Introduction to the Exhibition

Following the conquest of the Mexica, or Aztecs, in 1521, Hernán Cortés took possession of what became the Viceroyalty of New Spain in the name of the Spanish king. Spain soon established a network of civil and religious authority to rule over the immense territory, which encompassed present-day Mexico plus much of Central America and the Spanish borderlands that are now part of the United States. The viceroyalty's capital, Mexico City, was built atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The Viceroyalty of Peru was established in 1548, after Francisco Pizarro and his cohort Diego de Almagro invaded the Inca Empire in 1532 and violently defeated its last ruler, Atahualpa. The new capital was built in Lima instead of Cuzco, the center of Inca authority, and the viceroyalty encompassed present-day Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile.

At first the Spanish, in their efforts to extract the mineral and agricultural wealth of the viceroyalties, instituted enforced labor that imperiled the indigenous populations, which were also devastated by disease and social and cultural disruption.

Although the Spaniards referred to the native peoples of the Americas generically as "Indians" (the Americas were called "las Indias" because Columbus initially thought that he had sailed to the Indian Subcontinent), these groups were not unified politically and did not share a common identity. Their relationship to the conquerors cannot be reduced to that of victors and vanquished; it entailed a delicate process of cultural negotiation, mutual accommodation, and contestation, a dynamic that gave rise to vital works of art, rich in interpretative possibilities.

Exhibition Home Page Tenochtitlan and Cuzco


Image: Folding Screen with the Four Continents, Mexico, late 17th century; oil on canvas; 10 panels, overall: 71 2/3 x 248 x 4/5 in. (182 x 630 x 2 cm). Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain. Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, photo by Larrión & Pimoulier.