A Monument to a Maker Despite Its Subject
“El Caballito” is not without irony. Mexico City residents are not being affectionate when calling it the “Little Pony” or the “Little Horseman.” It’s nothing like other important monuments in the city. And in all the world, it’s still the second largest cast bronze statue.
Manuel Tolsá’s equestrian portrait of Charles IV began with a 1796 commission from the Viceroy of New Spain, Miguel de la Grúa Talamanca. With permission from Madrid, work began. A pedestal was built in the Zócalo. Bullfights and parties were held on December 8, 1796. That was seven years before the work could be unveiled.
Tolsá worked with Salvador de la Vega who’d cast many of the largest bells in Metropolitan Cathedral. The Foundry was at the Colegio de San Gregorio, and the statue was painstakingly moved to the seven-year-old pedestal. That was 1803. The 1,600-meter move took five days on a cart.
It was to be the first of four or five painful moves for the hefty horseman. The final statue weighs about 26 tons. Of course, a lot would have to happen before anyone would even consider moving the statue again. Here’s a quick recount:
- The Viceroy, widely considered the most corrupt in the history of New Spain, only wanted to flatter Charles IV in commissioning the statue in the first place.
- That may have worked for a moment, but by 1798, five years before the statue was even complete, Viceroy Grúa was on his way back to Spain to stand trial for corruption.
- To top things off, by 1808, Charles the IV himself was forced to abdicate. The centerpiece of the Zócalo was, already in 1808, a monument to an ex-king.
- His son too, Ferdinand, lasted just two months on the throne.
- He was replaced by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph in May of 1808, marking the beginning of the Peninsular War between France and Spain. This would last until 1414 when Ferdinand was restored to the throne.
- Needless to say, Tolsá’s 26-ton monument was, by 1808, a symbol of a badly shaken system, and…
- Faith in the “legitimacy of the Spanish Crown” would be seriously questioned everywhere in New Spain. It was a running theme straight through the independence period.
- (Tolsá died in 1816, six years into the War for Independence.)
- When, in 1821, indigenous and commoner forces under Vicente Guerrero enlisted the support of Agustín de Iturbide, who represented Mexico’s own elite, allegiance to the Spanish crown was abandoned forever.
- What are a newly democratic people to do with 26 tons of cast bronze? (Technically, it’s a copper alloy.)
Well, first they hid it. Anti-Spanish sentiment was too hot and a blue tarp was draped over the top for a while. Arch-conservative, Lucas Alamán convinced the president to spare the statue from the crucible. By 1822, the horseman reigned over a closed courtyard in the Royal and Pontifical University building. (That was later to become the University of Mexico.)
From there, it was moved in 1852 to the intersection of Paseo de la Reforma and the Avenida Bucarelli. Charles IV remained there until 1979. Fortunately those represent the long golden years of the avenue. In fact, at the other end of Bucarelli, at the Intersection with the Calle Barcelona, was another tremendous work by Manuel Tolsá. The fountain that flanked that grand intersection was moved in 1925 to the Plaza de Loreto where it can still be seen.
In 1979, at long last, and after countless troublesome street expansions, the City moved “El Caballito” to its present location. So when you’re complaining about the style and strange period of Sebastián’s brilliant modernist yellow replacement, remember that all of this history has gone into that particular statement, too.
The renamed Manuel Tolsá Plaza, out front of the National Museum of Art and before Tolsá’s masterpiece, the Palacio de Mineria, may finally do justice to the work the architect and sculptor tried to do, so many years ago.
Ultimately, it’s a monument to the artist far more than to its subject. And for that, it does bear some affection.