Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2016
Barbara E. Mundy The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 288 pp.; 73 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780292766563)

Barbara Mundy is well known and greatly respected for her scholarship on the Mesoamerican mapping tradition. This new book now demonstrates her deep knowledge of the Aztec capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan both before and in the century after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Deeply researched, insightfully conceptualized and argued, and written in an engaging style, it is a book of particular importance. Mundy explains Mexico-Tenochtitlan and early colonial Mexico City as no one has, infusing life into the dry facts of the city’s sixteenth-century history and guiding the reader to a close, insider’s view of the capital as it functioned and was experienced.

In the early sixteenth century, the island city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire, was one of the largest cities in the world. Boasting 150,000 inhabitants on the island itself and another 350,000 people in the urban network tied to it, it outshone any city the Spanish conquerors had ever seen. Although Hernando Cortés bragged to Charles V that he had destroyed and razed the city to the ground—and most studies have conceptualized the indigenous city as having died with the conquest and then having been reborn as the Spanish colonial capital of New Spain—Mundy offers a radically new interpretation that foregrounds the indigenous city over the New Spanish capital and indigenous perspectives over Spanish ones. This allows her to show how the urban fabric of the city remained fundamentally indigenous and how native ideologies, political structures, social practices, and technologies continued to shape the capital as it was rebuilt and repopulated. Here Mexico City in the early colonial period is indigenous, not Spanish, having evolved as an ongoing process that bridged the rupture of the conquest.

Mundy draws on the theoretical approaches of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau to analyze the city through a triad of evidentiary lenses. In this way she investigates the representations of space (maps and city views), the lived space (architectural spaces of markets and other public structures), and spatial practices (the itineraries and quotidian practices of urban dwellers). Her work brings together studies by art historians, historians, architects, and archaeologists, and aligns them with extensive new research to focus on the actions and agency of the indigenous inhabitants, and particularly the indigenous elites. The book weaves together an enormous amount of information, pulling new meanings from a wide range of sources—individual artworks, painted manuscripts, archival documents, and chronicles—many already well known to Aztec and early colonial specialists but others newly and judiciously introduced. Two principal themes drive the book: the figures of the indigenous rulers and the city’s crucial relation to its lacustrine environment.

The book proceeds in ten, roughly chronological, chapters. The first introduces the project and articulates its goals and methods. Chapter 2, “Water and the Sacred City,” establishes the pre-conquest city of Tenochtitlan as a sacred center and a model of the cosmos, where the management of water was as important as the expansion of the empire. Here the fundamental concept of altepetl (water/hill) as polity is explained, along with the people’s relation to the water. Chapter 3, “The Tlatoani in Tenochtitlan,” treats the ideology and imperial iconography of water control. It focuses on the water works and associated sculpted monuments commissioned by the rulers Moteuczoma I, Ahuitzotl, and Moteuczoma II, particularly those related to the springs of Chapultepec and Acuecuexco. Here the concepts of teotl (sacrality) and teixiptla (manifestation) are explored. Chapters 2 and 3 establish the pre-conquest city of Tenochtitlan and especially its relation to its lacustrine environment.

Chapter 4, “The City in the Conquest’s Wake,” first describes the devastating effects of the siege and conquest on the city and its waterworks and then tracks the repopulation of the capital and the reestablishment of it urban rhythms. The focus here is on the new market established in the southwest section (San Juan Moyotlan)—which has not previously been examined in any depth—and the role of the indigenous rulers in managing the city and inscribing the spaces with new meaning. Chapter 5, “Huanitzin Recenters the City,” explains how this descendant of the great Mexica (Aztec) emperors moved the indigenous tecpan (palace) to the southwest, aligning it with the new market and the center of Franciscan activity at San Francisco. Here Mundy also analyzes the feather painting of the Mass of St. Gregory to demonstrate Huanitzin’s desire to situate indigenous Mexico prominently within a global Christian framework. Chapter 6, “Forgetting Tenochtitlan,” turns to Franciscan efforts to reimagine Mexico-Tenochtitlan as a new Rome within its broader evangelical project. In the process Mundy shows how the indigenous rulers aligned themselves advantageously with the Franciscans to preserve the sacred spaces and routes that were important to them both. Chapters 5 and 6 thus take a new look at the sixteenth-century city, reorienting it to the southwest and centered on the tecpan in San Juan Moyotlan and the nearby Franciscan complex of the church of San Francisco and its famous indigenous trade school, San José de los Naturales.

Chapter 7, “Place-Names in Tenochtitlan,” looks to practices of naming places, as when old ones are retained or new ones adopted, to reach a sense of how non-elites envisioned their city. Chapter 8, “Axes in the City,” follows the ritual life of the city, focusing on public processions and spectacles, both Catholic and secular, as events that reaffirm social order. Here Mundy identifies the city’s new Christian axes that are repeatedly marked by ritual processions and how rulers carried the festival culture of pre-conquest Mexico into the seventeenth century. Chapter 9, “Water and Altepetl in the Late Sixteenth-Century City,” returns to the fundamental issue of water and the problems of its management. Mundy reaffirms the close relationship of altepetl, rulership, and water management, particularly as it was fostered by the erudite indigenous governor Antonio Valeriano, another descendant of imperial rulers.

The concluding chapter 10, “Remembering Tenochtitlan,” reiterates the point that runs through the book: in the wake of the conquest it was the indigenous rulers of Tenochtitlan who rebuilt the city, growing a new political center, creating markets, renewing its underlying economy, and reestablishing supplies of freshwater. For the latter, indigenous knowledge and indigenous technologies easily surpassed Spanish efforts. Mundy’s focus is on the role indigenous rulers played in reshaping the city, and the ongoing efforts to balance and rebalance the unsteady relationship between the island city and the waters that fed and surrounded it.

The scholarship of this book is exemplary. The research is comprehensive, the analysis sure, the organization clear and sensible, and the prose rich in expressive power. Although the book focuses on the city, its range extends much further, for the urban vantage point allows Mundy to treat many of the conceptions and issues in Aztec and early colonial Mexican studies in a new way. So the book is about the city, but it informs broadly about the urban pre-conquest and colonial experience. Her analyses of spatial representations, spaces, and spatial practices reveal, for example, the social complexities of the colonial indigenous political world. In each chapter, the book highlights a few key works, reads them deeply and insightfully from the perspective of the city, and thus contextualizes them more thoroughly than heretofore. We see, for example, the famous foundation page of the Codex Mendoza, the feather “painting” of the Mass of St. Gregory, and the Codex Osuna in new ways. We understand the strategic location of the new market and tecpan, and the ritual axes that cut through the city. Obscure maps and plans take on greater meaning when contextualized within the whole. Rituals, processions, and heirloom feather costumes are shown to figure powerfully in the construction of the indigenous city.

Mundy is admirably generous in crediting others whose work and insights she employs, doing so usually in the text rather than simply in the notes. Almost all of the figures are superbly reproduced in color; a few tables organize quantities of data effortlessly.

The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City brings us very close to the city physically, so that we seem to be walking it, smelling it, hearing it. We feel the pulse of the city and know it from the inside out. All those interested in pre-conquest Aztec culture, the experiences of early colonial Mexico, and colonial urbanisms will value this book.

Elizabeth Hill Boone
Professor, Martha and Donald Robertson Chair in Latin American Art, Newcomb Art Department, Tulane University