1520: Brussels Durer
These things must be emanations from the sun, like the men and women who made them in the remote land they inhabit: helmets and girdles, feather fans, dresses, cloaks, hunting gear, a gold sun and a silver moon, a blowgun, and other weapons of such beauty that they seem made to revive their victims.
The greatest draftsman of all the ages does not tire of staring at them. This is part of the booty that Cortes seized from Moctezuma: the only pieces that were not melted into ingots. King Charles, newly seated on the Holy Empire's throne, is exhibiting to the public the trophies from his new bits of world.
Albrecht Durer doesn't know the Mexican poem that explains that the true artist finds pleasure in his work and talks with his heart, because he has one that isn't dead and eaten by ants. But seeing what he sees, Durer hears those words and finds that he is experiencing the greatest happiness of his half century of life.
The Mexica (Aztec) king Motecuhzoma greeted Hernan Cortés in 1519 with gifts of gold, silver, and precious stones, including jewelry, ornaments, headpieces, disks, garments, shields, and helmets. Cortés sent the tribute to Charles V, king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who placed them on exhibit in 1520. Albrecht Dürer viewed the exhibit in Brussels and extolled its beauty in his travel journal:
At Brussels is a very splendid Townhall, large and covered with beautiful carved stonework, and it has a noble, open tower. . . . I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of armor of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, much better worth seeing than prodigies [myths, fairy tales]. These things were all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 florins [guilders] All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.-->
It is quite clear from the passage that Dürer’s admiration is of riches, curiosities, and craft. When he discusses Western “art” he uses different terms, such as proportion, or alludes to comparisons with antiquity. Contrary to usual interpretations, he doesn’t marvel at the “art” of the New World, he marvels at the “curiosities” and “craft.”
Yet by the eighteenth century what were “heathen idols” had become art. Europe was more secular and Mexico was less afraid of native religious revivals. When three Aztec sculptures came to light in the construction in the Zócalo of Mexico City in 1790, two were left visible and eventually moved to a new museum devoted to antiquity. The third, a colossal idol-like female figure, was reburied for some time for fear of its effect on the natives. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it had found its place in the museum too. Plaster casts were made of the sculptures and exhibited in 1824 in London for a public eager to see exotic monuments.