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What would Cuauhtémoc have looked like?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Daria: I’ve been thinking of creating a miniature of Cuauhtémoc, since I’ve been fascinated by the tragic fate of the Aztec empire since school days. But the more I looked for reference pictures and description of what he might look like, the more I understood that the information is too diverse and I would never be able to collect a single and accurate image. I’m not sure where the reality ends and fiction steps in... I would be really grateful if you could point me in the right direction for accurate references on what Cuauhtemoc might have looked like after he became Aztec emperor. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Monument to Cuauhtémoc (and Cuiltlahuac), Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City
Pic 1: Monument to Cuauhtémoc (and Cuiltlahuac), Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

We can sympathise! You’re right, there are no ‘accurate’ portraits of this Mexica tlatoani (speaker or ruler), so we have to look for clues in codices, sculptures and the reports of Spanish chroniclers... Whilst we know exactly what his name and emblem was (‘Descending Eagle’ - follow link below...) and the year he reigned (1520-1521), getting a good idea of his appearance is far harder. Perhaps the simplest reference might be the splendid statue of Cuauhtémoc (in fact the monument is dedicated to both Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtémoc) on the wide avenue Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City (pic 1).

Pic 2: Cuauhtémoc (L) and Mayehuatzin (R) organise the defense of Tlatelolco, Florentine Codex Book X11
Pic 2: Cuauhtémoc (L) and Mayehuatzin (R) organise the defense of Tlatelolco, Florentine Codex Book X11 (Click on image to enlarge)

There are representations of him in several codices, including the Primeros Memoriales, Telleriano-Remensis, Techialoyan García Granados, Vaticano A... probably the best, from your point of view, would be one in the Florentine Codex (Book 12), where he is shown standing next to Mayehuatzin, governor of Cuitláhuac, both discussing the defense of Tlatelolco (pic 2).

He also features in several historical paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries, on display in the Museo Nacional de Historia, Museo Nacional de Arte, Palacio Nacional and Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. The second link below will take you to a website with a reproduction of the realistic-looking depiction Rendición de Cuauhtémoc a Cortés (Surrender of Cuauhtémoc to Cortés), painted in 1893 by Joaquín Ramírez.
Good luck with your sculpture - let us know how it turns out...!

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: 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.

‘What was Cuauhtémoc’s emblem?’

See the painting ‘Rendición de Cuauhtémoc a Cortés’ by Joaquín Ramírez (1893)

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