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Cortés’s objects and the idea of New Spain. Inventories as spatial narratives

Abstract

Inventories can reveal more than dry lists of misplaced objects.

Russo, Alessandra, “Cortés’s objects and the Idea of New Spain : Inventories as Spatial Narratives”, Journal of the History of Collections (Lia Markey, Jessica Keating, editors, special issue “Captured Objects: Inventories of Early Modern Collections”), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 229-252. Print.

From the very first month of his arrival on the Mexican coast, and throughout the remainder of his life, the conquistador Hernán Cortés sent (and on occasion brought personally) to the Iberian peninsula – but also to Rome, the Moluccas, Lima and Algiers – hundreds of objects, many of which he presented as gifts received from local chiefs. These Cortés offered to the monarch and to a variety of Spanish dignitaries, as well as to the pope. The language employed in describing and in inventorying the objects suggests nonetheless, that some of them may have been made after the arrival of the Spaniards.

In his letters, Cortés himself declares that he had been not only the patron but also the designer responsible for some hundreds of these items, perhaps with the aim of multiplying tangible proofs of the very ‘object’ he was in the process of creating – New Spain. At a time when there was still no map to represent the outlines of this territory, his project was given concrete form by these ‘treasures’ and was enhanced by the language used to describe them.

These objects and their respective descriptions also serve to remind us of the rapidity with which local artists came to reappropriate and to transform the things brought from Europe by the conquistadors, challenging the ways in which this material should be displayed in museums today.

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