Works from various venues in Mexico offer a comprehensive insight into the culture and the history of the Aztec civilisation.
The Treasures of the Aztecs. 20 March-18 July 2004. When the Spanish conquistadores set foot in South America they found several complex and flourishing civilisations served by astonishingly savage religious rituals. They did not realise their own were just as bloodthirsty, with a difference only in style. Between their lust for domination and for gold, and the ugly European plagues that infested them, they wiped out the heart of a huge human endeavour that had lasted 25 centuries.
Some of its remains were unearthed and brought to white mens museums the world over. Here are works from the Anthropological Museum of Mexico City and new finds from recent excavations around the site of the Templo Mayor, the ziggurat of ancient Tenochtitlan the Aztec capital which once flourished on the high fertile plateau from which Mexico City now rises.
The exhibition at first reveals itself as a powerful and mysterious array of dark porous stone, of solid steles, of chunky cubes and ziggurats, of benches in human form used for the sacrifice of living hearts to the eating sun. Each is inscribed with ferocious ornamentation, for the typical feature of Aztec art is its Horror Vacui. In most of its manifestations, not an inch of surface is left untouched or empty: cactus patterns stick in and out, gruesome teeth and talons intermesh, furious eyes and sexless bodies cross. Everything is a plaited monstrous teeming, an overlapping and back-curling web of line grimly attractive yet each piece exists as a rigid whole.
But happily this is not the case in a much milder section, which alone makes the show worthwhile. It is of creatures of all kinds, mostly in smoothed terracotta. Here the plumed serpent, the hare, the dog, the eagle, even the humble flea are almost friendly, realistically observed and grandly and elegantly stylised.
Elsewhere, superhuman-sized gods, with the boxed beak of an eagle or bells on their cheeks, or their moon-sized faces embossed with curly tattoos, are surprises of vivid grotesqueness.
In their decline the Aztecs were forced to embrace Christianity, but still managed to cover their stone crucifixes with teeming ancient heathen patterns. Here are some intriguing examples, as well as mosaics, masks and jewellery.
A civilisation totally alien to ours still speaks to us here. We understand the Aztecs through their art, for the drive to create order out of chaos is the same everywhere. Palazzo Ruspoli. Via del Corso 418, tel. 06 6874704. Edith Schloss