The Palace of the Inquisition stands on the corner of Republica de Brasil and Republica de Venezuela streets in Mexico City, Mexico. While neither side of the building faces the Santo Domingo Plaza, the entrance does, as it is placed at the corner, which is tilted to allow it to face in that direction.
The Palace’s long association with the Inquisition, which ended during the Mexican War of Independence, made it difficult to convert it to other purposes. However, it eventually became the School of Medicine for the reconstructed National University (now the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)). When UNAM moved to the Ciudad Universitaria in the 1950s, it retained ownership of this building, eventually converting the structure into what is today the Museum of Mexican Medicine.
In 1873, probably in despair over an unrequited love, romantic poet Manuel Acuña committed suicide by poison in one of the rooms.
The edifice that stands on the site now was built between 1732 and 1736 by Pedro de Arrieta, who also worked on a number of other significant buildings in the city. The Palace was popularly known as the “Casa Chata” or “Squat-faced House.” This refers to the south-west corner, which faces Santo Domingo plaza and is seemingly cut off or pushed in.
Originally Arrieta constructed a two-storey building, with a third floor added in the 19th century. As the headquarters of the Inquisition, this building had hearing rooms, judges’ chambers, a secret chamber, a jail and accommodations for two inquisitors.
Like in many other buildings in the historic downtown, the façade is covered in tezontle (a blood-red porous volcanic stone), with windows and doors framed with chiluca (a greyish-white stone), but the building has two main notable features.
The first is that its main portal is located at the south-west corner, which has been “cut off” in order to face Santo Domingo Plaza. With this design, not only would the building face the plaza, but also its two side streets would lead to its door. Despite the fact that this very feature would in time earn the Palace the nickname of “squat-faced,” Arrieta’s idea was initially declared innovative and beautiful.
The other feature is the patio. The arches on the four corners do not rest on columns, but seem to hang from the ceiling. In fact, they are crossed arches that are supported by pillars attached to the walls and the first columns on each side.
From the beginning of the colonial period until the Mexican War of Independence, this spot was the headquarters of the Inquisition in the colony of New Spain. While the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition was not fully established here until 1571, the first cleric with inquisitorial duties came to the colony in 1524 and was called Martin de Valencia.
The Dominicans, in whom the papacy had invested Inquisition duties, arrived in 1526 and proceeded to build a monastery in the area occupied by both the current Palace and the Church of Santo Domingo. The first official Inquisitor for the colony, Pedro Moya de Contreras, worked in the section of the monastery where the later, 18th-century Palace would be built.
The Inquisition was officially established here due to a 1566 conspiracy led by Martin Cortés, son of Hernán Cortés, which threatened to make the new colony independent of Spain. The plot was denounced by Baltazar de Aguilar Cervantes and Inquisition trials of various Creoles began.
The first victims of this series of trials were the brothers Alonso and Gil Gonzalez de Alvila Alvarado. Although local citizens and some chroniclers sympathised with them, both brothers were convicted. Their punishment was to be decapitated, and their house, located on part of the site of the Templo Mayor, was razed to the ground and the site sown with salt.
The local Inquisition heard a number of other famous cases during its time, including the prosecution of the Carbajal family for reversion to Judaism, and the case of Martin Villavicencio, alias Martin Garatuza, which would inspire one of the best-known 19th-century Mexican novels, Vicente Riva Palacio’s “Martín Garatuza”. Servando Teresa de Mier spent time in the jail here, and this court sentenced Miguel Hidalgo to defrocking and excommunication before his 1815 execution.
Five years later, the Inquisition was officially disbanded in Mexico.
After the end of the Inquisition, in 1838, the Palace was put up for sale by public auction, but no one offered the minimum price. It was finally purchased by the archbishopric. Later it served as lottery offices, a primary school and military barracks.
In 1854, it was sold to the School of Medicine, which at the time was offering classes in professors’ homes. After the purchase, a number of changes were made, and a boarding school was established here. Eventually, it would become the school of medicine and nursing of the National University (today’s UNAM). In 1879, after modification, the old chapel became the Academy of Medicine and a third floor was added, which resulted in the removal of the crest that held the coat-of-arms of the Inquisition.
When all the faculties of UNAM, including the School of Medicine, moved to the Ciudad Universitaria in the 1950s, the Palace was is such poor shape that a number of its arches were in danger of crashing to the ground. Restoration work commenced shortly afterwards and was completed in 1980. In 1982, the building that once was the prison was reintegrated into the main complex and since then has been used as a theatre and to accommodate the lectures of visiting professors.
Today the building still belongs to UNAM and functions as the Museum of Medicine. The museum was inaugurated on 22 December 1980, and designed as a way to preserve the history of medicine in Mexico as well as promote the values associated with this field.
It was also considered to be a way to conserve one of the properties that UNAM still holds in the historic downtown area. The museum has 24 rooms that cover the history of medicine in this country from pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century. There is a room devoted to indigenous herbal medicine, various rooms displaying old medical equipment and machines, a room about human development and a collection of wax figures once used to illustrate pathologies.