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Seeing Rome in the Andes: Inca architectural history and classical antiquity

Stella Nair

University of California, Los Angeles

The first European impressions of the Inca Empire were shaped by knowledge of ancient Rome. Roman history, religion, and political structures provided ready and appealing models for the Spaniards as they sought to come to terms with the Incas’ vast territories, traditions, and systems of social organization (Pease 1995; MacCormack 1995, 2007). But the legacy of Roman architecture and urban planning was no less powerful, informing or inspiring Spanish perceptions of the Inca built environment.

Inca architecture has a long history of being understood in terms of comparison (Gisbert 2009). Spaniards based their descriptions of Inca architecture and space on their own experience or understanding of earlier European traditions of construction, architecture and urban planning, not least those of the Romans (Edmondson 2016).  But Iberian notions of space were radically different from those which had been held in the Andes. Ignorance or indifference to Andean systems and practices led Spanish writers to create false categories for Inca building types. In addition, those writers who had also spent time in New Spain and Central America – by far the majority of European travelers to the Andes – adopted architectural terminology from other, quite alien localities and imported them to the Inca context, creating even greater confusion. While those cross-cultural exchanges within the Americas played a part in determining colonial interpretations of Inca architecture, the precedents of Roman architecture and urban design exerted the greatest influence. Classical Rome would cast a long shadow across the Andes (Miguel Gutiérrez Sencio, appointed architect of Cuzco’s cathedral in 1615, was a devotee of Vitruvius) and Rome’s renowned cityscape early on provided an indispensable set of references for accounts of imperial Inca architecture.

This paper identifies and examines a number of Roman structures that were used to characterize and even define Inca sites, and discusses some of the specific books and collections of drawings and prints of ancient Roman architecture that would have been accessible to colonial writers in the Andes. The reception of these materials is of great importance, not only for reconstructing a very particular repertoire of early modern images of classical Rome, but also for what they signified to indigenous authors in the Andes, notably Guaman Poma de Ayala, who used or appealed to Roman models in descriptions and depictions of Inca buildings. 

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Rome and the Americas

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