Pre-Columbian Architecture

Pre-Columbian Architecture

Pre-Columbian Architecture

Pre-Columbian Architecture

Excerpt

In November of 1519 Cortés crossed the high eastern passes between snow-capped volcanoes and descended into the central Valley of Mexico, finally reaching Tenochtitlán, capital of Montezuma and principal seat of the Aztecs. His amazement and that of his followers at what they saw is preserved for us in the almost laconic sixteenth-century accounts of that fabulous city. Rising on an island in Lake Texcoco, linked to the mainland by great causeways, Tenochtitlán was dominated by towerlike pyramids crowned with gleaming temples, blackened inside with the smoke of copal incense and reeking with the smell of burning human hearts sacrificed to the hungry gods. Groups of monumental buildings integrated with architectural sculpture and dramatized with fresco paintings rose from plazas connected by streets broad and straight, aqueducts, canals, and bridges. The plazas, which served to punctuate focal points, were part of the regular gridiron plan of the city. In the heart of the capital were palaces surrounding spacious courtyards and carefully cultivated gardens, ball courts, markets, private houses, and the many other elements one finds in a modern metropolis. There was even an aviary and a zoo for wild animals. Indeed, Tenochtitlán was closer to our idea of a well-designed city than any in the Spain of the conquistadors. As Cortés and his men approached the capital, it must have floated before their eyes like an enchantment from Amadis of Gaul or some other popular Spanish romance of chivalry. (See plates 13, 14.)

No city in Spain and few anywhere in all Europe could have compared with what the Spaniards actually saw in the orderly pattern of its plan, in its cleanliness, in the wealth it drew from its tributary provinces, or even in the number of its people. During the Conquest of Mexico all was destroyed, all swept away with such thoroughness that now little remains of Tenochtitlán, the site of present-day Mexico City, except some few pieces of architectural sculpture, the lower stages of the main pyramids, and the written accounts of Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and the Anonymous Conqueror. Colonial buildings cover the site of the great temple, and the National Palace replaces the Palace of Montezuma (plate 15).

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