Montezuma, II, Emperor of Mexico
- unknown artist
- William Greatbach, English, 1802-1894
- Born: Stoke-on-Trent, England
William Greatbach, Montezuma II, Emperor of Mexico, after 1843. Engraving; 8 ¼ × 5 ½ in. Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2000.333.
Moctezuma II or Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466-1520), commonly known as Montezuma, is a contested figure in the historical record. He was the leader (tlatoani) of the Mexica Empire, centered in Tenochtitlan. Under Moctezuma, the Empire reached its greatest size. He was in power when Cortés and his band of soldiers arrived from the Yucatan peninsula in 1519. The conquistador eventually took Moctezuma hostage and he died shortly thereafter.
The inscription at the bottom notes that the engraving is a copy after a portrait of the emperor once in the collection of the Conde de Miravalle, a noble title established in 1690 for Alonso Dávalos Bracamontes de Ulibarri y de la Cueva, who was directly descended from both Philip II and the daughter of Moctezuma II. As was common with noble families in the Spanish Americas, the Condes de Miravalle commissioned this fictional portrait of their ancestor to strengthen their claim to royal descent. Sometime in the 1800s, the portrait was sold to the former United States consul in Mexico, Santiago Smith Wilcox, who brought the original to the US and had it engraved.
The engraving was included as the frontispiece to William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, first published in 1843 but reprinted several times throughout the second half of the 1800s. It was not original to the work but was secured by Prescott’s agents in Mexico and re-engraved in London by William Greatbach. Prescott was initially adamant that the portrait was authentic, particularly in its depiction of Moctezuma’s robes, but later came to believe that it was too idealized a depiction. As other historians have noted, the costume takes greater cues from Roman garments such as the paludamentum than from Mexica royal regalia.
Moctezuma is depicted with considerable pathos, his head declined slightly with a vacant, sorrowful gaze. One reader of Prescott’s text described the engraving of Moctezuma thusly: “poor wretched, doomed, self-doomed monarch, such as his portrait speaks him.” This attitude was a common one, as many historical texts depicted the Mexica leader as tragic, superstitious, and weak. The popularity of Prescott’s text, a sweeping, literary account of the Conquest, meant that this image circulated widely in the second half of the 1800s.
– Kathryn Santner, Frederick and Jan Mayer Fellow of Spanish Colonial Art, 2022
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