Mexico City Between Two Antiquities
Mexico City, known to many contemporaries as the “Rome and Athens of the New World,” was a vibrant urban space that remained the most populated city in the Americas throughout the early modern period. Yet, there were tensions, since Mexico City was the heir to two different antiquities and traditions, one Mesoamerican and the other Mediterranean, which in some cases overlapped and interacted, and in others came into direct conflict. Early modern Mexico City was born out of a series of destructive wars waged by European forces and their native allies. Missionaries sought to wipe out pre-Columbian religious practices. Indigenous groups, frequently writing in Nahuatl, challenged European settlers in royal courts. Corporate religious organizations, both European and indigenous, fought with each other for privileges both along and across caste lines. European cultural and educational projects thrived: classicizing edifices were built, scholars were trained in the humanist tradition and orations were delivered in Ciceronian Latin. In Mexico City, indigenous and American-born Spanish scholars learned to wield Latin and other originally European intellectual tools, repurposing them to voice their own agendas, and to celebrate and reframe their local antiquity in parallel to the Greco-Roman antiquity. These New World scholars participated in the numerous scientific controversies and legal disputes that waged in Mexico City, and produced a dizzying array of texts and objects that bespeak broader tensions in colonial society.
During the early post-conquest period, missionaries, such as Bernardino de Sahagún, carefully documented indigenous religions and customs in order to aid their evangelization efforts. The Codex Florentinus compiled by Sahagún with the help of indigenous collaborators at the College of Santa Cruz de Tlateloco is now one of our most important sources for reconstructing Mexican history. This knowledge not only undergirded missionary projects, but also garnered considerable attention in Europe from readers eager to understand New World culture. These documents served as an important point of comparison for antiquarians, like the renaissance mythographer, Vincenzo Cartari, who included a discussion of Aztec deities is his famous compendium about ancient religions.