The Re-mapping of the World

Map of Tenochtitlan and Gulf Coast, 1524. Via; you can find a larger, zoomable version here.

I am not as far along in Alessandra Russo’s fascinating book The Untranslatable Image as I should be, seeing as I have it through inter-library loan and it’s due back next week.  That said, her brief discussion of this map of the just-conquered Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan is, in and of itself, too rich to go unremarked upon.  Even more important for me of late, this map–that is, the circumstances of its making–seems to intersect in a very material way with a much more abstract idea I have been kicking around regarding the Columbus chapter I have been working on: Following Edouard Glissant’s argument in Caribbean Discourse that the land is a central character in and even producer of Caribbean culture, I want to make the argument that it’s the land’s resistance to being read as Columbus would have it read that invalidates the Europeans’ invention and adoption of the term New World yet also allows the new peoples of this hemisphere to re-appropriate that same term to describe this space, and even set about re-ordering the Old World’s perception of itself relative to the rest of the planet. This will have to get worked out elsewhere, alas. In the meantime, though, here are some thoughts on Russo’s discussion of the making of this map:

The above map is something like a copy of a map that Cortés, via his secretary Juan de Ribera, sent to Charles V in Seville in 1524. I say it is “something like a copy” because, as Russo tells it, it also seems to be fairly original in its own right. (Russo’s big theme is the title of her book: She argues, following Gruzinski’s discussions of art in early New Spain, that the earliest cultural products of post-Conquest Mexico can’t easily be placed into traditional art history categories or summarized as examples of syncretism. Instead, they are works that, while they incorporate pre-Hispanic and Hispanic elements, when considered in their totality they are so distinct from those cultures that it becomes impossible to separate their elements from each other–hence their “untranslatability.”) In the case of the map, then, de Ribera brought a map of Tenochtitlan from New Spain, and a European, thought to be Albert Dürer’s pupil Erhard Schoen, made this wood engraving print of it. Yet here is how the copy got made: Russo, citing Dominique Gresle-Pouligny’s Un plan pour Mexico-Tenochtitlan, says that the map’s maker “‘applied to the initial sketch the conventions of representation of his German school,’ adjusting them according to ‘elements of the indigenous essence remodeled with European traits'” (42). Russo goes on to speculate that one of the Aztecs who accompanied de Ribera to Seville may have been the person who collaborated with the engraver on its design and contents, if not on its actual making. So then: This is a copy of a map brought from New Spain; yet it is not a literal copy because it incorporates European sensibilities–yet even those sensibilities have been shaped through the European’s incorporation of “indigenous essence” into his work, if not actual interaction with an indigenous member of de Ribera’s party from New Spain. Even more interestingly, Russo notes that this map would, in turn, influence the look and design of maps of places as diverse as Turin and Peking: a graphic depiction of a city of New Spain shaping how mapmakers would depict cities of the already-known world.

Thus, it was not alone Columbus’ findings in this hemisphere that caused Europeans to have to re-make their maps of the world; the very means by which they were drawn were, for a time at least, shaped by Mesoamerican cartographic sensibilities, going even so far as to influence how Europeans depicted their own, European spaces.

One last thing, which I don’t yet know enough about to do more here than just mention it: It was in these same middle decades of the 1500s that, in English and Spanish, the word “map” (in Spanish, el mapa) appeared as the name for these objects.  In Spanish, cartographic objects had before been known as figuras, which could also refer to sketches or drawings.  (I haven’t yet looked to find out what the English equivalent had been.)  Russo doesn’t quite say this, I want to be clear, but it may have been Europeans’ marveling over the accuracy of this or other maps made by indigenous people of New Spain that prompted the adoption of this new word to distinguish between cartographic objects and other, more fanciful depictions of landscape.

There’s more to say about this, I believe, but it’s rather far afield from the book project’s declared territory.  I do think, though, that as part of a larger discussion of how the brute fact of land in this hemisphere confounded European conceptions of the earth, these early maps, and even the appearance at the same time of a distinct word to name these objects, is vitally important.

One thought on “The Re-mapping of the World

  1. Pingback: The Land as Character in New World Writing: Some Initial Comments | Domestic Issue

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