At Mexico City's Core Beats an Aztec Heart ; the Conquistadors Brought a Thriving Civilization to Its Knees in Two Years, but the Sophistication of Aztec Art Amazes Viewers Centuries Later

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Cortes may have built Mexico City on top of the Aztec nation's capital, but the Spanish conqueror could not cut out the heart of Aztec civilization so easily. Its pulse remains at the center of Mexican culture.

Visitors to the Guggenheim Museum's "The Aztec Empire" exhibition will see for themselves Aztec culture at its zenith. With its some 450 objects - primarily sculpture, ceramics, and gold jewelry - the show includes more than 40 rare gold objects and 35 percent of the pieces have never been seen outside Mexico. Some were excavated in the last decade.

"We feel the devotion and emotion of our past," says Felipe Solis, curator and the foremost authority on the Aztecs.

The exhibition provides a voyage through Mexico's primary cultural groups in the era leading up to the Spanish conquest, Mr. Solis says. He points out that pre-Hispanic Mexico, like Europe in the 1500s, was undergoing a cultural renaissance, "a great flowering of art." Just as Europeans rediscovered the art of ancient Greece and Rome, the Aztecs based their art and architecture on ruins and relics of their predecessors - the Olmecs, Toltecs, and the people of Teotihuacan.

"The Aztecs created a new vision of man and society rooted in antique cultures," Solis says. Aztec art portrayed human beings realistically, creating "an aesthetic of the human figure which had never been developed here before." The religious objects made by the Aztecs and their contemporaries, he says, "were made with emotion and passion, so they still awaken emotions in us."

Some of those emotions include fascination with what people today may think of as Aztec blood lust. The exhibition does not sidestep the human-sacrifice component, but shows the cosmological basis for it. "In the modern view," Mr. Solis admits, "the Aztecs seem savage and cruel."

The show includes knives with obsidian blades as well as elaborately carved stone altars where victims were sacrificed.

These artifacts radiate what the poet W.B. Yeats calls a "terrible beauty." Or, as a visitor to the museum put it: "This sure is one scary show."

This particular exhibition teaches the Aztec concept of death not as an opposite but as a complementary part of the continuum of life.

The design emphasizes this totality, for the Mexican architect Enrique Norten has installed the artworks in a long, sinuous flow - like the body of a snake.

Dramatically lit, the pieces are unified by a background of charcoal-colored felt that coils up the ramps of the museum. In the central rotunda is a five-foot stone head of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl, beside two sculpted deities, the sun god Xiutecuhtli and earth goddess Coatlicue.

The Aztecs believed their gods sacrificed their lives to create the universe. In return, humanity owed blood to nourish the gods so the sun and moon could continue on their daily rounds. Human life was viewed as a kind of compost, deriving sustenance from nature, which was returned at death to spur the cycle of rebirth. As the Nahua - descendants of the Aztecs - still say, "We eat of the earth then the earth eats us."

For Solis, the sacrificial rites - 20,000 victims during a four- day period when consecrating a temple - should be viewed as part of a larger whole. "Inside every culture, certain elements are part of a great totality. The Aztecs were humans - with emotions, virtues, and a taste for life - just like us. But also like us, their nature included other facets - like war, sacrifice, violence, and death. For New Yorkers," he notes, "this is very current."

"History is the great teacher," he adds, "and history repeats, even though man never wants to learn."

Various works demonstrate this integrated view of man and nature, life and death, earth and heaven. The feathered serpent, which sheds its skin, was viewed as a symbol of regeneration, proving the conjunction of heaven and earth. …