Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca. Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD. © British Museum

“A sun of gold fully six feet broad and a moon of silver… all kinds of wondrous objects of various sizes. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that gladdened my heart so much,” wrote Albrecht Dürer, “as these ingenious marvels of men in foreign lands.”

Dürer was looking at a hoard of New World loot in Brussels. At the time of writing, 1520, he presumably had no idea what kind of men had made such art nor that their empire was in its dying days. The Aztec capital had already fallen to the Spaniards and the last elected emperor was about to meet a mysterious end. Moctezuma – Montezuma, we call him – was his name.

What is so extraordinary about the blockbuster opening at the British Museum this week is that it manages to summon any real mortal from the blood and darkness at all. For almost half a millennium, practically all we have known of Moctezuma was that he caved in to Cortés and was stoned by his people in revenge.

The historic revelation here, incidentally, is that the Spanish story – Moctezuma refuses treatment, politely dying in the arms of caring conquistadors – has its antithesis in the indigenous version. The colonisers present a trussed Moctezuma to the rioting Mexica (Aztecs, as we call them) as a lesson, slaughtering him when the warning fails.

The testimony is pictorial in each case. The Spaniards had their elaborate paintings of an emperor you could deal with, borrowed here from the Prado; the Mexica had their tiny parchment drawings of Moctezuma clearly roped by the neck. Not the least fascination of this show is that it presents images as evidence, picturing history in the absence of texts.


Laura Cumming