Architecture and Communities

What did an Aztec capital look like?


To the modern public, the idea of an Aztec city may conjure up a cityscape filled with instances of human sacrifice atop gigantic stepped-pyramids and buildings adorned with gold, jade and intricate stone-carved patterns. Pop culture portrayals of Mesoamerica such as in Apocalypto, The Emperor’s New Groove, or video games like Civilisation, have helped to foster this standardised image for their international audiences.

Interestingly, 16th century Europeans also seem to have shared some of these notions, yet the ways in which these contemporaries depicted an Aztec city was far from uniform. Though information on many cartographers is often unavailable to historians, the maps they produced can tell us a lot about how different societies may have visualised an Aztec city. Using some examples of European maps of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I hope to show that the image of an Aztec city often changed from place to place as different groups saw it in their own specific way.

Detail from the feature image (Top of page). La Gran Ciudad de Temixtitan, 1524, Woodcut, from Praeclara Ferdinandi Cortés ii de Nova Maris Oceani Hyspania narratio, (Nuremburg, 1524). Newberry Library.

The most widely distributed image of Tenochtitlan was printed in February 1524 in Nuremburg by Frederick Pepyus (above). It was included in a Latin edition of a letter sent from Hernán Cortés to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This map features several stereotypes of Aztec culture; a large stepped pyramid and a startling headless statue dominate the central plaza, while sacrificial heads indicate gruesome ceremonial practises.

Yet, these landmarks had been razed to the ground after the siege of the city in 1521, meaning this map depicts a conception of the city rather than its reality. So, what explains the city’s image?

It is unknown why Pepyus printed the map, or whether it was influenced by Cortés or Charles V, yet the features of this map may reveal why his version of Tenochtitlan looked like it did. For one, he may have depicted the city in a specific way in order to aid Charles V and Cortés in justifying the conquest of Mexico, possibly to gain royal favours.

Spain’s occupation of America was under constant scrutiny throughout the century by many who felt that their colonial expansion was not legally valid, while conquistadors like Cortés were often criticised for their brutality towards indigenous populations. Meanwhile, many zealous Europeans also held strong vehemence against infidels due to the effects of the Reconquista and continuing struggles against the Ottomans. Such arguments often extended to the Americas, and Pepyus’s map seems to speak to these contexts. By portraying an idolatrous city under Habsburg control – indicated by the imperial flag in the upper-left – the map almost suggests that Habsburg occupation was a necessity if European civility and Christian authority were to transform Mexico. Hence, this map’s conception of an Aztec city seems to be informed by contemporary Christian militant zeal and a desire to justify conquest against unbelievers.

(left) Benedetto Bordone, La Gran cittia di Temixtitan, 1528, Woodcut, from Isolario di Benedetto Bordone (Venice, 1528). Wikimedia.
(right) Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Temistitan, 1556, from Terzo Volume delle Navigationi e Viaggi (Venice, 1556). Wikimedia.

Maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Venice, such as those by Benedetto Bordone and G.B. Ramusio. These show a very different conceptualisation of the Aztec capital as they portray Tenochtitlan in a way which more closely resembles Venetian ideals. Both maps emphasise Tenochtitlan’s aquatic setting to draw direct visual comparisons to Venice, while explicit signs of human sacrifice are removed to offer a more sanitised view identifiable with European culture. Ramusio also includes multiple cross-tipped spires to draw parallels to Venetian piety.

Again, these features do not reflect the reality of Tenochtitlan, since its waterways were being filled in to prevent flooding. What these maps actually show is a unique Venetian imagining of the Aztec capital – one which was likely informed by the city-state’s political context.

Venice’s political status had severally declined due to successive military losses, while their dominance of maritime trade had diminished due to Spanish trade in the Americas and Portuguese access to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea trade routes. Yet, rather than accept this reality, many Venetians instead sought to extol their city and envisage Venice as a powerful and hallowed polity. This ‘myth of Venice’ was likely an active component in how Venetians conceptualised Tenochtitlan, visualising the city in terms of their own desire to promote Venetian primacy against their political subjugators.[1] For them, Tenochtitlan became an American Venice in the idealised Italian city model.

Certainly, other maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Europe throughout the century, such as in England.[2] These too had their own unique image of an Aztec city which were often influenced by the surroundings, beliefs and values of each society.

So, what did an Aztec city look like? While both modern audiences and 16th century Europeans certainly drew from popular notions of Aztec culture, it may be apt to say that an Aztec city looked how different groups wanted and expected it to look like.

Connor Plunkett has recently completed his final History BA exams at the University of Sheffield. His dissertation focused on European maps of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century and the various ways in which different cartographers depicted the city.

[1] Elizabeth Horodowich, ‘Armchair Travellers and the Venetian Discovery of the New World’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 36.4 (2005), p. 1041.

[2] See Valencia-Suárez, María Fernanda, ‘Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs in the English Atlantic World, 1500-1603, Atlantic Studies 6.3 (2009), pp. 277-301.

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‘Love Among the Ruins’? Telling the social history of Sheffield’s best-known housing estates

Facade of Park Hill, a council housing estate in Sheffield, England.

An eyesore or an architectural landmark? Should the flats have been Grade II listed or demolished alongside Hyde Park in the early 1990s? A feature of Sheffield’s skyline since 1957, the multi-storey housing estate Park Hill is still a topic of debate.

These questions have tended to overshadow the fact that Park Hill and Hyde Park were – and to a lesser extent still are – home for a significant number of people in Sheffield. With its focus on the estates’ residents rather than the buildings themselves, this is something that art charity S1 Artspace’s latest project Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future seeks to rectify.

In a converted garage nestled between the first phase of Park Hill’s redevelopment and the vacant flats that make up the rest of the estate, the exhibition features the work of social documentary photographers Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson, who documented life at Park Hill and Hyde Park in the early 1960s and late 1980s respectively. Billed as a reinterpretation of the pair’s 1988 exhibition Streets in the Sky, it showcases archival material and documentary footage of the flats in an attempt to tell the social history of Sheffield’s best-known estates.

In my research into everyday life and multi-storey council housing in Sheffield and Manchester, I explore how far changing housing policies, media coverage, and cultural attitudes shaped residents’ experiences of their estates over the post-war period.

Specific ideas about the nature of residents’ everyday lives were central to Sheffield City Council and architect J. L. Womersley’s plans for both Park Hill and Hyde Park, making the multi-storey flats particularly suited to a social historical analysis.

With its pubs, shops, and wide street decks that allowed residents to walk above ground from one end of the estate to the other, Park Hill was built to replicate its architects’ ideas of traditional working-class community in a new environment. It was a social experiment that the Council was eager to be successful in, even allocating a flat to sociologist Jean Demers to oversee how well residents adapted to life off the ground in the estate’s first few years.[1]

Mayne’s photographs of children playing and neighbours chatting in the early 1960s seemed to confirm the verdict of the Sheffield Telegraph: Park Hill was a ‘triumph of design’ and ‘a children’s paradise’.[2]

Bill Stephenson’s work, on the other hand, captured life in Park Hill’s sister development Hyde Park in 1988, just before its demolition. Hyde Park was built in 1965 in a similar architectural style to Park Hill, but on a much larger scale. However, it did not take long for accounts of the estate’s problems to begin to surface.

Despite these negative reports, Stephenson found that the Hyde Park residents who he met and photographed in 1988 did not want to be rehoused. A survey undertaken by Sheffield City Council just one year later found that while 60% of residents favoured rehousing, 30% wanted to stay on the estate, and 10% were unsure.

These results were reported in The Guardian alongside the news that those tenants who wanted to stay had formed a community action group that aimed to ensure that when Hyde Park was cleared for demolition, some neighbours would be rehoused on the same estates.[3]

Mayne’s photographs of the early 1960s and Stephenson’s of the late 1980s bookend a period of significant social, political, and cultural change in Britain. In the years in between, the initial celebration of mass, multi-storey council estates had been cut short as they became increasingly linked to crime and deprivation.

Park Hill and Hyde Park can show how these developments played out locally, with residents’ voices revealing a more complex story than the inevitable rise and fall of these places.

In 1972, a survey into aspects of multi-storey life at Park Hill found that while some residents liked living on the estate, others did not.[4] In the face of such ‘inconclusive’ results, BBC Radio Sheffield sent a reporter to the flats to get the real story but found a similarly mixed picture.

Some of the residents interviewed felt cut off in their flats and some enjoyed the privacy. Others sympathised with feelings of isolation but felt that there were advantages to living so close to the city centre. Far from uncovering the straightforward reality of life at Park Hill, the interviews only revealed more contradictions.

The exhibition’s title Love Among the Ruins is meant to be taken literally to encourage visitors to appreciate the future potential of Sheffield’s estates through the residents of its past. But in sharing its title with Evelyn Waugh’s story of an over-stretched welfare state in a dystopian near-future, it sees residents through the lens of a familiar historical narrative.

Perhaps by moving away from this, historians can understand why it was that despite the many problems typically associated with multi-storey council housing, communities still existed on estates like Park Hill and Hyde Park until they were cleared.

Isabelle Carter is a first-year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her research takes a comparative case study approach to everyday life and identity on multi-storey council housing estates in Sheffield, Manchester and London between c. 1957 and 1998. You can find her on Twitter @_isabellectr

Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future runs from 20 July 2018 to 15 September 2018 at S1 Artspace, 1 Norwich Street, Park Hill, Sheffield.

[1] 1 Sheffield City Council Housing Department, Park Hill Survey (Sheffield, 1962), Sheffield Local Studies Library

[2] 2 The Children’s Paradise: A Triumph of Design and Planning that Challenges all Europe’, Sheffield Telegraph, 16 June 1961, Sheffield Local Studies Library, M1320.

[3] 3 Catherine Pepinster, ‘High Hopes: Can determined tenant action beat the horrors of Hulme and Hyde Park?’, The Guardian, 13 September 1989.

[4] 4 Department of the Environment, The Estate Outside the Dwelling: Reactions of Residents to Aspects of Housing Layout (London, 1972), Sheffield Local Studies Library.

Image:  Facade of Park Hill, a council housing estate in Sheffield by Paolo Margari



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