The potential blockbuster show of the season owes its existence to a group of Mexican electric-company workers. Back in 1978, while digging up some Mexico City streets, they unearthed the remains of the legendary Templo Mayor, the heart of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Sixteenth-century conquistadors had demolished the structure, which they described as reeking "like a slaughterhouse" from the thousands of ritual killings the Aztecs performed there. But when archeologists began unearthing the temple, they discovered a civilization far more sophisticated than the one depicted in its legends of violence and human sacrifice.
Now London's Royal Academy is presenting the most complete picture of Aztec culture ever assembled. More than 380 Aztec treasures--including recent discoveries from the Templo Mayor, along with highlights from collections across the United States and Europe--are on display through April. Called simply "Aztecs," the exhibit explores the civilization's society and economy as well as its pantheon of gods, religious rituals and complex calendar. It also includes the largest number of Aztec manuscripts ever gathered in one place, showing how the culture recorded history, legend and philosophy.
"Aztecs" may well be the next "King Tut." Tipped to popularize Aztec culture in the same way that the 1978 blockbuster exhibit sparked a fascination with ancient Egypt, the show has already sold more than 10,000 advance tickets. It developed out of a friendship between the gallery's exhibitions secretary, Norman Rosenthal, and former Mexican ambassador Andreas Rozantal, who arranged for academy curators to visit Aztec sites in Mexico and select whatever museum pieces caught their eye. Mexico is hoping the show will help raise its international profile; President Vicente Fox flew to London last week for the opening, where he also met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II in an effort to boost trade ties and attract investment. Fox's critics are griping about his backing "Aztecs" abroad while cutting domestic arts funding. Yet few international collectors would have loaned their objects if the show were held in Mexico City; Mexican law says that national treasures brought back into the country cannot be removed again.
The exhibit certainly shows pre-Hispanic Mexico in its best light. Eleven themed rooms illustrate a rich and glittering culture. The pillars of the Aztecs' civilization were the sun, rain and earth that nourished their crops--and war, which supplied them with wealth from tribes they conquered. Each of these elements had its own terrifyingly powerful god. The rain god, for instance, required the sacrifice of a child with two cowlicks in his hair; the sun preferred albinos, considered to be full of light. …