The Treasures of Montezuma

By Leon Portilla, Miguel | UNESCO Courier, June 1991 | Go to article overview

The Treasures of Montezuma


Leon Portilla, Miguel, UNESCO Courier


AMONG the gifts that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, sent to the emperor Charles V in 1522 were two maps of the lands he was then engaged in conquering in the name of Spain. The maps had been painted by Indians on cotton fabric.

These maps, so different from those to which Europeans were accustomed, were much admired at the court of Valladolid. One of the first people to see them, the Italian humanist Piero Martin de Angleria, noted in his "Decades of the New World", "We have exmined one of the maps of these lands, thirty feet long and almost as many wide, on which all the territory is traced in great detail on a piece of white cotton, with the friendly and hostile peoples of Montezuma. Also shown are the great mountains which surround the plain, and the southern coastline.... We have also seen anothers, smaller map, which is no less interesting and shows the same city of Tenustitan (Mexico City-Tenochtitlan), with its temples, its bridges and its lakes, all hand-painted by natives...."

Cortes describes in his detailed letters to Charles V how, two years before, he had received another map from Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor of Mexico: "I asked the said Montezuma if there was anywhere on the coast an estuary or a creek through which vessels could come and go, and he told me that he did no know but that he would provide me with a painting of the coast with its rivers and bays.... The next day, a representation of the whole coast was brought to me on a piece of material, showing the estuary of a river which seemed much wider than the others."

The speed with which Montezuma produced this map for Cortes shows that the Aztecs kept original manuscripts in accessible places in which they could quickly be copied. Perhaps the storage place in this case was the "house of books" (amoxcalli in Aztec) which contained what Bernal Diaz del Castillo described in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain", 1568) as "the many collections of paper folded like Castilian linen".

Equally striking is the copyist's scrupulous attention to detail, which was remarked on by Bernal Diaz del Castillo who wrote of this map that "All the estuaries and creeks of the northern coast could be seen painted and indicated naturally, from the rio Panuco to Tabasco, a distance of 140 leagues" (some 600 km).

What has become of the painted manuscripts and maps which the Indians preserved in their archives? Only fifteen or so survived the conquest. Two of them, the Fejervary-Mayer and Tro-Cortesianus codices, seem to be symbolic representations of the world as it was envisioned by the peoples of pre-Columbian Mexico.

At the centre of these maps which show in symbolic form the cemanabuac (the land mass surrounded by water), the gods preside over the cosmic division of the world into regions directed towards the four cardinal points of the compass. Each region has its own specific attributes, colours, flora and fauna. Glyphs designating the north, east, west and south show that the Maya, the Aztecs and other Mexican indigenous peoples used signs to indicate the cardinal points.

Manuscripts of great historical and genealogical interest produced by the Mixtec people of Oaxaca have also survived. Two of them, the Nut-tall and Vindobonensis codices, contain many symbolic depictions of places where important events took place, while towns, villages, mountains, rivers, lakes, roads and coastlines are named and their location shown by patches of colour.

An aerial view

of the valley of Mexico

The colonized Indians of Mexico continued to produce documents which were to some extent cartographical in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. …

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