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date: 19 August 2019


  • Ann Kendall
  • , revised by Michael Schreffler

City in Peru, in the heart of the Andes, 3560 m above sea-level. Cuzco occupies the head of the fertile valley of the Huatanay River. The climate is temperate, with a rainy season from December to March. It was the capital of the Inka Empire. Now a city of over 400,000, a majority of whom are native Andeans, it is the present-day capital of the department of Cuzco.

1. Pre-Columbian

  • Ann Kendall, revised by Michael Schreffler

(i) Introduction

Archaeological evidence shows that the larger Cuzco region was inhabited by c. 1200 bce; this early phase is represented by pottery in the Marcavalle style and subsequently the Chanapata style. There is also evidence for settlements of later pre-Inka cultures in the valley, such as Wari (Huari), and the Killke ceramic style has been defined as a precursor of the Inka style. Initially, archaeological work was carried out under the auspices of the Patronato de Arqueología de Cuzco and subsequently by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura.

According to oral tradition recorded in the colonial period, the founding figures of the Inka culture in Cuzco were Manco Capac and his wife Mama Ocllo, who settled on the site of the later Coricancha around 1200 ce. In the 15th century, Pachacutec, the ninth Inka ruler, reorganized and rebuilt Cuzco into a suitable capital for the expanding Inka Empire, using a distinctive masonry style. The only permanent residents of Cuzco were the rulers and Inka nobility, including priests and other officials. Temporary residents may have included some servants and attendants to the shrines, but the majority lived in the outlying districts. Settlements outside the central nucleus were the homes of the native lords of subject provinces, considered “Inkas by privilege.” These lords maintained residences in Cuzco as well as in the subject provinces they oversaw.

Cuzco, plan, c. 1438–c. 1550 ce: (a) Coricancha; (b) Sacsahuaman; (c) Pumachupan; (d) Pucamarca; (e) Acllahuasi; (f) Huacaypata; (g) Cusipata; (h) Quishuarcancha; (i) Amarucancha

(ii) Planning and architecture

The Inka ruler, Pachacutec, is said to have re-designed the city several generations after its foundation by Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. Situated between canalized sections of the Huatanay and Tullumayo rivers, it was conceived as consisting of two sectors: Hanan (upper), occupied by the new Inka leaders and their close relatives; and Hurin (lower), representing the older inhabitants. The core of the central sector of the city was known as Haucaypata, a large plaza surrounded by the royal palaces of the Inka. Adjacent to Haucaypata and extending from it was a secondary plaza, the Cusipata, which may have been the site of a market.

Many of the important buildings of Cuzco were constructed of finely fitted, dressed masonry (see also South America, Pre-Columbian, §III, 2(iii)). Building stone included diorite, basalt, limestone, andesite, and rubble. Upper stories may sometimes have been made of adobe, and the roofs were always thatched.

The most symbolic and important structure was the Coricancha, a compound built in Hurin Cuzco on the site believed to have been Manco Capac’s initial settlement. An enclosure wall contained the main Sun Temple of the empire. Parts of the compound may have been covered with gold plates. The Sun Temple, a rectangular structure with a curved western end, housed the image of the Sun, described in colonial-period sources as a gold figurine. The compound also included several other shrines as well as buildings used by the priests attending them. The shrines at the Coricancha were rectangular structures whose walls were lined with niches. Some may have been richly ornamented with gold or silver plaques and other decorative features. The Inka conceived of the Coricancha as the center of a network of sacred sites known as huacas radiating from the Sun Temple. Colonial-period sources indicate there was ceremonial garden adjacent to the Coricancha ornamented with gold flowers, crops, birds, and animals.

Other structures in Cuzco included the Acllahuasi, a compound where women working in service of the Sun deity and the Inka ruler produced textiles and ritual beverages, and the Casana, a royal palace on the western side of Haucaypata. Rising on a hill above the central plaza was a vast complex known as Sacsahuaman, described by 16th-century Spaniards as a fortress. Its most distinctive features are its massive zigzagging terraces faced with gigantic stones. The complex also included storehouses for goods paid to Cuzco from the provinces as tribute.

(iii) Textiles and metalwork

The elites of Cuzco wore fine clothing of woven camelid wool. Some of these garments have survived to today, and they include men’s tunics designed with complex, standardized geometric patterns as well as women’s dresses, mantles, and belts. Miniature versions of these ensembles were also produced to be used in offerings in Cuzco and throughout the Empire. Metalworkers in Inka Cuzco produced a variety of vessel types such as basins and cups (aqullas), the latter used in ceremonial toasting and drinking. Ritual drinking vessels were also made of wood; these were known as keros.

Inka art can be seen in Cuzco’s Museo Inka as well as at the site museum at the monastery of Santo Domingo, the Museo Machu Picchu at the Casa Concha, and the Museo de Arte Precolombino.


  • Sancho, P. Relación para S.M. de lo sucedido en la conquista y pacificación de estas provincias de Nueva Castilla y de la calidad de la tierra (1543); edited by C. Romero and H. Urteaga. Lima, 1917; Eng. trans by P. A. Means, New York, 1917. There is a newer edition of this: Sancho, P. “Relación destinada a S.M. de cuanto ha sucedido en a conquista y pacificación...” (1534) in La relación de Pero Sancho, 60–215, edited by Luis A. Arocena. Buenos Aires, 1986.
  • Betanzos, J. de. Suma y narración de los Incas (1551); edited by M. del Carmen Rubio, Madrid, 1987. There is a newer edition of this: Betanzos, J. de. “Suma y narración de los Incas” (1551), in Juan de Betanzos y el Tahuantinsuyu, 107–437, edited by Francisco Hernández Astete. Lima, 2015.
  • Pizarro, P. Relación del descubrimiento y conquista de los reinos del Perú y del gobierno y órden que los naturales tenían (1571); edited by M. Menéndez Pelayo, Madrid, 1905–1965; Eng. trans. by P.A. Means, New York, 1921. There is a newer edition of this: Pizarro, P. Relación del descubrimiento y conquista de los reinos del Perú (1571). Lima, 2013.
  • Garcilaso de la Vega [El Inca]. Commentarios reales de los Incas (vol. 1, Lisbon, 1609; vol. 2, Córdoba, 1617); Eng. trans., intro. by H. V. Livermore, Texas Pan American Series. Austin, 1966.
  • Cobo, B. Historia del nuevo mundo (1653); edited by L. Pardo, 4 vols. Cuzco, 1956; Eng. trans. by R. Hamilton, Austin, 1979.
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2. Colonial and after

  • Michael Schreffler

(i) Introduction

In 1533, Francisco Pizarro and his followers executed the Inka king Atahualpa in Cajamarca. Soon thereafter, they entered Cuzco and refounded it as a Spanish colonial town. A native rebellion and siege in 1536 and subsequent struggles for control of the town among Spaniards contributed to a period of instability in the first decade of colonial rule. Locally governed by the magistrates of the cabildo, or town council, Cuzco was subject to the political authority of Lima, the “head city” of the Viceroyalty of Peru from 1542 to the early 19th century. In the wake of the wars for Independence, Cuzco was part of the nation of Peru. Today, its economy depends heavily on tourism.

(ii) Planning and architecture

The adaptation of the Inka settlement by the Spanish largely preserved the original plan of the streets and, in many cases, reused existing buildings or at least their foundations. The Haucaypata became the town’s main plaza. The Cathedral, on the north side of that plaza, was constructed c. 1550–1650, and it was in this period that the monasteries and convents of the religious orders took shape as well. The Jesuit church and school was built on the plaza’s east side, the Mercedarian institution faced the former Cusipata, and the Dominicans used the Coricancha as the basis for their monastery. A Dominican convent was established nearby on the site of the Acllahuasi.

Responding to royal decrees, the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo issued a set of ordinances for widespread institutional and structural change in Cuzco in 1572. The indigenous parishes circling the city, some of which had been established earlier, were enriched, their churches improved and ornamented, in an attempt to shore up civic order and religious orthodoxy.

An earthquake that struck the town in 1650 destroyed much of that which had been built in the preceding century. As a result, the later 17th century saw an intense period of rebuilding resulting in the churches, convents, and monasteries standing in Cuzco today. It was in this era that distinctive portals resembling ornate, multistoried retablos were built on church facades throughout the town. Many Inka-period walls survived the earthquake or were rebuilt, and they are still evident throughout the city today.

Three centuries later, in 1950, another destructive earthquake struck Cuzco and heavily damaged some of the buildings in its historic core. The reconstruction that followed attended to the sometimes conflicting interests of historic preservation and tourism focused on the exploration of the Inka past.

(iii) Textiles and metalwork

Fine garments of camelid wood continued to be produced and worn in and around Cuzco in the colonial period. Their designs sometimes resembled those produced under Inka rule, but the finest surviving colonial-period garments indicate the incorporation of figural imagery and vegetal imagery and the use of silk and metallic threads. Fine vessels continued to be produced, primarily in silver, and metalworkers explored an array of European vessel types and decorative motifs in addition to those with roots in the Andean past. Many candlesticks, chalices, altar frontals, and other ecclesiastical ornament of precious metals were manufactured in Cuzco workshops.

(iv) Painting and sculpture

Religious paintings brought from Europe were the first works of this type in colonial Cuzco. At the end of the 16th century, the Italian Jesuit painter Bernardo Bitti spent time in Cuzco where he created works for the Jesuit church whose style would be imitated by other artists. In the 17th century, the indigenous painters Diego Quispe Tito and Basilío Santa Cruz Pumacallao (1635–1710) produced canvases that adorned many of the city’s churches, working for Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo (d 1699), an enthusiastic patron of religious art. The so-called Cuzco school of painters flourished from the 16th century to the 19th. The group was united in their use of a distinctive color palette and style, a liberal use of gold leaf, and large-scale image production designed to fulfill demand for paintings in other parts of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

Sculptors in Cuzco, too, produced works for use in ecclesiastical settings. The hollow crucified Christ known as the Lord of the Earthquakes was probably made in the later 16th century using a combination of native and European techniques. Woodcarvers constructed retablos, choir stalls, and pulpits for the town’s numerous churches. Among the most notable of the latter is the pulpit at the church of S. Blas, traditionally attributed to Juan Tomás Tuyru Tupac Inka. Wooden sculptures of the Virgin Mary, many of them intended to be dressed for display, were the frequent subject of paintings in Cuzco throughout the 18th century.

The art of Cuzco’s colonial period can be seen in churches, convents, and monasteries throughout the town as well as at the Museo de Arte Religioso.


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  • Kropp, M. Cuzco: Window on Peru. New York, 1956.
  • Mesa, J. de and Gisbert, T. Historia de la pintura cuzqueña. Buenos Aires, 1962.
  • Miranda Iturrino, E., ed. La arquitectura peruana a través de los siglos. Lima, 1964.
  • Guriérrez, R. Arquitectura virreynal en Cuzco y su región. Cuzco, 1987.
  • Box, B., ed. South American Handbook. Bath and New York, 1992.
  • Dean, C. Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco. Durham, 1999.
  • Phipps, E., Hecht, J., and Esteras Martin, C., eds. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830. New York, 2004.
  • Vinuales, G. M. El espacio urbano en el Cusco colonial: uso y organización de las estructuras simbólicas. Lima, 2004.
  • Alcalá, L. E. and Brown, J., eds. Painting in Latin America 1550–1820. New Haven, 2015.
  • Kusonoki, R. and Wuffarden, L.E., eds. Pintura Cuzqueña. Lima, 2016.
Enciclopedia universale dell’arte, 15 vols (Rome, 1958–67); Eng. trans. as Encyclopedia of World Art (New York, 1959–68)