Aztecs at the Court of Charles V

Posted on August 19, 2011

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Aboriginal people had been depicted many times by Europeans prior to 1529, of course.  But curiously enough, up to that date, all surviving depictions of Aboriginal people by Europeans were speculative, purely products of the imagination.

In 1529, Christoph Weiditz, a German artist traveling with the court of Spanish Emperor Charles V, did what no one from Europe had thought to do before, draw an Aboriginal person from life.  And even Weiditz’s pictures show signs of creative doctoring.  Still, you see for the first time Aboriginal people more or less as they really were.

A Brazilian? Probably not drawn from life.

Weiditz had as his subjects Aztecs brought back to Spain by Hernan Cortés as souvenirs and curiosities.  These he depicts in Aztec dress, mostly, although one drawing appears to represent another ethnic group, probably Brazilian, and probably drawn on the basis of description and not from the life.

The others, where their faces can be seen, all feature facial jewelry, an Aztec characteristic.  However, the extensive use of feathers, especially as a kind of skirt, is not characteristic of Aztecs or any Aboriginal group.  The skirts seem to be added later to the images.  A kind of loincloth is visible under all of them.

The feathers may have been added in as a sop to popular cliché.  Europeans were confused about the use of feathered headdresses, which in Europe they encountered without context.  Somebody speculated and got it wrong, but the wrong caught hold.  Headdresses used as a kind of skirt became a European artistic commonplace that became as mandatory in depictions of Aboriginal people as fur robes and clubs became later in depictions of cavemen.   This may have influenced the adjustment of Weiditz’s original images.

Apart from the obvious interest of seeing Aboriginal people for the first time, Weiditz images are interesting in other ways.

The Aztecs at the court of the Spanish Emperor were also performers who had performed before the Aztec aristocracy before the fall of Tenochtitlan.  They included jugglers, ball players, and even people playing a board game.

The jugglers are lying on their backs juggling logs with their feet.

The ball players are playing a game variously called ulama or pokolpok, played with a nine pound rubber ball passed around and manipulated by movements of the hip, without the use of hands or feet.  The game is still played in various ways in Central America, sometimes using a hoop.

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See a Pokolpok game and a

Ulama game here.

Weiditz also depicted Aztecs playing a board gambling game known as patolli.  Patolli refers to the small beans used as dice and counters in the game.

The Aztecs were extremely fond of this game and would even gamble themselves into slavery playing it.  (Below is a depiction of the same game from the Florentine Codex, drawn by Aboriginal artists.)  

During the Spanish conquests, because the Aboriginal people tended to invoke native deities when playing it, priests had the game banned.  Persons caught playing it could have their hands burned in punishment.

Posted in: Aboriginal Notes