Back to top

The Untranslatable Image

The Untranslatable Image
A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500-1600

Moving beyond the dominant model of syncretism, this extensively illustrated volume proposes a completely different approach to the field known as Latin American “colonial art,” positioning it as a constitutive part of Renaissance and early modern art history.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

April 2014
Add to cart
374 pages | 6 x 9 |

From the first contacts between European conquerors and the peoples of the Americas, objects were exchanged and treasures pillaged, as if each side were seeking to appropriate tangible fragments of the “world” of the other. Soon, too, the collision between the arts of Renaissance Europe and pre-Hispanic America produced new objects and new images with the most diverse usages and forms. Scholars have used terms such as syncretism, fusion, juxtaposition, and hybridity in describing these new works of art, but none of them, asserts Alessandra Russo, adequately conveys the impact that the European artistic world had on the Mesoamerican artistic world, nor treats the ways in which pre-Hispanic traditions, expertise, and techniques—as well as the creation of post-Conquest images—transformed the course of Western art.

This innovative study focuses on three sets of paradigmatic images created in New Spain between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—feather mosaics, geographical maps, and graffiti—to propose that the singularity of these creations does not arise from a syncretic impulse, but rather from a complex process of “untranslatability.” Foregrounding the distances and differences between incomparable theories and practices of images, Russo demonstrates how the constant effort to understand, translate, adapt, decode, transform, actualize, and condense Mesoamerican and European aesthetics, traditions, knowledge, techniques, and concepts constituted an exceptional engine of unprecedented visual and verbal creativity in the early modern transatlantic world.


Note on Translations


Prologue: From One Triptych to Another

Introduction: At the Frontiers of Art Histories

Part One: A Triptych from New Spain

Chapter 1. Treasures

Chapter 2. Figures

Chapter 3. Malicias

Part Two: Images between Words

Chapter 4. Mosaics

Chapter 5. Landscape

Chapter 6. Scratching

Part Three: The Creation of Unexpected Languages

Chapter 7. Relics of Ixiptla

Chapter 8. Circular Realism

Chapter 9. Figurative Condensation

Conclusion: Untranslatable Images?



Photographic Credits



Alessandra Russo is an art historian studying and teaching the early modern worlds in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University in New York City. She is author of El Realismo Circular: Tierras, espacios y paisajes de la cartografía novohispana and the coeditor of Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe. She has participated in the curatorship of the international exhibitions El vuelo de las imágenes and Planète Métisse and has been the recipient of several international grants, including the Getty Collaborative Research Grant and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin’s fellowship.


“This study is an exciting and brilliant excursion into an interpretive territory that is easier to theorize in scholarly literature than to practice as a historical approach. . . . A particular coup is Russo’s definition of ‘untranslatable,’ not as a measure of cultural and linguistic isolation but as the result of a continual movement from one cultural register to another. From this basis, she proceeds through a sensitive and brilliant combination of sleuth-work and interpretive finesse to read the visual objects she studies in light of an exhaustive historical inquiry into their production and circulation. The result is a groundbreaking study that will mark the field of Latin American colonial studies for many years to come.”
Anna More, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, UCLA; Professor of Hispanic Literature, University of Brasília; and author of Baroque Sovereignty: Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and the Creole Archive of Colonial Mexico

“This book, full of important discoveries and significant insights, is an important event. . . . It is astonishing to watch a scholar not merely discover and investigate hitherto understudied (and unstudied) materials, but then also construct language and concepts on the basis of the new materials, rather than simply assimilate them within the existing discourse. It is a heroic task. Anyone in the field of early modern art, not to mention people from diverse fields with an interest in ‘the intercultural,’ will be interested in this book.”
Alexander Nagel, Professor of the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and author of The Controversy of Renaissance Art