Fabricating Identity in Spanish America

Noble savages and savage nobles – Anthony Pagden looks at how the icons of the pre-Columbian world were polished up to mirror criollo aspirations from the 16th century onwards.

In September 1680 the new viceroy of New Spain, Tomas Antonio de la Cerda y Aragon, Count of Paredes, Marques de la Laguna, made his formal entry into the city of Mexico. As he did so he passed through a 90 foot-high triumphal arch. The use of such arches had always been the traditional way in which visiting kings were welcomed to the cities over which they ruled, and the viceroy was, literally, the king's royal body in another place. Had the Marques de la Laguna, however, had time to stop and look at the images that decorated the sides of this particular arch, he might have been somewhat surprised. Most triumphal arches, loosely modelled on that of Constantine in Rome, depicted the great victories of the king they were erected to honour, or, failing that, of the heroes of antiquity; but this one was decorated with scenes from the lives of the twelve Aztec 'emperors'.

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