What Did an Aztec Capital Look Like?

Connor Plunkett | 6 June 2019

◇ South American History | Early Modern History | Indigenous History

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.