The Aztecs: Blood and Glory

A new exhibition probes the contradictions of an advanced civilization that practiced human sacrifice

Five hundred years ago, in Mesoamerica, an empire held sway whose creative energy and sheer ruthlessness announced a long and powerful future. Yet the dominion of the Aztecs, a once-migrant people who had settled in the central highlands of what is now Mexico, lasted only from about 1428 to 1521. In the space of just a few generations all was staked and lost. Amazingly, from the founding of their capital city, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, in the early 14th century, to the apex of their power, in the late 15th, the Aztecs built one of the most dazzling civilizations in history. Rising from the marshes of an island in Lake Tetzcoco, the site of present-day Mexico City, Tenochtitlan grew into a sort of Venice of the New World, dominated by towering pyramids and traversed by a network of canals spanned by bridges so wide that ten horsemen could cross them abreast. The metropolis also served as the nerve center of an empire that extended from central Mexico south into what is today Guatemala. The Aztecs were so disciplined, so skilled in the arts of war, that their realm seemed invincible. Then, in February 1519, eleven ships led by Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés appeared off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. By August 1521, Cortés and his Indian allies had conquered Tenochtitlan. The glorious city lay in ruins. The annihilation was so thorough that today it is difficult to fully picture the sophistication, opulence and sheer grandeur of the Aztec Empire.

As it happens, enormous strides have been made in Aztec archaeology since the excavation, beginning in 1978, of the Templo Mayor or Great Pyramid, at Tenochtitlan, in Mexico City, so that now we can begin to see the Aztecs more clearly.

A new exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City has brought together an unprecedented display of Aztec art, and though certain products of this people's creative energy have been lost forever—textiles, fantastic featherwork, almost symphonic flower arrangements—others, such as devotional statuary, figure and animal sculpture and elegant calendric stonework, should prove a revelation to museumgoers. ("The Aztec Empire," which features some 435 artifacts, is on view through February 13, 2005.)

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