Cortés, the Anonymous Conqueror, Pietro Martire and others, tell us about the wonders of the great cities they encountered: Mexico, Tlaxcala, Cholula, Tetzcoco, and their relationships are too concordant to be accused of exaggeration. The buildings constituting the palace of the king of Tetzcoco stretched for about 1 km. and for 800 m., they were surrounded by a 6 m high wall. and m. 1.80 thick; they had vast courtyards and a marble portico; the walls of the royal apartments were encrusted with alabaster and stucco in dazzling colors and covered with tapestry, skins, and feathers.
According to ehotelat, these palaces contained 300 apartments; inside they were lined with precious woods; the concrete used is still as hard as granite. The hill of Tetzcotzinco still retains the admirable ruins of the terraces and hanging gardens of a villa that must have been magnificent and of a very daring aqueduct. The aforementioned Anonymous Conqueror describes the grandeur of the capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlán, to which 60,000 houses and 300,000 residents are attributed; Cortés, in his letters to Charles V, also remembers Cholula with 40,000 residents, bristling with 400 towers, and its great pyramid, the largest mass erected by man. The ruins of some localities – especially in the region of Mexico and in the country of the Maya – confirm what was stated by the aforementioned writers: Teotihuacán (Mexico) with the two great pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the temple of Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc; the fortress temple of Xochicalco (Morelos), the pyramid of Papantla or of the Tajín (Veracruz), the necropolis of Mitla (Oaxaca), the tower-temple of Tepoztlán (Morelos), the fortress of Monte Albán (Oaxaca), to say only of some, among the best known scattered in the region. The great pyramids, unlike the Egyptians, were truncated and multi-storey, connected with stairs, built in alternating layers of crushed stone, concrete andadobe – large bricks baked in the sun – all covered with a thick crust of concrete that has partially resisted the elements and time; on these pyramids the temples were built, mostly cubic or parallelepiped in shape, with several chambers, with massive walls with few openings, with a thick roof and a high crest pierced with grace. And so it is said for the palaces of the king, princes and chiefs.
The engineering seems to have reached a notable degree of development, even though it did not make use of the arch and the vault; he also lent himself to the construction of wooden or stone bridges, of dams intended to prevent the disastrous floods of Lake Tetzcoco and of grandiose fortifications.
Sculpture and painting. – The sculpture of the Mexicans is largely a decorative and almost integral element of architecture and it cannot be said that it gave – with some exceptions – very brilliant results, but perhaps a large part of the best works was destroyed by the Spaniards. While in the ornamental decoration it often achieved effects full of grace and beauty, in general, in the human representation, it reveals, at least in the early days, coarseness of conception, carelessness of proportions and incorrect lines, childish refinement in details and accessories. But later we witness, in the works of the last decades preceding the Conquest, a real progress in technique, which is being refined: the errors are corrected, the exuberant imagination of the conception stops and we arrive at true works of art such as the head of theAztecs), which are masterpieces of expression and skill, and the green onyx mask of the National Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Florence. On the other hand, we must partly justify the evident disproportions of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculpture, which tended to maintain the archaic characteristics imposed by a traditional canon in especially religious iconography. Finally, there is a kind of morbid tendency, which has risen to a true cult, for the realistic representation of the natural or artificial deformities of the human body and the diseases that afflict them. The Mexicans used obsidian and flint to carve basalt, lava, trachyte, porphyry, alabaster, etc., but they preferred to mold concrete and stucco and terracotta. Among the best works of figure sculpting, dedicated almost exclusively to the representation of gods or priests, in addition to the two aforementioned heads, we remember the “Calendar” or “Stone of the Sun”, the three-meter-high idol of the goddess Coatlicue, the colossal idol of Omecihuatl, 3 meters high, 15, the cylindrical stone of Tizoc of a diameter of m. 2.65, the “Indio triste”, the large head which has a diameter of one meter of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, and countless others smaller and variously worked, from a brief roughing to the most diligent and refined elaboration.
There is very little left of painting, both in the field of decoration and in pictography, due to the low resistance of the material to time and the ease of its destruction by European iconoclasts. Imperfect this art, more than the others, in interpreting nature; more than in sculpture, religious dogma and ideographic conventionalism hindered it, depriving it of the freedom in which the genius of artists could have imprinted their personality. Nor did the artist feel free in the decoration, because he dominated his religious duty, fixing shapes, lines and colors to him. However, we sometimes find beautiful compositions and skilful combinations of colors. The best things left to us of Mexican painters, besides the pictographs of some codices, are the frescoes of the temple.
Ceramics and the minor arts. – The Mexicans reached a high level in pottery, although they did not know the use of the lathe and the wheel. Their primitive dishes are reminiscent of those of cavemen and “pueblos” but, later on, they are improving and can be compared with those of Peru and ancient Egypt. The material is chosen, mixing the clay with degreasers, the careful processing; for the pottery the cylindrical block hollowed out inside and with thinned walls was used, or a series of doves or a single spiral and also a wicker basket smeared with clay inside and out and burned on the fire in order to maintain its shape even after his disappearance. The forms are infinite, often symbolic, conventional, in which the personality of the potter often shines through; generally zoo-, phyto- and anthropomorphic, less often with rich applications; the freehand decoration, very varied: geometric, serpentine, Greek, etc.; the lively coloring with bright hues, the engobe was deposited there like a vitrifying paint, cooking in several ways, at full fire, oxidizing or reducing fire, with various qualities of wood. The workers were almost all female potters. The best pottery was from Cholula, Tetzcoco, Teotihuacán and the villages of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.
From the mines the Mexicans extracted silver, lead, tin and copper; gold was drawn from the sands of rivers; copper served as a tool (but was little used), silver and gold for ornaments and jewelry. Precious stones had them in abundance: jadeites, turquoise, emeralds, amethysts, jasper; with obsidian they made sharp blades, files, weapons, mirrors and tools, they knew oyster pearls and amber; with pyrite they made small mirrors for practical or ritual use.
Very common the arts of spinning and weaving cotton and other fibers, for example, agaves, and rabbit and dog hair: they produced thick and even fine canvases in bright colors for their robes, cloaks, blankets, etc. They tanned the skins of mammals, birds and reptiles; they dyed with cochineal (nocheztli) and with vegetable and mineral substances that they fixed with rock alum and the glutinous juice of the plant called tizauhtli. With the fibers they intertwined mats, shoes, hats, baskets. But very little of these arts has come down to us and we only know them through the paintings and ceramics that reproduce them.
Especially in the minute lapidary the Mexicans made very remarkable progress; the hardest stones were exquisitely worked by them by means of emery, corundum; the emeralds of Cortés are famous, the gems worked in the National Museum of Anthropology in Florence are magnificent; two rock crystal skulls can be found in the Trocadero Museum and the British Museum. The semiprecious stone mosaics, of mostly ritual objects, especially masks, and of which we have only about fifty remarkable examples in Rome, Berlin, Mexico, London, Copenhagen, New York etc., are truly precious for the finesse and gracefulness of the work. The most wonderful of these is the disc discovered in 1928, containing 3200 turquoise and existing today in the National Museum of Mexico.tentetl), for the chin, for the nose in semiprecious stones and gems.
In the oil industry the Mexicans do not appear inferior to any people of the oriental world; even the few gold objects left over from the sacking of the Spaniards, who melted them, form the pride of the museums that possess them idols, fetishes, amulets, jewels; the eagle -headed tentet of the Civic Museum of Turin and the auras discovered just now by prof. A. Case in Monte Albán. The goldsmiths (tlatlalianime) were unsurpassed setters of joys and beat, sculpted, chiseled, engraved metal with an unsurpassed art and knew very well all the technique, now lost, of a perfect wax casting. Finally, the original art, characteristic in which the Mexicans excelled was the mosaic of feathers, a work of admirable patience and singular good taste (v.mosaic).