr to the greater cause? Maybe he could get away with it in the 30s, at the height of his fame and influence; nowadays he is better known as the fat bastard who somehow snared Frida Kahlo and still couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. That’s just the problem though, Diego believed in himself a little too much.