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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Buenos Aires, c1809

Engraved aerial map of city revealing a grid pattern layout.'Plan de la Ville de Buenos-Ayres'.Félix Manuel de Azara (1746-1821) was a Spanish military officer, amateur naturalist and engineer. He had reached the rank of brigadier-general when in 1781 he was sent as part of a delegation to the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (encompassing present-day Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) to negotiate a border dispute between the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, a dispute which would not be resolved until the coming of independence.

During the colonial period, administrative responsibilities were often entrusted to peninsulares rather than native-born creoles. Azara became noted for his zoological work and named several new species. This book concentrates on the natural history of the region, but also examines the colonial impact on the environment.

Even before Philip II of Spain promulgated ordinances concerning the design of cities in the Spanish colonies in 1573, settlements tended to be arranged according to a pre-ordained plan derived from a treatise by the Roman military architect Vitruvius, discovered and published in 1485.

From the start, colonial cities tended to be starkly differentiated from those in the mother country. They were designed to inspire awe and respect in their inhabitants; for example, it was stipulated that the cathedral (often imposingly Baroque in style) should not be obscured by other buildings but must be visible from most parts of the city.

A central plaza was the locus of religious and secular authority. Intersecting streets emanated from the plaza following a grid pattern; this had been established long before 1573 by Cortés in his plan for Mexico City. The ordinances designated specific zones for administration, commerce and private residences. The plaza was reserved for public buildings; block lots for merchants were allocated next and then other residential areas further away from the plaza were allocated by lottery. Buenos Aires, as can be seen from this plate, was no exception to this rule.          

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