The premise of The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire is a unique one: that just as classical antiquity colored Spanish perceptions of Mesoamerica, the experience of Aztec civilization piqued curiosity about Renaissance Europe’s own ancient heritage.
As curators, our challenge was to make this complex story come alive through a wide range of objects: monumental Aztec sculptures, European prints and maps, and Roman antiquities.
In the introductory gallery, for example, visitors come face to face with a looming statue of a Tzitzimitl (demon), which was the recipient of blood sacrifices. This intimidating figure is installed in front of a panoramic sixteen-foot-wide painted screen depicting the 1519–21 siege and destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Such images—what we thought of as the “shock and awe” of cultural confrontation—are contrasted with historical engravings and watercolors, which show how classicism formed a bridge between Nahua, Spanish, and mestizo peoples in colonial Mexico.
In another gallery, we grouped an Aztec eagle offering vessel and a Roman eagle, both mythological emblems that were used strategically by empires. We deliberately chose Roman objects made of bronze and installed them in cases of a different color from those holding Aztec artifacts, to distinguish them and to provoke thinking about the analogies between two expansive imperial cultures.
Our experiment in comparative archaeology brought many rewarding moments: the chance to hold the iconic Florentine Codex; witnessing the amazing excavations at the Templo Mayor with director Leonardo López Luján; exchanging ideas with Felipe Solís, the eminent late director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City; and finally seeing powerfully charismatic Aztec statues take their place in our galleries.
Working closely with Mexican colleagues sparked different approaches, some hard questions, and lasting friendships. What better way to celebrate Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial—and to expand our curatorial horizons in new directions?