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On the Lips of Others

On the Lips of Others
Moteuczoma's Fame in Aztec Monuments and Rituals

Examining how the name and portrait of Moteuczoma II were represented in Aztec monuments and colonial manuscripts, this richly interdisciplinary study illuminates the creation of fame and the politics of personhood and portraiture in the Aztec and colonial worlds.

Series: Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas

June 2015
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216 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 9 b&w illus, 1 map, 60 b&w photos, 12 color photos |

Moteuczoma, the last king who ruled the Aztec Empire, was rarely seen or heard by his subjects, yet his presence was felt throughout the capital city of Tenochtitlan, where his deeds were recorded in hieroglyphic inscriptions on monuments and his command was expressed in highly refined ritual performances. What did Moteuczoma’s “fame” mean in the Aztec world? How was it created and maintained? In this innovative study, Patrick Hajovsky investigates the king’s inscribed and spoken name, showing how it distinguished his aura from those of his constituencies, especially other Aztec nobles, warriors, and merchants, who also vied for their own grandeur and fame. While Tenochtitlan reached its greatest size and complexity under Moteuczoma, the “Great Speaker” innovated upon fame by tying his very name to the Aztec royal office.

As Moteuczoma’s fame transcends Aztec visual and oral culture, Hajovsky brings together a vast body of evidence, including Nahuatl language and poetry, indigenous pictorial manuscripts and written narratives, and archaeological and sculptural artifacts. The kaleidoscopic assortment of sources casts Moteuczoma as a divine king who, while inheriting the fame of past rulers, saw his own reputation become entwined with imperial politics, ideological narratives, and eternal gods. Hajovsky also reflects on posthumous narratives about Moteuczoma, which created a very different sense of his fame as a conquered subject. These contrasting aspects of fame offer important new insights into the politics of personhood and portraiture across Aztec and colonial-period sources.


List of Illustrations




1. The Two Moteuczomas

2. Fame and Transformation

3. The Royal Icon

4. Resonances of the Speech Glyph

5. Visibility and Invisibility of the Name Glyph

6. Absence and Presence of Body

7. The Chapultepec Portrait

8. Colonial Reflections on Aztec Portraiture






Patrick Thomas Hajovsky is Assistant Professor of Art History at Southwestern University, where he serves as Chair of the Latin American Studies Program.



Moteuczoma, the second Aztec king of this name, was born in 1467 and ruled from 1502 to 1520, when he died while held captive by his Spanish adversaries. Because of his defeat in the Conquest of Mexico, his fame is more widespread than that of any of his predecessors. The pages that follow set out to show how sculptures that contain this king’s name hieroglyph conjure indigenous notions of power as invested in the title of the Aztec royal office, huei tlahtoani ‘Great Speaker’. This title is composed of the verb tlahtoa ‘he
speaks [of things]’ with an agentive marker -ni (a ‘doer’ of the verb). Adding huei (Great) conveys the king’s authority to speak on all matters and that his words were carried out by lesser leaders who served him throughout his territory. Throughout this book I suggest that the king’s title and his person were merged into an aspect of fame very much unlike that which he received under the pens and paintbrushes of colonialperiod writers and artists. This sense of fame, expressed here as a duality of Aztec visual and oral cultures, ties several indigenous notions of kingship to the ritualized appearances and stone representations of Moteuczoma.

Moteuczoma’s name hieroglyph (termed “name glyph” throughout this book) appears in no less than eight Aztec stone sculptures. It consists of three discrete ornaments—the royal diadem (xiuhuitzolli), the nose plug ( yacaxihuitl), the ear plug (nacaxihuitl)—on and around the head of hair (tzontli). Five instances of the name glyph appear singularly, unaccompanied by a human figure. They are found on various parts of sculptures: the outside front of a box at the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (fig. I.1a, plate 3); the back of a Tlaloc (Rain God) effigy at the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA), Mexico City (fig. I.1b, plate 4); the interior lid of a stone box at the MNA (fig. I.1c, plate 6); the underside of a Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent) at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. (fig. I.1d, plate 5); and the interstices of the complex imagery of the Calendar Stone, also at the MNA (fig. I.1g, plate 9). Three more instances of the name glyph accompany a decorated portrait of the king, including a finely wrought stone box in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg (fig. I.1e, plate 7), and the Teocalli (Temple) of Sacred Warfare at the MNA (fig. I.1f, plate 8). The last appears next to a three-dimensional, frontal representation of the king in situ at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City (figure I.1h, plate 10).

Emily Umberger first argued that these eight monuments belong to the reign of Moteuczoma because of their late style and their associated date inscriptions, and this assessment has gained wide acceptance. As Umberger and others acknowledge, the identification is made possible by the codices, which were produced in the sixteenth century during the Spanish colo-
nial period and depict the name glyph with explanatory glosses and textual narratives. Yet because few archaeological data accompany most monuments, definitive dates and chronology of those bearing Moteuczoma’s name will remain speculative. Nonetheless, the sculptures that contain it exhibit stylistic traits of the Late Imperial Period, especially as refined under Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502) and Moteuczoma. This style drew largely from nearby antique models in Central Mexico, especially the Toltec of Tollan (Tula) (ca. 950–1150) and the more ancient cultures and cities of Teotihuacan (ca. 0–600) and Xochicalco (ca. 600–900). All three sites served as important models for sculptural forms and iconography, and Tula and Teotihuacan provided the basis for powerful ideological narratives that were still current and recorded in the sixteenth century. The style defined as Late Imperial began as early as 1460 and includes both large-scale and small-scale sculptures. Sculpture in the round is characterized by selective naturalism of human and especially animal forms, whereas figures in relief sculpture appear to be more closely related to the pictorial manuscript tradition. Otherwise sculptures are characterized by their symmetrical compositions, evenly distributed positive and negative spaces, and low relief modeling. While this book follows Umberger’s tentative chronology of Moteuczoma’s monuments, it analyzes the variety of glyphic contexts of Moteuczoma’s name as it is found in glyphic and sculptural compositions.

Despite its pictorial similarities across the codices and sculptures, Moteuczoma’s name glyph functions quite differently in the two kinds of media. I suggest that it calls particular attention to indigenous modes of renown, parsed as a duality in the Nahuatl terms mahuizotl ‘honor’ and tenyotl ‘fame’. Although these terms are often translated to English as such, they should be regarded as two sides of the same coin of visual and verbal presentation. In the sculptures, Moteuczoma’s name hieroglyph not only represents the king; it also renders him present within the sculptural composition. This sense of fame set him apart from other individuals. It was considered to be his inalienable possession and enabled a particular brand of divine kingship apart from his predecessors. The name glyph evokes his presence in his absence while engaging him with human and supernatural actors. This binary of his fame, seen (present) and unseen (heard), was dismantled in colonial-period narratives, which instead focused on his character and personality. Yet an examination of indigenous representations and his name hieroglyph in the monuments offers insight into divine kingship under the last Aztec king.

When Moteuczoma was elected huei tlahtoani in 1502, he inherited a tribute empire at its greatest political, military, and economic height. The island of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco was bustling with a population of over 150,000 residents, and nearly a million people lived in the Valley of Mexico (map I.1). Tenochtitlan was the lead city of the Aztec Triple Alliance, which included the neighboring polities of Texcoco and Tlacopan. The Aztecs had migrated to the Valley of Mexico only 200 years earlier, finding it already settled by multiple ethnicities, but they expanded their influence through alliance, conquest, and coercion. The empire was eventually structured through a complex network of social and political relationships with provinces in two established systems: strategic provinces (colonies in which Aztec political organization prevailed); and tribute provinces (which were usually under local rule, as long as tribute was faithfully extracted). While the Tenochca were relatively newcomers to the area, they had achieved political dominance across the greatest geographic extent of any other Mesoamerican culture.

Moteuczoma, who was trained in political and religious matters, oversaw a complex ritual society run by Aztec priests. They organized and maintained festivals, which were guided by two overlapping calendrical cycles. The xiuhpohualli ‘year count’ of 365 days was composed of a festival calendar with eighteen twentyday months followed by a period of five “unlucky” days (nemontemi). This cycle overlapped with a count of 260 days, the tonalpohualli ‘day count’, which was composed of twenty day signs and thirteen numbers. The tonalpohualli named the days of the xiuhpohualli, and the last day before the nemontemi named the year. Each year was thus named by one of the thirteen numbers and only four of the twenty day signs, called Year Bearers: Tochtli (Rabbit), Acatl (Reed), Calli (House), and Tecpatl (Flint). These four signs and the thirteen numbers came to a complete revolution or Calendar Round every fifty-two years. Overall, the Aztec calendar was conceived as a set of cycles embedded within one another, and dates could simultaneously evoke mythological and historical events. Keying into such narratives, sculptures include important dates that interact not only with sculptural form but also with pictorial imagery and (as investigated in this book) Moteuczoma’s name glyph.

Most Aztec people rarely personally saw Moteuczoma, yet his reputation surely was widespread through word of mouth. According to the ethnohistoric sources (see below), more than any other huei tlahtoani he encouraged strict social prescriptions in his palace and required formal gestures of reverence: the removal of shoes, the casting down of eyes, and the use of reverential Nahuatl, a language filled with complicated metaphors and heightened modes of etiquette. He often spent long periods in ritual seclusion, which contrasted with his appearance in splendid costume in festivals or in court, especially when he performed the Princely Dance or bestowed gifts and titles upon successful warriors. The king exploited a kind of mystique that was only possible with a refinement of ritual performance and sculptural imagery. Through rituals and sculptures, metaphors of earthly/spiritual transcendence were made permanent, and these affected his reputation.

Some ethnohistoric accounts attest to Moteuczoma’s inaccessibility and mystery. Only a few years after the Conquest, when the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía) inquired about Moteuczoma, he was told that the king’s subjects went before him in his palace without shoes, wrapped in coarse blankets, and with their heads bowed and eyes lowered. The Franciscan friar, who himself adopted the humble Nahuatl name Motolinía (the Poor One), relays that the king rarely answered but instead passed word to one of his “intimates and familiars.” When he did answer, “it was with a voice so profound and authoritative that he did not seem to be moving his lips.” Another friar, Diego Durán, adds that Moteuczoma “was a very great ruler and enhanced the whole Aztec nation in his time, more than it had ever been. This king was revered and also feared, to the point that it took only hearing his name for them to prostrate themselves on the ground.” Accounts like these suggest that Moteuczoma’s visual presence (mahuizotl) was such that none would look at him. It was considered to be equal to his tenyotl, which was so “profound and authoritative” that it seemed to come from somewhere beyond his lips. Indeed his mystique, in the sense of presence and as the subject of discussion, was part of his efficacy as ruler.

Other post-Conquest accounts consider Moteuczoma to have been less than divine. The conquistador Hernán Cortés wrote in his Second Letter to Charles V that at their first meeting Moteuczoma revealed his own chest to indicate his mortality, exclaiming: “See that I am of flesh and blood like you and all other men, and I am mortal and substantial.” To add to the Spanish conquistador’s sense of grandeur, the familiar but highly suspect narrative relates that Moteuczoma considered Cortés not a foreigner but a returning god. For historians exposed to this line of reasoning, Moteuczoma readily admitted his defeat or merely stepped aside to recognize his Spanish sovereign. Scholars have more recently discredited the notion that Moteuczoma’s superstition and weakness led to the Aztec downfall. It is clear that the huei tlahtoani was not in the habit of speaking directly to just anyone and then spoke only in prescribed ritual exchanges. It is equally clear that what Cortés perceived and wrote about in his letters, and what others later reiterated, was an incomplete interpretation of what really happened between two very different cultures.

Such narratives continue to survive because they are entrenched in the early colonial-period texts, but their inconsistency calls for their critical reappraisal as primary sources.

The Palimpsest of a Name

Historians rely on the especially rich corpus of pictorial and prose manuscripts or codices (sing. codex), produced principally in the sixteenth century. They were written under various modes of Spanish and indigenous authorship, however, and an overreliance on any particular narrative can distort our understanding of the monuments. In the early years after invasion, Spanish anti-idolatry campaigns routinely destroyed Aztec images and objects, effectively excluding them from historical mention. Most indigenous books were deemed demonic and were destroyed, and no Aztec book survives the early years of extirpation. Yet the Spanish recognized historical value in some indigenous books. Manuscript painters (tlacuiloqueh; sing. tlacuilo) experienced a renaissance in alphabetic literacy and the production of new kinds of images in the early colonial period. Most of their books were created within two generations after the Conquest in mendicant schools. Tlacuiloqueh learned to write in Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl, and the images they produced likewise stretched across very different cultural systems of representation. Information in colonial-period books exhibits varying dynamics of text and image: from solely alphabetic writing, to writing with logographic images (usually to identify it), to narrative texts with illustrations. While they feature many of the same signs found in sculptures and contain explanations of such imagery, they nonetheless intersected with new interests of different artists and patrons of the colonial period. Indigenous images and ideas were transformed almost simultaneously with the political and religious transition to the territory of New Spain.

Reading across the narrative sources, Moteuczoma’s identity appears discordant and often contradictory, recalling Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, a narrative that

breaks through to its own meaning and its own expression across an environment full of alien words and variously evaluating accents, harmonizing with some of the elements in this environment and striking a dissonance with others. . . . [It] is able, in this dialogized process, to shape its own stylistic profile and tone. . . . The prose artist elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones.

In the case of Moteuczoma, colonial-period historians detailed his life posthumously, yielding to multiple voices that recounted his identity. As reflections of Aztec kingship, such heteroglossia intersects with “double-mistaken identity,” a term that James Lockhart coined to indicate how these cultures regarded the same manifestation in two distinct ways, according to what was known and familiar. The narratives about Moteuczoma were shaped toward political ends, and the Spanish and indigenous chronicles differ most notably in the ways in which they frame his role during the final days of the Conquest of Mexico. Spaniards were generally interested in justifying their colonization of the New World, and their published narratives were more widespread than indigenous perspectives of the Conquest. Those narratives were recorded in the sixteenth century codices but were not widely available to scholars until the twentieth century. They offer more insight into politics in Central Mexico both before and after the Conquest, while giving unique insight into Aztec ritual behavior and concepts of history. Across both kinds of sources, Moteuczoma reflects the fame of his colonizers and embodies the colonized, especially when his name enters into Spanish legal practices. His fame in colonial-period politics, religion, and law deserves a separate study. For now it is useful to point out that, as New Spain transitioned into a literate colonial society, many indigenous notions of his fame conformed to Spanish ideas of personhood and representation.

Two colonial-period authors stand out in their extensive attention to Moteuczoma’s fame: the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) and the Dominican Diego Durán (1537?–1588). Both authors understood Nahuatl, and their works were the result of their continued collaboration with indigenous informants and use of indigenous manuscripts. As their accounts often focus on the recent memory of Moteuczoma, some of their now-lost source material must have been produced during his reign. Sahagún and Durán intended to preserve indigenous history and culture while learning about, and eradicating, the “idolatrous” behavior that they observed all around them. While their sensitivity to indigenous culture
and history has earned them the title of early ethnographers, their ethnocentric biases have been revealed through modern anthropology. They nonetheless offer broad perspectives on Aztec ritual, replete with descriptions of the festivals and accounts of orations that occurred in ceremonial settings. Yet Sahagún’s and Durán’s texts resonate with particular modes of colonial authorship, so the historical works must be studied in terms of the friars’ objectives and their indigenous informants’ perspectives.

Sahagún was a Franciscan friar who came to New Spain in 1529 on a ship returning with two sons of Moteuczoma, who had previously come to Spain with Cortés in 1528. Having undergone about a year of enculturation in Spain, the two Aztec youths probably introduced Sahagún to Nahuatl, which he would later master. In 1536 the friar joined the newly inaugurated Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, the sister city of Tenochtitlan on the island (map I.1). After teaching Latin and Spanish for a few years there and in various parts of Puebla, by 1547 he began collecting information on Aztec religion and culture. In 1558 Sahagún was commissioned by the head of the Franciscan order to create a compendium that would be useful for religious conversion. He gathered information from indigenous informants who had survived the Conquest, working with local nobles first at the Franciscan convent in Tepepulco and later in Tlatelolco with another group of informants. There, at the Colegio de Santa Cruz, he orchestrated a team of four scribes who were fluent in Nahuatl, Spanish, and Latin to translate the testimony he had collected. Sahagún was a prolific author, producing many writings on Aztec culture, including the surviving manuscripts Primeros Memoriales and Manuscrito de Tlatelolco, which contain the fruits of his interviews with indigenous informants at both places during the 1560s. Popularly known as the Florentine Codex, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain) emerged between 1575 and 1580 as a project to consolidate his vast research. It is a twelve-book bilingual Spanish-Nahuatl account of various cultural aspects of the Aztecs, made with the aid of indigenous translators, scribes, and artists. It was sent to Spain unfinished in 1580 and for unclear reasons made its way to Florence, perhaps as early as 1588, where it resides today in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

As a child Diego Durán moved with his family from Seville to New Spain, first settling in Texcoco and later in Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Through his experiences as a youth, he developed a great attachment to indigenous culture and gained fluency in Nahuatl. Though we have little direct evidence of his early education, it is likely that Durán was trained in the Texcocan school under Pedro de Gante, who later founded San José de los Naturales, the indigenous school for the arts, in Tenochtitlan. Early schools taught grammar through Antonio de Nebrija, rhetoric through Cicero and Quintilian, and Latin with readings from classical antiquity, including Pliny, Juvenal, Titus Livy, and Suetonius. Though some of this influence can be witnessed in his writing, Durán cites none of these sources; he references the Bible numerous times, however, and even maps indigenous history onto it. He entered the Dominican monastery around the age of nineteen and graduated as a priest four years later, in 1559 or 1560. Soon afterward he was assigned to the Province of Oaxaca for missionary work and then traveled through Central and southern Mexico for another twenty-five years. While spending some time in Huaxtepec, Morelos, in the 1570s, he met the “reformed” (repentant?) conquistador Francisco de Aguilar, who had served in Cortés’s army and guarded Moteuczoma during his imprisonment up to his assassination. The aged conquistador told Durán of the wonders and riches that he had seen in Tenochtitlan fifty years earlier and certainly talked about his impression of Moteuczoma, which surely piqued Durán’s interest. In his History Durán writes most about both Moteuczomas and appears to have been almost obsessed with sorting out their historical and personal differences.

Durán’s proclaimed interest was to dissolve indigenous pagan practice, a project that began with his first two works, Book of the Gods and Rites (ca. 1576–1579) and The Ancient Calendar (1579). Soon afterward, in about 1581, Durán completed the Historia de las Indias de Nueva España (History of the Indies of New Spain) and bound it before the previous two works. His indigenous sources were oral accounts and manuscripts that are now lost, from which he edited out considerable detail. Durán identifies his primary source for the Historia as Historia mexicana, which Robert Barlow has labeled Crónica X. The friar was principally inspired by the Old Testament, with which he associated the Aztecs. In Book of the Rites and Ancient Calendar he compares them to the biblical lost tribes of Israel in several places, and although this theme was reintroduced in his later History, it was suppressed in copies associated with the Crónica X. Durán had also planned another treatise on “things past,” which was probably never completed. He spent his final years until 1588 in poor health, occasionally making an appearance at the Inquisition as interpreter or accuser. His manuscript was all but forgotten after his death, though parts of it were copied early. It was probably sent to a Dominican monastery in Spain soon afterward. In the early nineteenth century it was transferred to the Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, where it resides today.

Sahagún and Durán generally attribute negative personality traits to Moteuczoma, portraying him as superstitious, depressed, weak, and cowardly, especially during his final days before the Conquest. In effect they centered the blame of the Conquest on his weaknesses. Their perspectives flatten the king into an actor who was incapable of overcoming the fate imposed by his Spanish adversaries. Moreover, as Sahagún and Durán recorded historical narratives, they separated indigenous calendars from indigenous notions of history and thus eclipsed the mythical and metaphoric underpinnings of historical events. Though these sources detail Moteuczoma’s personality and specify his roles as huei tlahtoani, they comment heavily on the final two years of his reign.

Such narratives, written mostly in the second half of the sixteenth century, were succeeded by those of a generation of literate Nahuas who sought to revise indigenous history to befit their noble status in the Spanish colonial order. One of them was don Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, who claimed descent from Moteuczoma. Tezozomoc produced two known works, both of which are related to the Crónica X and thus to Durán’s work. Written in Spanish, Crónica mexicana (ca. 1598) is an account of Aztec history paralleling Durán’s Historia, with baroque embellishments in his descriptions of costumes and rituals. Crónica mexicayotl (1609) is a Nahuatl account of the Aztec migration from Aztlan to the foundation of Tenochtitlan and into the colonial period tracing noble genealogies, including his own. Tezozomoc was part of a growing movement that adopted Spanish customs and legal rules to reforge an indigenous sense of elite status in colonial New Spain. He saw himself as an inheritor of the Aztec king’s symbolic role within Spanish governance and thus sought Spanish acceptance while at the same time grounding his identity in indigenous accounts. Although Tezozomoc apparently considered himself fully noble and Christian, he did not attempt to reconstruct his indigenous past in biblical terms, unlike other contemporary Nahua scholars. Moreover, his notion of kingship was more acutely tuned to early colonial pageantry than to knowledge of Aztec sculpture and ritual.

Methodological Considerations and Chapter Review

More than other documentary sources, Sahagún’s manuscripts and the Crónica X tradition contain detailed information about the person and personality of Moteuczoma, though they simultaneously enhance and distort Aztec categories of fame, personhood, and kingship. The tensions between European and Aztec ontological categories are brought to the fore in the last chapter of this book, which concentrates on Aztec portraiture and the king’s portrait at Chapultepec Park. Before arriving at this fragmented but important sculpture, I examine what was invested in the king’s name, his fame, his glyphic and figural representation, and its placement in the seven monuments that preceded it. The name glyph in the monuments was not only script that could be read in alternative ways but also an investment into their sculptural facture, as part of the moment of their creation. The name glyph is both symbolic and evocative of an identity that was too often humanized in the colonial-period sources. All of these monuments emphasize Moteuczoma’s role as huei tlahtoani (Great Speaker) in Tenochtitlan, a role that was transformed in the Spanish colonial period. Yet his image, in both its glyphic and pictorial forms in the monuments, conflates officer and office, allowing the viewer to vocalize the command of the huei tlahtoani.

At least three anthropological projects stand out for the way they engage fame, personhood, and political power along verbal and visual symbolic registers, especially as they intersect with social mobility, semiotics, and social narratives. Jacob Burckhardt may have been the first scholar to analyze fame’s relationship to social mobility and culture change, which he regarded as part of the florescence of the Renaissance verbal and visual arts in Italian courts. More recently, Marshall Sahlins compared social complexity and sociopolitical power structures in the making of the “big-man,” an individual who has considerable social and economic influence through acts of persuasion. Sahlins contrasts the making of a big-man in egalitarian Melanesian societies to the entitled officeholder in larger and hierarchical Polynesian societies. He also opposes fame to the making of the big-man, regarding the former as a kind of “hero worship” but not a factor of social change. Yet his work is important when considering the dual modes of name recognition and personhood in complex societies: a bigman negotiates and creates considerable influence (Sahlins compares him to the capitalist), whereas the officeholder inherits an already functioning system and must maintain the structures of power to retain that position. My research suggests that social mobility and the making of “big-man” status in Aztec society, especially among warriors and merchants, involved more complex modes of presentation and remembrance, which were in many ways discrete from the noble inheritance that entitled Moteuczoma to inherit the throne.

Although Sahlins minimizes the role of fame in the construction of sociopolitical power, Nancy Munn recenters it among objects and their ability to act as social agents among the Gawa of western Melanesia—one of the same societies defined by Sahlins. She considers fame to be “the name [which] takes on its own internal motion traveling through the minds and speech of others.” The main objects that act as surrogates of their owners’ successes are kula shells, which are circulated through the islands in a complex network of exchanges. Shells are named, and through successful transactions across distant arenas they acquire a status equal to the renown of their owners. That is, a named shell indexes its owner’s ability to manipulate the complex system of negotiations across islands and has fame analogous to its owner’s by becoming an object worth certain mention. Through the exchange of shells the agency of a person moves beyond the limits of physical presence, with the fame of a successful contractor who can manipulate the complex system of exchanges and expand the field of influence. As Alfred Gell remarks on Munn’s work, the shell owner’s “mind has become coextensive” with the world beyond, and he becomes “somewhat like a godhead.” A shell is an extension of a person’s renown, so it reflects that individual’s ability to manipulate social intercourse. Munn refers to efficacy of the embodied object as a “qualisign of value,” which in limited ways can also be witnessed in Moteuczoma’s spoken and written name.

Of course, verbal narratives of famous individuals coexist with socially prescribed artistic forms. Fame, in the sense of being talked about, may or may not intersect with the realms of visual images and tangible objects. Although Victor Turner does not use the term “fame,” he focuses on “social dramas” about famous individuals and groups that reflect and condition social behavior. As recurrent rituals, social dramas seek determinacy over gossip through language activity, which, in Turner’s words, was “plugged into” a social reality. Turner’s thesis is important here in considering the mediating power of oral narratives and their role in pre-Columbian visual cultures. Such narratives constitute the meaning of individual names and their sense of unique reputation or “image,” whose value can shift more quickly than that of repeated orations or permanent images. The monuments studied here could counteract the indeterminacy of gossip, because the name glyph is engaged with Moteuczoma’s various roles in Aztec rituals. In other words, his name glyph on the monuments in many instances can prescribe a social drama that brings together his spoken name with the role of huei tlahtoani.

This book analyzes the sculptural record in conjunction with colonial-period documents, including verbal narratives and visual images from the codices. This comes with a large set of challenges, but the ultimate goal is to reach an understanding of the monuments as primary sources of Aztec ritual behavior. In terms of Aztec subjectivity, the engagement between humans and sculptures is construed from a relational point of view, that is, from the perspective that the world of things has the same ontological status as the world of humans. This is especially pertinent given the object’s ability to conduct or transmit agency with any particular engagement, though the particulars of such Aztec engagements may never be known. Unfortunately, not too much can be said about Moteuczoma’s patronage either, though it is known that he commanded large-scale projects such as the rebuilding of the Templo Mayor and led the creation of several sculptures including the Calendar Stone and Chapultepec Portrait. Nonetheless, a consideration of his sculptures’ possible engagements reveals three interrelated issues about agency. The first pertains to viewership (who could see them?), the second to iconology (who could verbalize them?), and the final one to performance and subjectivity (how did the human body engage with them?). While much will remain unanswered, these questions begin a preliminary inquiry into the embodied experiences of Aztec visual and verbal culture, as they apply to these eight remarkable sculptures.

Overall, most sculptures were probably not widely viewed, and significant parts of them were never seen. Most famously, Moteuczoma’s name glyph appears on the underside of the Dumbarton Oaks Xiuhcoatl (cover image, fig. 5.5). Sculptures that were visible, especially monuments with rich iconography, can be proven to key into well-repeated narratives. Obscured and buried images immortalized ideas and images like sacrificial offerings. In their manufacture and under whatever public appearance they may have had, their imagery was reserved for a literate audience who were privy to the esoteric messages that they contained. Like reverential forms of Nahuatl, visual literacy was mostly limited to nobles, priests, and professional artists, such as those for manuscript painters (tlacuiloqueh) mentioned above and sculptors (tolteca). Nothing indicates, however, that any group of artists exercised the ability to read their imagery publicly. This task was presumably given to the tlamatinimeh ‘knowers of things’ (who read the books of prognostication) and the cuicapixqueh ‘chanting priests’ (who led ritual songs). It is quite likely that the esoteric imagery of the monuments was reserved for the pleasure of an elite circle who did not impart the narratives to wider audiences. Whatever the case, the imagery and the rituals with which it engaged reinforced ideological narratives of the king’s transcendent power.

The images on sculptures combine pictures with hieroglyphs, thus blurring text-image dichotomies so intrinsic to Western thought. Aztec pictographic writing allows for both literal and metaphorical meanings. Moteuczoma’s name is thus both script and glyph, and its reading must be made in conjunction with the functions of the monuments. But the sculptures do not present themselves to be interpreted as simply narratives to be read; rather, they were engaged with bodily performances that coincided with important dates in the conjunction of the tonalpohualli and the festivals of the xiuhpohualli. Inscribing a name glyph in monuments could be considered a performative speech act—whereby an enunciation creates the situation it appears to describe (e.g., “I dedicate”). Whether buried or displayed, the name glyph always has the potential of becoming a spoken designation of that individual, but it always resides within the sculptural form and pictorial composition. It is in the intersection of glyphic representation with the spoken name and bodily presence that many semiotic complexities of Aztec sculptural imagery come to the fore. While the monuments are based in an elaborately codified iconographic system, an accurate reading and understanding of their Aztec reception must be based on ritual engagements that are all but completely lost.

To complicate matters, we are dealing with a colonial documentary history that frequently replaces indigenous categories with Spanish ones. The sources are often in conflict with one another, so I rely upon what Alfredo López Austin terms “relative congruency,” triangulating various forms of evidence with a central concept under exploration. In the social lives of objects the form of monuments engages space and the body, while surface imagery engages vision. Such qualities of Aztec sculpture lead to the supposition that some Aztec bodies, especially that of the king and teixiptla ‘divine images’, reversed the subject-object dichotomy so inherent in Western distinctions of mind and matter. Their engagement and enactment were facilitated by a notion of personhood that privileged collective experiences, which brought forth notions of Moteuczoma’s essential and unique qualities of bodily power. The monuments are part of his patronage; his name, shared by text, image, spoken name, and person, was the central motif of his fame.

In order to analyze Moteuczoma’s name and fame, this book is divided into eight chapters composed of four thematic pairs. The first two chapters employ lexical and linguistic analysis to examine the creation of Moteuczoma’s personal name as well as the attachment of fame to his particular identity, realized in Nahuatl oral expressions. Chapter 1 explores Moteuczoma’s inheritance of that name, which is understood to be an investment of qualities of rulership through the lifeblood of the family. Chapter 2 examines Nahuatl linguistic categories of fame and concentrates on the dialectic notion of spoken reputation and visual presence. It juxtaposes these categories with an exploration of the iconography of warfare at Malinalco, where the ephemerality of a warrior’s life is stressed over the permanence or presence of a name. Fame, in the sense of being talked about and being treated with honor, is embedded in Aztec divine kingship, which was cultivated by Moteuczoma and embodied by his spoken name and name glyph.

Chapters 3 and 4 isolate Moteuczoma’s name glyph and discuss its component parts. Chapter 3 introduces Aztec picture writing by concentrating on the signs which compose his name. In an important departure from his predecessors’, Moteuczoma’s name glyph assumes a dual role as phonetic script consistent with Aztec picture writing and a composite hieroglyph referring to greater ideas of political and bodily power. Furthermore, each instance of the name hieroglyph contains qualifying symbols attached to one or more of the internal elements, which are also explored in relation to specific messages of the monuments. Chapter 4 concentrates on the speech glyph, which accompanies six of the eight instances of the name glyph. I examine the ways in which speech was envisioned in Mesoamerican images and in Aztec notions of kingship and explore how speech iconography was coopted by colonial-period images in ways more commensurate with European representations of speech. The speech glyph in pre-Conquest images indexes songs or similar kinds of orations enacted in ritual engagements. Overall, as a composition, Moteuczoma’s name glyph does much more than phonetically reference his name; it is an expression that was to be enacted in perpetuity as the office of huei tlahtoani.

Well before the beginning of Moteuczoma’s reign, arguably a half-century before, Aztec imperial monuments began to be unified in style. Although the monuments differed in function, they contain a mixed iconography of hieroglyphs, phonetic script, and pictorial imagery that was to be read as well as enacted. They thus combine several levels of semiotic engagement and continually participate in their own meaning. To this end, chapters 5 and 6 interpret Moteuczoma’s name and anthropomorphic portrait in the context of glyphic signs, pictures, and sculptural forms. Overall, this king’s named role in them exposes a relationship between “private” ritual moments as “public” events that affect not only the person but also his imperial domain. Chapter 5 examines the visibility and invisibility of his name glyph in a group of monuments, each exhibiting a unique elaboration and context, which demands a specific analysis of the relationship between name glyph and ritual. Chapter 6 examines two major sculptures: the Teocalli (Temple) of Sacred Warfare and the Calendar Stone. In these monuments the name glyph connects the ruler’s body to mythological events, deity names, and calendrical cycles and festivals. The name glyph in the monuments is not merely a label that identifies the king as patron of a monument; rather, it is dependent upon a dialogic engagement of the viewer’s body and the abstracted, hyper-sensorial royal body.

Chapters 7 and 8 examine the final portrait of Moteuczoma, which is carved in living rock in situ at Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. This is probably the last Aztec monument, created in 1519 on the eve of the Conquest, though it is badly damaged today and practically forgotten. Yet while the body of the portrait is largely destroyed, most of the hieroglyphic inscriptions are still legible. Before proceeding to an analysis of the sculpture, chapter 7 reconstructs it as accurately as possible by relying on comparative sculptural and ethnographic evidence. I retrace the outlines of hieroglyphs and examine the fragments of costume, body, and environment that still exist. I offer an interpretation of the portrait as an expression of territorial control embodied in the figure and historicized deeds of Moteuczoma. Chapter 8 filters through colonial authors’ descriptions of this and other lost Aztec portraits, including the portrait of the Texcocan king Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472) at Tetzcotzingo, to reveal the differences between the descriptions and the actual remains. The ways in which these authors interpret the portraits have hindered and distorted our understanding of the meaning and function of Aztec portraiture. A deconstruction of their narratives, however, allows for a comparison between perspectives on portraiture and exposes new ideas about Aztec sculpture. This rare example shows that Aztec portraiture does not embody personhood or identity in a way expected of European portraiture.

Moteuczoma was hardly seen or heard, yet his presence was felt everywhere in Tenochtitlan, in inscriptions on monuments and in ritual and social hierarchies played out in various contexts. His name was heard in the commands of lords and recitations linked to inscriptions, during rituals that demanded social participation. Through stone sculpture this king actively engaged with his own visual and verbal representation in ways that his predecessors had not captured.


“This book offers significant new insights into a key corpus of Aztec sculpture and, more important, into the Aztec cultural constructions and understandings of personhood, portraiture, and rulership, specifically through the artistic patronage and representations of Moteuczoma II, the last of the Aztec emperors. . . . Dr. Hajovsky’s scholarship is careful and rigorous, and it deftly balances detailed analysis of evidence, physical and textual, with interpretation and speculation.”
Eduardo de J. Douglas, Associate Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of In the Palace of Nezahualcoyotl: Painting Manuscripts, Writing the Pre-Hispanic Past in Early Colonial Period Tetzcoco, Mexico


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