The Aztecs, through old-world eyes
A Getty Villa exhibit explores how Europeans looked to ancient Rome to understand the Mexican empire.
By Suzanne Muchnic
"The idea that a faraway place is equivalent to a distant-in-time place is a very powerful metaphor," she says, adding that the Maya have been compared to the ancient Greeks. And it had particular resonance at a time when Renaissance Europe was smitten with the rediscovery of classical antiquity. Literature of the period likened Mexico's capital, Tenochtitlan, to Troy, Jerusalem and Carthage as well as Rome.
"The comparison guided how the Spanish crown came to grips with its role in the New World," Lyons says. "It was used to justify the imperial mission but also to critique it. Spain itself had been a Roman province, so scholars and clerics could use the native Spanish oppression by the Romans to question what was taking place in the New World."
The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire will be the First Exhibition of Ancient Art from Outside the Classical World at the Getty Villa
These early encounters with the civilizations of the Americas coincided with Renaissance Europe’s rediscovery of its own classical past. Europeans were fascinated with the Aztecs and other cultures of the New World. Artifacts from the Americas made their way back to European private collections, where they also inspired festivals and pageants, including performances of classical theater staged in New World settings. In the 18th century, scholars of comparative religion such as Bernard Picart compared Quetzalcoatl and Mercury, rejecting the demonization of what were previously seen as pagan deities.
“Although Graeco-Roman and Aztec cultures are distinct historical phenomena, and developed in isolation from one another, Europeans applied familiar frames of reference to a New World that was largely unfathomable,” explains J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities curator Claire Lyons. “Bringing these monumental cult statues, reliefs, and votive artifacts to Los Angeles and showing them in the Mediterranean setting of the Getty Villa offers an incredible chance to explore a little known episode: the dialogue between Aztec culture and classical antiquity that was sparked in the age of exploration, carried forward during the Enlightenment, and which continues to be informative in the present.”
Getty Villa--May 31, 2010
Comment: I guess it's human nature to view strange people, places, or things through one's own beliefs and biases. We're still doing it today with blacks, gays, immigrants, Muslims, et al. Heck, we're still doing it with Indians--still categorizing them as primitive people of the past, uncivilized savages.
As we saw in If the Aztecs Conquered Europe, Indians undoubtedly would've misunderstood Western civilization too. But mapping the Aztec pantheon to Roman gods still seems pretty lame. It demonstrates that the supposedly advanced Europeans were no wiser than anyone else.
For more on the subject, see Aztec vs. Zande and Were the Aztecs Murdering "Animals"?