General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Curious Aztec knife from Musaeum Metallicum by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1648)

Europeans admired the ‘razor-sharp’ ingenuity of Aztec artists

In one of those strange ironies of history, the very same sacrificial knives of the Mexica/Aztecs that the Spanish were so keen to eradicate, labelling them ‘works of the devil’, were simultaneously admired by Europeans as evidence of the native craftsmanship, rationality and skill - ingenium - of Aztec artists, and hence of their people’s ‘suitability for conversion’... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Description of an Aztec knife (now in the British Museum - see pic 2) by Edward Tylor, ‘Anahuac’ (1861) p 101
Pic 1: Description of an Aztec knife (now in the British Museum - see pic 2) by Edward Tylor, ‘Anahuac’ (1861) p 101 (Click on image to enlarge)

Amongst all the ‘exotic’ items sent over to Europe by the Spanish after invading Mexico, it appears that finely worked obsidian blades and carved sacrificial knives proved particularly fascinating to Old World eyes. Whilst many Aztec objects reaching Spain were subsequently lost, many others arriving in Italy - mainly sent by missionaries - enjoyed a better fate, ending up in the collections of leading Italian luminaries such as Medici, Aldrovandi (who included a ‘curious knife’ in his 1648 Musaeum Metallicum, Book 1 p. 156 - see main picture above), Cospi and Borgia (the last two have codices named after them). The phrases used in admiration of native American artistry and technical talent are revealing: we read of ‘a strange subtlety’, ‘very subtly worked’, ‘very lively and sharp’, ‘the subtlety of their genius [ingenium] as well as the greatness and peculiarity of their skill’, ‘works of great genius’...

Pic 2: Sacrifice knife, BM Am St.399, British Museum (Christy Bequest)
Pic 2: Sacrifice knife, BM Am St.399, British Museum (Christy Bequest) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Dominican friar and social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas, already a strong supporter of the Indians, expressed most clearly the relationship between (native) artist and finished craft: ‘All the admirable works... that these Indians did and do every day, cannot be done or even imagined without a great and admirable genius [ingenium] and judgment. So that nobody who has brain could dare think, or even suppose, that all these people are not very ingenious and of great and noble understanding, because it is known that... in these matters the artwork praises the artisan or craftsman... And... the good handmade works offer clear proof of good genius and understanding, as one can see in all the mechanical arts’.
Davide Domenici explains succinctly the agenda here: ‘Material ingenia offered testimony of the existence of intellectual ingenia... This explains why obsidian blades came to occupy such a prominent role in gift-records and in Las Casas’ texts. Their subtlety and sharpness materialized the subtlety and sharpness of the Indians’ ingenia’.

Pic 3: Aztec obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 3: Aztec obsidian blades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

He concludes: ‘The Indians’ technical skills demonstrated their full potential for salvation in relation to Western practices. Ironically, Indian ingenia were first recognized in those very same idolatrous objects that were destroyed (or at least, taken away) so that Indians could fully embrace the civilized, Christian world...’

Special thanks for the main contents of this piece are due to Professor Davide Domenici, Department of History and Cultures, University of Bologna (Italy).

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: from Musaeum metallicum in libros 4 distributum Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus ... labore, et studio composuit cum indice copiosissimo by Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Alm@-DL è la Biblioteca Digitale dell’Università di Bologna (online archive)
• Pic 1: image scanned from our copy of Anahuac: or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern by Edward B. Tylor, London, Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861
• Pic 2: photo © The Trustees of the British Museum, Department: Africa, Oceania & the Americas
• Pic 3: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 15th 2017

emoticon Q. How would we describe today the superb technical skills of Mexica crafts makers?
A. They were at the ‘cutting edge’ of their art!

Learn more about working with tiny pieces of turquoise...

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