Behind the Mask of Last Emperor of the Aztecs; Moctezuma Comes to Life in British Museum Show

The Evening Standard (London, England), April 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Behind the Mask of Last Emperor of the Aztecs; Moctezuma Comes to Life in British Museum Show


Byline: LOUISE JURY Chief Arts Correspondent

HE is known in the West as a tragic ruler who lost his vast empire to the Spanish conquistadors.

But an exhibition will show that Moctezuma II, the last elected emperor of the Aztecs, was also a cunning and successful warrior.

The fourth in the British Museum's series on great rulers will use the latest archaeological findings to explain the 16th century Mexican.

It will include some of the biggest masterpieces of his culture, most never before seen in Britain.

These include a massive stone monument or throne, the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare, and other works Moctezuma commissioned.

There will be examples of highly developed Aztec craftsmanship, such as a rare turquoise mask, and oil paintings on wooden panels known as "enconchados".

To contrast with indigenous depictions of Moctezuma, the show will include idealised European portraits as well as the invaders' colonial codices or books. Colin McEwan, the curator, said it was pertinent to put on the exhibition now as scholarship was advancing quickly. "The process of recovering the Aztec past and understanding it is ongoing," he said.

The foundations of Moctezuma's palace were discovered only last year in Mexico City.

Moctezuma, also known as Montezuma, ruled from 1502 to 1520 in a society where poetry and song were highly valued yet humans could be ritually sacrificed.

He was described by Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo as "of good height, well-proportioned, spare and slight" with two legitimate wives and many mistresses.

When the Spanish arrived in 1519, Moctezuma seems to have welcomed their leader Hernan Cortes. This may have been because politeness was seen as a sign of power.

But Moctezuma was made prisoner in his own house and was killed.

There is a debate whether he was murdered by his own people for welcoming the Spanish, or by Cortes's men for failing to persuade his citizens not to fight the invaders.

The Aztec Empire ruled most of modern Mexico from 1428 until 1521.

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