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  • The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery
  • Jeffrey P. Blomster
The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery. Edited by William L. Fash and Leonardo López Luján. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2009. Pp. 480. Index.

This edited volume presents examples of urbanism from throughout the vast spatial and temporal diversity of Mesoamerica—the pre-Hispanic cultures encompassed by much of Mexico, all of Belize and Guatemala, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. In their introduction, Fash and López Luján direct our attention to the elite, specifically to how royal courts represented their kingdoms in architecture and in iconographic and cosmological terms. The editors eschew a single definition of urbanism; instead, they summarize key frameworks deployed by volume authors: ecological (cities as adaptations to the environment), functional (non-economic functions of cities), visions of the cosmos (cities’ symbolic role as human replications of cosmos), and built environment (where and how particular structures are built as part of the dynamic interaction between human behavior and city construction).

Two concepts permeate the volume. Altepetl, a concept associated most with the Aztecs, literally means “watery hill” or “hill of sustenance” and incorporates ideas of territory (merging both urban and rural space), autonomous government, constituent parts, and dynastic rulership. Communities either worshipped at natural hills or created their own versions in the form of pyramidal structures—the concept of sacred mountains has long been an established trope in Mesoamerican urbanism. The second concept, Tollan, also known through ethnohistoric Aztec accounts, translates as “place of reeds.” Previously, just one place—the early Postclassic (ca. AD 900) city of Tula in the modern Mexican state of Hidalgo—had been identified with Tollan; the authors of this [End Page 134] volume, however, accept Tollan as a more generalized concept to describe large settlements that were civilizing places (perhaps representing archetypal cities that both dominated peers and inspired successors), with numerous Tollans, both contemporary and ancestral, existing at any given time.

Chapters 1, 2, and 4 treat sites that rose and fell before the Classic period (ca. AD 200). Ann Cyphers and Anna Di Castro make a convincing case that the massive Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, was not only Mesoamerica’s first city (ca. 1100 BC) but possibly the first altepetl, with the following concepts expressed: layered vertical cosmos, sacred mountains, cave entrances to the underworld, and north-south and centerperiphery oppositions. The authors characterize the artificially modified San Lorenzo plateau as a sacred mountain, surrounded by waters from the constantly flooding streams. The authors demonstrate that sophisticated architectural complexes materializing the cosmos appear earlier at San Lorenzo than anywhere else in Mesoamerica. Reaching its apogee about 400 years later, Chalcaztingo, in Morelos, has long been known for its integration of art and architecture with the landscape. David C. Grove and Susan D. Gillespie focus on the specific media and contexts by which the inhabitants of this site represented themselves and their sense of place. Chalcatzingo carvings identify the mountain on which many of them are located and its ancestral spirit; Grove and Gillespie contrast the placement of these mythical carvings on the site’s periphery with those located in the village itself, which manifest concepts associated with rulership—thus materializing the center vs. periphery contrast. In his chapter on the stunning Preclassic Maya murals from the first century BC at San Bartolo, Guatemala, William A. Saturno notes how both gods and heroes are depicted engaging in creative acts; their sacrifices served as examples for early Maya kings who channeled this divine and ancestral power as the rightful heirs. Saturno usefully establishes that the quality of the paintings shows that such artistry was a long-established tradition.

Chapters 3 and 5 explore urbanism in highland Mexico in the centuries before and after the start of the Classic period. Joyce Marcus focuses on the development of the large Main Plaza at Monte Albán, a Zapotec city founded around 500 BC in the Valley of Oaxaca, and how the same format was later imposed on at least one second-tier settlement. In terms...


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