Arts, Culture & Humanities

New Worlds Older: Native Americans in 1494 Vatican Fresco

Rosemary Joyce

In 1494, an Italian artist named Pinturicchio completed a fresco– painting on wet plaster– in the rooms of the recently elevated pope, Alexander the Sixth. After Pope Alexander died in 1503, his rooms were closed off, the frescos covered. Although opened to visitors in 1889, NPR reporting tells us that it is only with a recently completed cleaning of the frescos that a tiny detail became clear enough to see.

What is revealed is a background scene showing a group of about half a dozen human figures, nude, dancing around a central pole. The head of one figure is crowned by spiky images that led the NPR reporter to imagine she saw a “mohican”– the kind of single crest of hair used by some modern punk-influenced youth. This image, and others shown less distinctly, actually are best interpreted as crests of feathers– a hallmark in early European imagery of native peoples of the Americas.

While a small detail in a large painting, the Vatican representative publicizing it, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, emphasizes the historical role of Pope Alexander, who brokered an agreement to divide the Americas between Spain and Portugal in the 1494 Tordesillas treaty. He suggests this image may be “the first depiction of Native Americans” in European art.

The NPR reporter says that previously, the earliest known images of Native Americans were watercolors by John White. Those date to 1585-1586, were published in 1588, and made widely known through woodcuts by Theodore deBry that appeared in 1590. The original watercolors are not unique; Jacques Le Moyne, a French traveler in Florida in 1564, drew similar images after his return to France. After his death in 1588, the same engraver, deBry, popularized Le Moyne’s images. An account of Brazilian indigenous people by Jean de Léry, based on a voyage in 1557, was published in 1578 with accompanying woodcuts. White and de Léry’s images are characterized by Joan Pau Rubiés as illustrative of a Protestant image of the natural man “uncorrupted by civilisation”, presumably also shared by Le Moyne, like Léry a French Huguenot.

A line of representation of Native Americans by Europeans had already developed throughout the decades following the voyages of Columbus. Columbua himself published an account of his first voyage in 1494. Rebecca Brienen describes the woodcut illustration with this account as depicting “naked, shy, and child-like men and women” receiving gifts from Europeans. She notes that “in very early woodcuts like this one, ethnic difference is demonstrated only by lack of clothing”. A close contemporary for the newly uncovered Vatican fresco, this source shares this typical trait. Brienen notes that soon after, the standardized image of nude indigenous person wearing only feathers was codified.

A decade later, Amerigo Vespucci’s letters describing South America were published. Rubiés notes that the 1509 German edition offered two woodcuts that showed the natives as cannibals attacking an unwary European. The indigenous people were all drawn nude, with long hair, contrasting markedly with the detailed dress of the European man.

Rubiés identifies some of the same features in woodcuts published in 1557 to accompany a German book about Hans Staden, who spent some time as a captive of the Amazonian Tupinamba. In the original edition, the Tupinamba people are shown nude. By the time deBry republished his own version in 1593, the participants were shown wearing feathered head ornaments indistinguishable from those of the other native Americans deBry represented.

These earlier images arguably established some of the conventions of representation that Le Moyne and White drew on– including the emphasis on nude or lightly clothed bodies and feather headdresses– features that became canonical ways of indicating Native America in later generic imagery.

We could greatly expand the sources of representations of Native Americans in this first century of European colonization by including the vast number of drawings made by indigenous artists living under colonial authority. The LA County Museum of Art, in an exhibition “Contested Visions”, included plates from the Mexican Codex Mendoza, dating to 1541-1542, showing historical scenes with indigenous people drawn by indigenous artists. The Newberry Library highlights the same source and also mentions numerous pictorial documents dating to the 1560s and 1570s from the Spanish colony in Central Mexico in which indigenous artists drew indigenous people.

Including representations by indigenous people changes how we might see the set of images by White, Le Moyne, and their distant predecessor, Pinturicchio. Indigenous artists created images that represented their own historical traditions and their experiences of colonization. Unlike the generic, anonymous images made in Europe, these sixteenth century drawings were of named historic actors.

Historian Serge Gruzinski, in his experimental museum exhibition PLANETE METISSE (A Mestizo Planet) noted that such artists

observed the arrival of the Europeans. They painted or sculpted the irruption of these intruders on their daily lives; by mixing European and indigenous influences, these works are mixed creations. Therefore, the Codex Azcatitlan combines pre-Hispanic social conventions with European motifs taken from European engravings sent to the New World: knights in armour, banners, etc.

The “mestizo planet” or mixed world that Gruzinski brings to light equally affected the experience, and thus the representations made by, Europeans as well.

The work of the German artist Christoph Weiditz is not as widely discussed as the woodcuts by deBry. In 1529– only a few years after Hernan Cortés over-ran Tenochtitlan– Weiditz produced watercolors recording Aztec performers in the court of Charles V of Spain. The entry on this image in Dana Liebsohn and Barbara Mundy’s Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America 1520-1820 explains that the acrobat in one watercolor

was probably brought to Europe, along with other jugglers, by Hernán Cortés in 1528. When these Aztec jugglers appeared in Spanish court, few people living in Europe had yet to see for themselves a native of the Americas. While the juggler’s presence may have seemed wondrous to spectators, it was at the same time part of a newly developing practice in which native peoples traveled from the Americas to Europe—sometimes as trophies of conquest, sometimes as willing representatives sent by their own communities. It is not known what happened to this troupe of performers; they may have returned to Mexico or spent the rest of their lives in Europe.

What these diverse studies demonstrate is that it is possible to trace nearly continuous histories of representation between the 1494 date of the newly identified fresco at the Vatican, and the post-1585 woodcuts by deBry that are cited in press coverage as the previous known “earliest depictions of Native Americans”.

A final addition to this overview completes the blurring of lines that Gruzinski suggests we need to accomplish to truly understand the mixed world. The subject is a woodcut published in 1579, reproduced by the Newberry Library on its website. The scene is described as a Franciscan preaching to indigenous people in Mexico. The masses of indigenous participants are depicted with long curly hair and features indistinguishable from Europeans. They can be distinguished as Mexica primarily by their manner of dress– a cloak tied at one shoulder, lower legs bare, a few wearing sandals. This is not the generic nude, feather-wearing native, but rather a specific population that took shape in Mexico after Spanish colonization.

The author of the work in which this image appears, Diego Valadés, was a cleric, the son of a Spanish father and indigenous mother, born in 1533 and sent to Rome in 1570. His genealogy and travels remind us of the actual complexity of identity and representation that both native peoples of the Americas and Europeans experienced starting with the voyages of Columbus.

Now we know that this history was painted into the Vatican, whose ultimate power was made clear when Pope Alexander settled the dispute between the two main colonial powers of the fifteenth century, dividing the Americas– and the people contained therein– between them.

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