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Symposium flyer on Moctezuma’s Headdress London

‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ - an update 2018

Two Mexicolore team members attended an excellent one-day symposium ‘Featherwork in Ancient Mexico: “Moctezuma’s Headdress”’, at UCL Institute of Archaeology, London, on 27th October 2018. Besides convenor Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano (UCL), presentations were given by Patrick Lesbre (Université de Toulouse Le Mirail), Ana-Elena González-Treviño (UNAM-UK) and María Olvido Moreno Guzmán (Institute of Aesthetic Research, IIE-UNAM). (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: María Olvido Moreno gave a fascinating report of her involvement in the bi-national restoration of ‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ in Vienna
Pic 1: María Olvido Moreno gave a fascinating report of her involvement in the bi-national restoration of ‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ in Vienna (Click on image to enlarge)

The symposium provided an opportunity not just to hear news of the major research and restoration project conducted in recent years by scientific teams from Mexico and Austria on the famous Aztec feather headdress now back - after eight years! - on display in the Weltmuseum Wien (Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology), but also to hear wide-ranging talks on Ancient Mexican Featherwork (Baquedano), Featherwork in the Codex Kingsborough (Codex Tepetlaoztoc) (Lesbre), Mexican Feathers in the English Restoration Stage and French Pageantry (González-Treviño). The symposium concluded with a showing of the documentary film El Penacho de Moctezuma with accompanying presentation (Moreno). The event itself was a collaboration between UCL and the UK branch of Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM-UK), embracing art, archaeology and conservation.

Pic 2: Jade and (quetzal) feathers: arguably the two most precious items in ancient Mesoamerica. An Aztec warrior’s feather headdress rendered in jade and silver
Pic 2: Jade and (quetzal) feathers: arguably the two most precious items in ancient Mesoamerica. An Aztec warrior’s feather headdress rendered in jade and silver (Click on image to enlarge)

If there was a common thread running through the symposium, it might well be the extraordinary, almost divine power and symbolic value embodied in precious feathers in ancient Mesoamerica: in the words of Alfredo López Austin, such feathers constituted a special ‘language’ of their own, redolent of authority and pre-eminence, of shimmering, brilliant beauty and preciousness. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of these of course came from the Resplendent Quetzal - the male (and not all males at that) only grows 2-4 of the longest and most spectacular and prized feathers, each taking a full year to grow, only then to moult and for the cycle to begin again. Experts confirmed that the feathers are NOT removed from the bird before time by human hand since they still retain organic material which can lead to the feathers deteriorating. Clearly there was no need to capture the bird at all, let alone kill it - you just wait for the right time of year and then seek out fallen quetzal feathers in the cloud forest.

Pic 3: ‘The Indian Queen’ (Anne Bracegirdle) by William Vincent, published by John Smith mezzotint, circa 1685-1695 NPG D19498
Pic 3: ‘The Indian Queen’ (Anne Bracegirdle) by William Vincent, published by John Smith mezzotint, circa 1685-1695 NPG D19498 (Click on image to enlarge)

Intriguingly, the élite status of special feathers was recognised not just in Mesoamerica but also in Europe at the time: in Restoration England, such exotic imported objects - outlandish signs of (eastern and ‘Indian’) ‘otherness’ - were akin to precious jewels, indicative of the highest station of the royal crown, of dignity, authority and majestic power. Headdress and crown, in González-Treviño’s words, ‘shared a common symbolic dimension’.
Inspired by fashion-leading costume designers in Restoration theatres, and by newly-arrived dramatic and tragic stories of martyred New World rulers - personifications of Nature, Innocence and the Noble Savage - rare, novel and flamboyant ‘Indian’ feathers came to replace ostrich feathers as the ultimate must-have accessories for monarchs and their courts. Actors - and actresses - in heroic ‘Indian plays’ such as John Dryden’s hugely successful The Indian Queen (1664) and sequel The Indian Emperor (1665) wore and carried extravagant props such as exotic bouquets and feather headdresses (pic 3).

Pic 4: Part of Ana Elena González-Treviño’s presentation
Pic 4: Part of Ana Elena González-Treviño’s presentation (Click on image to enlarge)

The political symbolism was clear: ‘When worn as a headdress, feathers modified the symbol of the king’s crown, making monarchy appear to be a “natural” form of government, universal and inevitable, compatible with the aims of a society which valued “nature”. The headdress could thus be smoothly translated from otherness into sameness as a “natural” crown at a time when monarchy was being redefined as a form of government in Restoration England’ (González-Treviño). Gestures and symbols on both sides of the ocean could easily be recognised as marks of social distinction, employed by rulers worldwide; tellingly, Sir Walter Scott, in introducing The Indian Emperor in 1808, commented that an (Aztec) emperor ‘attired in feathers, must hold the same dignity of deportment, and display the same powers of declamation, and ingenuity of argument, with a Roman emperor in his purple, or a feudal warrior in his armour...’

Pic 5: The four speakers at the ‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ symposium in London
Pic 5: The four speakers at the ‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ symposium in London (Click on image to enlarge)

In keeping with the appeal of - yet ignorance about - exotic and extravagant ‘eastern’ luxury accessories, the first reference to the famous ‘Moctezuma’s Headdress’ is from 1596, when it was catalogued as a ‘moorish [ie, exotic] hat’. Since then it has been variously labelled ‘hat’, ‘apron’ ‘cape’ and ‘fan-shaped banner’ or standard.
Thanks to the presentation by María Olvido Moreno and the showing of the 2014 documentary film El Penacho de Moctezuma: Plumaria del México antiguo (but NO thanks to the terrible English subtitles!), and of course to the painstaking restoration and conservation work in which Maestra Moreno played a leading role, we now know a great deal more about the headdress. Here are just some of the facts we were offered during the day. The headdress -
• only weighs 980 gms.
• has only once been exhibited outside Austria (1946-47 in Zurich)
• was first exhibited to the public in Vienna in 1889
• was subjected to a drastic ‘restoration’ in 1878 shortly after being ‘rediscovered’, in poor condition, in a chest in Ambras Castle by museum curator Ferdinand von Hochstetter (learn more by following the link below, ‘Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks’); amongst other alterations, blue cotinga were replaced with kingfisher feathers, and gold buttons replaced with brass ones...

Pic 6: A rough CAD mock-up of the headdress with pure gold beak - its exact original position is not currently known...
Pic 6: A rough CAD mock-up of the headdress with pure gold beak - its exact original position is not currently known... (Click on image to enlarge)

• More research has been carried out on the BACK of the headdress than on the front
• The original construction was, as Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada noted in the 16th century, a team effort by specialist Mexica amanteca (featherwork artisans) - some were left-handed, some right-handed
• The green and blue feathers in the lower front section are not original
• The headdress sported a pure gold (golden eagle?) beak on its front, now lost (pic 6 shows a rough mock-up of this); the beak might have been located in this lower front section, or further down still
• Francisco Moctezuma, the Mexican artisan who created the splendid replica on display in Mexico never saw the original; his work was interrupted by the Second World War
• Over 1,100 of the buttons on the piece are originals
• In the recent restoration, it was found that the original foldable frame had 29 fractures, 98 metallic pieces were loose, and over 100 feathers were damaged.

Pic 7: María Olvido Moreno points to some of the intricate design details of the Aztec headdress in Vienna
Pic 7: María Olvido Moreno points to some of the intricate design details of the Aztec headdress in Vienna (Click on image to enlarge)

• All the frontal feathers are originals. We know that over the years quetzal feathers were taken as souvenirs by visitors to Ambras Castle - these were removed from the back of the headdress
• In total the original piece boasted some 12,000 feathers
• Von Hochstätter wrote of the original having between 450 and 500 quetzal feathers - though we don’t know if he counted front AND back...
• When gold buttons were stolen from the piece this damaged the agave net which was both sewn into and tied to the original frame, which consisted of cane/reed sticks, not wooden ones
• Originally feathers were both tied to and pasted onto the frame, by means of tzautli glue from orchids
• The cane ‘ribs’ were placed on top of fan-shaped nets in order to make the entire piece foldable
• The Mexica artisans even placed tiny red dots onto the frame to mark exactly where to cut and sew.

Pic 8: Anonymous photo on display today in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology of a Mexican Indian family admiring the splendid replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ soon after it was put on public display
Pic 8: Anonymous photo on display today in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology of a Mexican Indian family admiring the splendid replica of ‘Moctezuma’s headdress’ soon after it was put on public display (Click on image to enlarge)

• Extraordinarily, the Mexican-Austrian scientists only moved the original headdress three times during their research project
• The damage suffered over the years by the piece came not from weaknesses in its original manufacture but from the stealing of gold buttons and from insect damage following some three centuries in storage.
As for the campaign to have the headdress returned to Mexico, even the Mexican researchers have agreed that 10 hours of vibration in an aircraft, however well mounted/protected, would effectively do the same damage as 500 years of neglect! The technology doesn’t currently exist to protect the artefact from such serious vibration.

Pic 9: Patrick Lesbre explains some of the intricacies of the featherwork designs in the Codex Kingsborough (Tepetlaoztoc)
Pic 9: Patrick Lesbre explains some of the intricacies of the featherwork designs in the Codex Kingsborough (Tepetlaoztoc) (Click on image to enlarge)

The value placed on rare, beautiful and precious feathers by the Aztecs has long been known, a tradition inherited by the Mexica from the Toltec people, who displayed them in their dances. Feathers were wagered in games such as patolli and the ritual ballgame, and were placed as noble gifts in élite burials. We also know - and Patrick Lesbre (pic 9) showed some impressive examples of this - that plumes were shaped into intricate natural designs, such as butterflies, plants and rattlesnakes; AND vice versa: highly skilled metalwork artisans were capable of rendering gold in the shape of exotic birds with fine feather details. This is specifically mentioned in the Florentine Codex (Book 9): ‘If a bird were to be fashioned of gold, just so was the charcoal [and clay core/mould] carved, so was it shaped, to give it feathers, wings, tail, feet...’

Pic 10: Feather designs made of gold by Mexica artists; Florentine Codex Book 9
Pic 10: Feather designs made of gold by Mexica artists; Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Cortés apparently first ordered precious Aztec feather works to be burnt in preference for gold pieces - but soon changed his mind as he realised their importance as lavish and extravagant status symbols. Charles II of England and Louis XIV of France were to follow suit. Sadly though, the fate of live quetzals coming to Europe has been as perilous as that of their gorgeous feathers: even in the 20th century a handful of these exotic birds was introduced to London Zoo in the 1930s: without the specialist knowledge needed for their care, they were to die quickly of nostalgia...*

Image sources:-
• Pix 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, (8) and 9: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: © and courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
• Pic 6: montage by Mexicolore, with thanks to Open Ended Social Studies (https://openendedsocialstudies.org/2016/06/22/the-aztec-life-under-the-fifth-sun-in-old-mexico/) for the background photo
• Pic 10: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 12th 2018

‘Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks’

*Learn more in our feature on the Quetzal

‘Reconstructing Moctezuma’s Headdress’

Report on the symposium for UNAM-UK (in Spanish)
María Olvido Moreno’s blog Plumaria de México
‘The Fight to Bring Home the Headdress of an Aztec Emperor’
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