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    Members’ Reports

    Byron Ellsworth Hamann
    Center 41

    Byron Ellsworth Hamann

    A History of Mexico through Histories of “the Conquest”: The Lienzo de Tlaxcala Remade, 1552–2012


    Digital reconstruction of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (detail), original c. 1552, 2012 reconstruction based on 1892 lithographs. Courtesy the Mesolore Project, Brown University

    Media archaeology has an uncomfortable relationship with military violence. Consider Friedrich Kittler’s “Rock Music: A Misuse of Military Equipment” (2013), or references in media-theoretical writings to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973; the title referring in part to the parabolic arc made by a V-2). Media archaeology also tends to have a US/European North Atlantic bias, although this is beginning to change—for example, Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise (2008), or Delinda J. Collier’s Media Primitivism (2020). The history of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (first iteration c. 1552) across five centuries activates these issues in various ways. The Lienzo provides a visual history of military violence: telling how the Tlaxcalans (with a little help from Hernán Cortés and his European soldiers) conquered the capital of their pre-Hispanic enemies, the Aztecs, and went on to seize lands far beyond the limits of the Aztec Empire. It is a story that connects the European North Atlantic to the Mesoamerican world: not simply because European soldiers were co-opted to pursue the ends of their Native American allies, but also because the Lienzo itself (or, more accurately, one of its three original copies) was designed as a gift to be sent across the Atlantic to Emperor Charles V. And it is a story of media and remediation across 500 years. Its images (painted on cloth) were based in part on an earlier, European-style bound book on Mesoamerican bark paper (1540s), and the finished cloth was then repeatedly copied and remediated in the centuries to come: with black ink on European paper (1580s), watercolor on cloth (1779), pencil on tracing paper (1860s), lithograph (1840s and 1890s), and, most recently, a digital re-creation (2012). 

    In the 1540s, European woodcuts proved to be a key model for the pre-Lienzo “Texas Fragment,” due in part to the visual homologies between late pre-Hispanic images (bold, black outlines; solid fields of color) and woodcuts. Indigenous artists borrowed woodcuts’ frame lines and techniques of overlap to create a visual narrative of alliance with Cortés. Three centuries later, during the French occupation of Mexico in the late 1860s, tracing paper was the medium by which two artists (one French, one Mexican) created copies of the circa 1552 and 1779 iterations of the Lienzo (both of which had ended up in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional). At this point, the 16th-century cloth disappeared, leaving colored tracings behind as our main record of this still-lost document. (In 1892 these tracings would be used to create a large-format, lithographed “facsimile.”) 


    Tlaxcallan: A First Sunrise at Tlaxcala, printed mid- to late 1890s, from Lienzo de Tlaxcala: Manuscrito pictórico mexicano de mediados del siglo XVI (Mexico City: Librería Anticuaria G. M. Echániz, 1939), pl. 23. From the collections of the University of Chicago Library

    But perhaps the most unexpected meditation on media archaeology that this year of research produced involves the question of whether theft can be considered as a medium. A “medium” is often described as the support vehicle through which something is carried, as that which mediates between two other things. Theft, accordingly, is a vehicle for transport, one that connects the site of looting with the site of later collecting (as well as the people at those sites). Theft is the vehicle that connects a number of my narrative strands, and explains how the 1540s bark paper source for the original Lienzo traveled from an archive in Tlaxcala (where it was traced by Henri de Saussure in 1855) to the University of Texas at Austin (where it was purchased in 1964). The possible culprit, the specific criminal medium who allowed me to connect my various stories, was suggested after delivering my colloquium—comments that I probably would never have received were it not for this fellowship! 

    In the mid- to late 1890s, after the large-format lithograph was printed in Mexico City, the Indigenous governor of Tlaxcala (Próspero Cahuantzi) commissioned a smaller-scale, handheld edition. It was printed but not distributed, and the sheets ended up in the archives of Tlaxcala (where historian Charles Gibson still encountered “many loose Cahuantzi plates” in the late 1940s). A decade earlier, however, most of those small-format lithographed plates were acquired by Mexico City printer and bookseller Guillermo M. Echániz. He had them bound (finally) as a book in 1939, adding his own prologue. Echániz was also a dealer in manuscripts, and he was probably the man from whom art dealer Earl Stendahl bought the woodcut-inspired bark paper fragment once in Tlaxcala’s archive. The Stendahl Gallery, in turn, was the source from which the University of Texas bought those three documents in 1964. The 1930s rescue of a Tlaxcalan facsimile project from the 1890s may, then, also have been the means by which much older documents were removed from Tlaxcala and sent to Mexico City—and then to Los Angeles, and then to Austin. 

    The Ohio State University 
    William C. Seitz Senior Fellow, 2020–2021 

    During the 2021–2022 academic year, Byron Ellsworth Hamann will be in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Historical Studies. 

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