Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



The Ancient American Empires and the Conquest by Spain and Portugal



The regionally splintered late Mayan cultures, as well as the Aztec and Inca peoples, built up— even as late as the 15th century—large and effectively administered empires in Central and South America. Their rapid collapse in the face of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century may be connected to the conquistadors' ability to exploit the enormous concentration of religious power in the hands of the native rulers. Under Spanish and Portuguese rule, it was primarily the missionaries who converted the Indians, though some of these clergymen also fought for the Indians' rights. Africans were also brought as slaves to the New World and exploited. Under the direction of the Jesuits, semi-autonomous Indian reservations were set up.


The Late Maya Empire

The late Maya culture was divided into a number of separate states. These were weakened by political strife in the 15th century and were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Old Maya Empire and its temple cities were established by 300 A.D.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, the  1 Maya culture spread widely.

An efficient agricultural system permitted a substantial increase in the population. In 987. the New Empire of the Maya emerged in the Yucatan under the leadership of the Toltec, who had emigrated from Campeche and mixed with the ancient Maya. Other city-states joined the new entity. By 1204, the Cocom of Mayapan, who may have originated in Mexico, had assumed leadership of the empire.

Some Maya tribes, led by Xiu of 2 Uxmal, rebelled against their harsh rule in 1441.

Political unification eluded the Yucatan, as 18 tiny city-states fought among themselves. Epidemics and natural catastrophes also served to weaken the states prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

In the highlands of present-day Guatemala were the Toltec-influenced states of the 3 Quiche, the Cachiquel, and the Tzutuhil, with their capitals at Utatlan, Iximche and Atitlan, respectively.

Toltec tribes also settled areas of present-day Nicaragua, northwest Honduras, and El Salvador.

1 Maya incense holder in the form
of the rain god Chac, painted clay

2 Farmers in Uxmal

3 Traditional Quiche cloth decorated
with anima! motifs

Despite its political decline, 4 Maya culture was highly developed in the pre-Columbian period.

4 Mayan temple in Yucatan, built ca. twelfth century

The Maya used a 5 hieroglyphic script, a numerical system, and a calendar that was more precise than the Gregorian calendar used in 16th century Europe.

The people lived in large cities with stone houses and surfaced roads. Surpluses in the cultivation of maize supported artistic activities and skilled trades. The society was hierarchically structured, with the nobility and priests forming the ruling caste. Slaves were acquired through taking prisoners in war or debt servitude. The Maya traded over long distances, but metals and wagons were unknown to them.

Favored by this political fragmentation, the Spanish were able to conquer the highlands of 6 Guatemala by 152s and Yucatan by 1541. but the Guatemalan lowlands eluded Spanish control until 1697.

5  Maya fortune-telling calendar, known as the Tro-Cortes codex,
which was probably made in Yucatan using the hieroglyphic script, 14th century

6 Necklace with jaguar-shaped beads, Guatemala,
ca. 1200-1500



The Aztec Empire

In alliance with other cities, the Aztec ruled a mighty empire from their capital, Tenochtitlan, but in the 16th century they were rapidly subjugated by the Spanish conquerors.


The Aztec first migrated into Mexico around 1100. At first they were vassals of the Tepanec but steadily gained in strength.

In 1375 the Aztec founded their capital, 11 Tenochtitlan, and then in 1428 they rebelled against the domination of the Tepanec, whose empire they destroyed in 1430 in alliance with the city-states of Tetzoco and Tlatelolco.

11 The Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan (left)
and the Incan capital city Cuzco (right)



The Aztec rulers Moctezuma I, Axayacatl, and Ahuitzotl expanded the 7 empire to the northeast in the second half of the 15th century, and peoples as far south as Guatemala paid tribute to them.

They declared themselves the heirs of the Toltec and identified their 9 war god Huitzilopochtli with the sun god, thus 8 religiously legitimizing their policy of conquest.

7 Aztec warriors, Indian drawing taken
from the Historia de las cosas de Nueva

9 The Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli,

8 Headdress of an Aztec priest,
early 16th century



Huitzilopochtli in human form
in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

An imaginative European depiction of an Aztec shrine.
The idol of Huitzilopochtli is seated in the background. (1602)

Nahuatl-speaking people who in the 15th and early 16th centuries ruled a large empire in what is now central and southern Mexico. The Aztec are so called from Aztlán (“White Land”), an allusion to their origins, probably in northern Mexico. They were also called the Tenochca, from an eponymous ancestor, Tenoch, and the Mexica, probably from Metzliapán (“Moon Lake”), the mystical name for Lake Texcoco. From “Tenochca” was derived the name of their great city, Tenochtitlán; and from “Mexica” came the name for the city that superseded the Aztec capital and for the surrounding valley, which was applied later to the whole Mexican nation. The Aztec referred to themselves as Culhua-Mexica, to link themselves with Colhuacán, the centre of the most civilized people of the Valley of Mexico. See also pre-Columbian civilizations: Aztec culture to the time of the Spanish conquest.

The origin of the Aztec people is uncertain, but elements of their own tradition suggest that they were a tribe of hunters and gatherers on the northern Mexican plateau before their appearance in Mesoamerica in perhaps the 12th century; Aztlán, however, may be legendary. It is possible that their migration southward was part of a general movement of peoples that followed, or perhaps helped trigger, the collapse of the Toltec civilization. They settled on islands in Lake Texcoco and in ad 1325 founded Tenochtitlán, which remained their chief centre. The basis of the Aztec’s success in creating a great state and ultimately an empire was their remarkable system of agriculture, which featured intensive cultivation of all available land, as well as elaborate systems of irrigation and reclamation of swampland. The high productivity gained by these methods made for a rich and populous state.

Under the ruler Itzcóatl (1428–40), Tenochtitlán formed alliances with the neighbouring states of Texcoco and Tlacopan and became the dominant power in central Mexico. Later, by commerce and conquest, Tenochtitlán came to rule an empire of 400 to 500 small states, comprising by 1519 some 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people spread over 80,000 square miles (207,200 square km). At its height, Tenochtitlán itself covered more than 5 square miles (13 square km) and had upwards of 140,000 inhabitants, making it the most densely populated settlement ever achieved by a Mesoamerican civilization. The Aztec state was a despotism in which the military arm played a dominant role. Valour in war was, in fact, the surest path to advancement in Aztec society, which was caste- and class-divided but nonetheless vertically fluid. The priestly and bureaucratic classes were involved in the administration of the empire, while at the bottom of society were classes of serfs, indentured servants, and outright slaves.

Aztec religion was syncretistic, absorbing elements from many other Mesoamerican cultures. At base, it shared many of the cosmological beliefs of earlier peoples, notably the Maya, such as that the present Earth was the last in a series of creations and that it occupied a position between systems of 13 heavens and 9 underworlds. Prominent in the Aztec pantheon were Huitzilopochtli, god of war; Tonatiuh, god of the sun; Tlaloc, god of rain; and Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, who was part deity and part culture hero. Human sacrifice, particularly by offering a victim’s heart to the sun god, was commonly practiced, as was bloodletting. Closely entwined with Aztec religion was the calendar, on which the elaborate round of rituals and ceremonies that occupied the priests was based. The Aztec calendar was the one common to much of Mesoamerica, and it comprised a solar year of 365 days and a sacred year of 260 days; the two yearly cycles running in parallel produced a larger cycle of 52 years.

The Aztec empire was still expanding, and its society still evolving, when its progress was halted in 1519 by the appearance of Spanish explorers. The ninth emperor, Montezuma II (reigned 1502–20), was taken prisoner by Hernán Cortés and died in custody. His successors, Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc, were unable to stave off Cortés and his forces, and, with the Spanish capture of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the Aztec empire came to an end.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The Aztec Empire maintained alliances with its partner city-states, and all three profited from the enormous tributes and slaves that the subjugated peoples were forced to provide. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the empire was composed of 38 city-provinces.

In 1502, 10 Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin, who would lead the empire to its zenith and then its rapid demise, came to the throne.

He subdued the Mixtec in the highlands of Oaxaca and annexed the allies of Tetzoco in 1516. Moctezuma built up Tenochtitlan into the largest and most magnificent city in the Americas, with a population of about 300,000 people. The society was strictly hierarchical, and religiously charged court customs allowed the ruler to stand far above his people. The nobility was hereditary, but warriors with outstanding service could also aspire to enter the noble caste.

In 1519 Moctezuma cordially welcomed the 12 Spanish under Hernan Cortes, because a prophecy had announced the return of the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortes, however, treacherously took the ruler captive and used him to subdue the people.

The Spanish put down a rebellion against the 13 destruction of Inca religious sites in 1520, and in the course of this Moctezuma was killed by a thrown stone.

The Spanish went on to occupy the whole Aztec Empire by 1521.

10 Moctezuma II

12 Hernan Cortes leading his soldiers
to the Aztec leader Moctezuma

13 Hernan Cortes destroys the religious
sites of the Aztecs, 1520



Moctezuma II

Montezuma II

Aztec emperor
also spelled Moctezuma
born 1466
died , c. June 30, 1520, Tenochtitlán, within modern Mexico City

Ninth Aztec emperor of Mexico, famous for his dramatic confrontation with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

In 1502 Montezuma succeeded his uncle Ahuitzotl as the leader of an empire that had reached its greatest extent, stretching to what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, but that was weakened by the resentment of the subject tribes to the increasing demands for tribute and victims for the religious sacrifices. Montezuma was commander of the army and organized extensive expeditions of conquest in deference to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the sun. Through astrologers, the god instilled in the emperor a kind of fatalism in the face of an uncertain future.

The Aztecs feared and expected the return of another important diety, Quetzalcóatl, the white, bearded god who would rule over the empire. Instead, the white, bearded Cortés arrived; he was aware of this fear and used it to his advantage in his expedition across Mexico. Montezuma tried to buy off Cortés, but the Spaniard made alliances with those subject tribes who hated Aztec rule. Welcomed into the capital city of Tenochtitlán by Montezuma, Cortés realized it was a trap and, instead, made the emperor his prisoner, believing that the Aztecs would not attack as long as he held Montezuma captive. Montezuma’s submission to the Spaniards, however, had eroded the respect of his people. According to Spanish accounts, he attempted to speak to his subjects and was assailed with stones and arrows, suffering wounds from which he died three days later. The Aztecs, however, believed the Spaniards had murdered their emperor, and Cortés’ force was nearly destroyed as it tried to sneak out of Tenochtitlán at night.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Moctezuma II, 1715 by Antonio de Solis



Malinche interprets for Cortés and Moctezuma II,
detail, folding-screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río

Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca

Spanish conquistador
Cortés also spelled Cortéz

born 1485, Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castile [Spain]
died December 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla

Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire (1519–21) and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.

Cortés was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and of Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamarino—names of ancient lineage. “They had little wealth, but much honour,” according to Cortés’s secretary, Francisco López de Gómara, who tells how, at age 14, the young Hernán was sent to study at Salamanca, in west-central Spain, “because he was very intelligent and clever in everything he did.” Gómara went on to describe him as ruthless, haughty, mischievous, and quarrelsome, “a source of trouble to his parents.” Certainly he was “much given to women,” frustrated by provincial life, and excited by stories of the Indies Columbus had just discovered. He set out for the east coast port of Valencia with the idea of serving in the Italian wars, but instead he “wandered idly about for nearly a year.” Clearly Spain’s southern ports, with ships coming in full of the wealth and colour of the Indies, proved a greater attraction. He finally sailed for the island of Hispaniola (now Santo Domingo) in 1506. He was then 19.


Years in Hispaniola and Cuba
In Hispaniola he became a farmer and notary to a town council; for the first six years or so, he seems to have been content to establish his position. He contracted syphilis and, as a result, missed the ill-fated expeditions of Diego de Nicuesa and Alonso de Ojeda, which sailed for the South American mainland in 1509. By 1511 he had recovered, and he sailed with Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba. There Velázquez was appointed governor, and Cortés clerk to the treasurer. Cortés received a repartimiento (gift of land and Indian slaves) and the first house in the new capital of Santiago. He was now in a position of some power and the man to whom dissident elements in the colony began to turn for leadership.

Cortés was twice elected alcalde (“mayor”) of the town of Santiago and was a man who “in all he did, in his presence, bearing, conversation, manner of eating and of dressing, gave signs of being a great lord.” It was therefore to Cortés that Velázquez turned when, after news had come of the progress of Juan de Grijalba’s efforts to establish a colony on the mainland, it was decided to send him help. An agreement appointing Cortés captain general of a new expedition was signed in October 1518. Experience of the rough-and-tumble of New World politics advised Cortés to move fast, before Velázquez changed his mind. His sense of the dramatic, his long experience as an administrator, the knowledge gained from so many failed expeditions, above all his ability as a speaker gathered to him six ships and 300 men, all in less than a month. The reaction of Velázquez was predictable; his jealousy aroused, he resolved to place leadership of the expedition in other hands. Cortés, however, put hastily to sea to raise more men and ships in other Cuban ports.

Hernán Cortés with Montezuma II

The expedition to Mexico
When Cortés finally sailed for the coast of Yucatán on February 18, 1519, he had 11 ships, 508 soldiers, about 100 sailors, and—most important—16 horses. In March 1519 he landed at Tabasco, where he stayed for a time in order to gain intelligence from the local Indians. He won them over and received presents from them, including 20 women, one of whom, Marina (“Malinche”), became his mistress and interpreter and bore him a son, Martín. Cortés sailed to another spot on the southeastern Mexican coast and founded Veracruz, mainly to have himself elected captain general and chief justice by his soldiers as citizens, thus shaking off the authority of Velázquez. On the mainland Cortés did what no other expedition leader had done: he exercised and disciplined his army, welding it into a cohesive force. But the ultimate expression of his determination to deal with disaffection occurred when he sank his ships. By that single action he committed himself and his entire force to survival by conquest.

Cortés then set out for the Mexican interior, relying sometimes on force, sometimes on amity toward the local Indian peoples, but always careful to keep conflict with them to a strict minimum. The key to Cortés’s subsequent conquests lay in the political crisis within the Aztec empire; the Aztecs were bitterly resented by many of the subject peoples who had to pay tribute to them. The ability of Cortés as a leader is nowhere more apparent than in his quick grasp of the situation—a grasp that was ultimately to give him more than 200,000 Indian allies. The nation of Tlaxcala, for instance, which was in a state of chronic war with Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztec empire of Mexico, resisted Cortés at first but became his most faithful ally. Rejecting all of Montezuma’s threats and blandishments to keep him away from Tenochtitlán or Mexico, the capital (rebuilt as Mexico City after 1521), Cortés entered the city on November 8, 1519, with his small Spanish force and only 1,000 Tlaxcaltecs (see primary source document: Cortés’s Account of the City of Mexico). In accordance with the diplomatic customs of Mexico, Montezuma received him with great honour. Cortés soon decided to seize Montezuma in order to hold the country through its monarch and achieve not only its political conquest but its religious conversion.

Spanish politics and envy were to bedevil Cortés throughout his meteoric career. Cortés soon heard of the arrival of a Spanish force from Cuba, led by Pánfilo Narváez, to deprive Cortés of his command at a time (mid-1520) when he was holding the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán by little more than the force of his personality. Leaving a garrison in Tenochtitlán of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs commanded by his most reckless captain, Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés marched against Narváez, defeated him, and enlisted his army in his own forces. On his return, he found the Spanish garrison in Tenochtitlán besieged by the Aztecs after Alvarado had massacred many leading Aztec chiefs during a festival. Hard pressed and lacking food, Cortés decided to leave the city by night. The Spaniards’ retreat from the capital was performed, but with a heavy loss in lives and most of the treasure they had accumulated. After six days of retreat Cortés won the battle of Otumba over the Aztecs sent in pursuit (July 7, 1520).

Cortés eventually rejoined his Tlaxcalan allies and reorganized his forces before again marching on Tenochtitlán in December 1520. After subduing the neighbouring territories he laid siege to the city itself, conquering it street by street until its capture was completed on August 13, 1521. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cortés had become the absolute ruler of a huge territory extending from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

In the meantime, Velázquez was mounting an insidious political attack on Cortés in Spain through Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca and the Council of the Indies. Fully conscious of the vulnerability of a successful conqueror whose field of operations was 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from the centre of political power, Cortés countered with lengthy and detailed dispatches—five remarkable letters to the Spanish king Charles V. His acceptance by the Indians and even his popularity as a relatively benign ruler was such that he could have established Mexico as an independent kingdom. Indeed, this is what the Council of the Indies feared. But his upbringing in a feudal world in which the king commanded absolute allegiance was against it.

Later years
In 1524 his restless urge to explore and conquer took him south to the jungles of Honduras. The two arduous years he spent on this disastrous expedition damaged his health and his position. His property was seized by the officials he had left in charge, and reports of the cruelty of their administration and the chaos it created aroused concern in Spain. Cortés’s fifth letter to the Spanish king attempts to justify his reckless behaviour and concludes with a bitter attack on “various and powerful rivals and enemies” who have “obscured the eyes of your Majesty.” But it was his misfortune that he was not dealing simply with a king of Spain but with an emperor who ruled most of Europe and who had little time for distant colonies, except insofar as they contributed to his treasury. The Spanish bureaucrats sent out a commission of inquiry under Luis Ponce de León, and, when he died almost immediately, Cortés was accused of poisoning him and was forced to retire to his estate.

In 1528 Cortés sailed for Spain to plead his cause in person with the king. He brought with him a great wealth of treasure and a magnificent entourage. He was received by Charles at his court at Toledo, confirmed as captain general (but not as governor), and created marqués del Valle. He also remarried, into a ducal family. He returned to New Spain in 1530 to find the country in a state of anarchy and so many accusations made against him—even that he had murdered his first wife, Catalina, who had died that year—that, after reasserting his position and reestablishing some sort of order, he retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the building of his palace and on Pacific exploration.

Finally a viceroy was appointed, after which, in 1540, Cortés returned to Spain. By then he had become thoroughly disillusioned, his life made miserable by litigation. All the rest is anticlimax. “I am old, poor and in debt . . . again and again I have begged your Majesty. . . .” In the end he was permitted to return to Mexico, but he died before he had even reached Sevilla (Seville).

Ralph Hammond Innes

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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