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.

Cortés 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 Solís, 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. Solís 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," Solís 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. Solís 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 Solís, 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.

A polychrome clay brazier (ca. 250 to 700 AD) from the vast ruins of Teotihuacan 25 miles north of Mexico City could be an emblem of the show. Overlapping faces peek from behind the mask of other superimposed faces, like nested eggs. So, too, the Aztecs believed, life emerged from death.

The Templo Mayor excavation, begun only 25 years ago after electrical workers discovered ruins under the central square of downtown Mexico City, has yielded many finds. Two life-size clay figures from this trove represent the two faces of Aztec religion. A winged warrior, his head poking out from an eagle's beak, with talons erupting from his knees, symbolizes life or the sun at dawn. Discovered only a decade ago, a grisly, six-foot-tall, clay figure - with his liver dangling beneath exposed ribs - represents death. Both were revered. The equal value of life and death explains "why the images of death are so strong," says Solís.

More overtly conveying this dynamic is a Life-Death sculpture called Apotheosis. On one side of the monumental stone figure a fierce warrior snarls, while a rear view reveals a skeleton.

"The Aztec Empire" also has a far less grave side. A bestiary of animals - some carved fancifully like a feathered coyote, others more naturalistic like a carnelian grasshopper - delights the eye.

A delicate necklace of gold teardrops and a Toltec cuirass of overlapping shells, shown for the first time in the United States, testify to the artisans' fine craftsmanship.

The exhibition comes at a time when American museums are recognizing a demographic shift: More than 20 million people of Mexican origin are living in the United States, and Mexicans are among the fastest-growing ethnic groups in New York City. The Guggenheim hopes to attract Hispanics by displaying objects that relate to their heritage. "Cultural exchange with Mexico is a strategic priority," says museum director Thomas Krens.

For "Aztec Empire," loans came from 40 museums in Mexico City (particularly from the superb collections of the National Anthropology Museum and the Templo Mayor Museum) and the US.

After Cortés defeated the Aztec warriors, a scribe wrote, "With these disasters we have lost the Mexican nation." The exhibition documents just how picoso y fuerte - colorful and powerful - that culture was.

'The Aztec Empire' continues at the Guggenheim through Feb. 13.

After the Spaniards came, 'Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow [were] left'

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519, envoys from the Aztec king Motecuhzoma - better known as Montezuma - bestowed gifts of gold.

Big mistake. Inflamed by the lure of riches, Cortés and 500 soldiers marched to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, located where Mexico City is today. At their first glimpse of the metropolis - a sophisticated city of 300,000 inhabitants - a Spaniard wrote, "We were amazed on account of the great towers and buildings rising from the water ... and some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream."

Tenochtitlan rose from an island on Lake Tetzcoco. Causeways connected it to the mainland, aqueducts brought water, a grid of streets and canals provided transportation, and markets served thousands of people. Flowers garlanded the palaces, ball courts, parks - even a zoo. A painted pyramid 100 feet high called the Templo Mayor towered over another 78 monumental structures in the sacred precinct. Five times the size of London, the city dazzled the Spaniards. "The most important tower," Cortés wrote the Spanish king, "is taller than that of the greatest church in Seville."

Motecuhzoma greeted Cortés with trepidation, for a prophecy foretold the return of an ancient god. "You have come out of the clouds and mists," the king said, "to sit on your throne again."

Within two years, the Spanish, aided by tribes rebelling against Aztec rule, destroyed the advanced civilization of the Mexicas, as the Aztecs called themselves. "Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow are left here in Mexico," wrote an Aztec scribe.

Not quite. Much remains of a civilization that flourished for more than 2,000 years. According to Felipe Solís, director of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City and curator of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, remnants of Aztec culture abound. "Their first contribution," he says, "was the concept of living in a city, which didn't exist in North America at that time." Mexico City was founded on the lost world of the Aztecs, as the Spanish razed the temples and built their colonial capital from the stones.

Descendants of the Aztecs, called the Nahua, still recount their myths in villages throughout Mexico, and indigenous people wear the traditional clothing and eat the same food based on corn, tortillas, and chiles. Even the language of the Aztecs - Nahuatl - is widely spoken in rural areas. Throughout Mexico at major fiestas, people serve roast turkey, but instead of using the Spanish word for turkey, pavo, they call it huexolotl, its Aztec name.

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