The First Scholarly Description of the Discovery and Attempted Explanation of the Meaning of the “Piedra del Sol”

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207. LEÓN Y GAMA, Antonio de. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasion del nuevo empedrado que se está formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790. Explícase el sistema de los Calendarios de los Indios, el método que tenian de dividir el tiempo, y la correcion que hacian de él para igualar el año civil, de que usaban, con el año solar trópico. Noticia muy necesaria para la perfecta inteligencia de la segunda piedra: á que se añaden otras curiosas é instructivas sobre la Mitología de los Mexicanos, sobre su Astronomía, y sobre los ritos y ceremonias que acostumbraban en tiempo de su Gentilidad por Don Antonio de León y Gama. Mexico: En la Imprenta de Don Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1792. [6], 1-116, [2] pp. (p. 17 misnumbered 71) , 3 folded copper-engraved plates by Francisco Agüera Bustamante (see list below). Small 4to (21.3 x 15 cm), full contemporary sprinkled sheep, pale olive green gilt-lettered spine label. Binding slightly rubbed at edges and extremities and peeling in a few places. Except for minor stain to title page and top margins of some pages trimmed close (with a few losses or partial losses of page numbers). The Library of Congress copy has similar close trimming, but affecting different pages. Contents fine. Plates very fine, in strong impressions. Muy raro.

Plate List

[1]  [Untitled images of the colossal statue of Coatlicue with front, back and side view of Aztec mother goddess, her face comprised of two fanged serpents, her skirt woven with snakes, her necklace of hands, hearts, and a skull, and her fingers and toes are claws. 6 figures, 3 views and 3 details]. [Top right below line border] Lamina I. Franco. Agüera delineó y gravó. Line border to line border: 26 x 34.5 cm; overall sheet size: 30.4 x 39.3 cm. Very fine.

[2]  [Untitled front view of the Stone of the Sun, contoured depiction; the sculpture is a thirteen-and-a-half foot, basalt relief representation of the Mexica creation myth. At center is the face thought to be the sun god, Tonatiuh, who symbolizes the Fifth Sun or fifth era of Aztec time; the square quadrants around the face have been interpreted as the four earlier eras of the Aztecs: jaguar, wind, rain, and water]. [Top right below line border] Lamina II. Line border to line border: 25.5 x 34.3 cm; overall sheet size: 30.5 x 37 cm. Grey-toned background. Very fine. Unsigned but by Francisco Agüera Bustamante.

[3]  [Untitled front view of the Stone of the Sun, in line relief, with letters keyed to explanatory notes beginning on p. 91]. [Top right below line border] Lamina III. Line border to line border: 25 x 24.5 cm; overall sheet size: 30.2 x 37.8 cm. Grey-toned background. Very fine. Unsigned but by Francisco Agüera Bustamante.

     First edition of the first scholarly publication that described the discovery of the Stone of the Sun, which has become a national symbol of Mexico. Beristáin de Souza, Biblioteca Hispano Americana Setentrional (1883), Vol. II, p. 10. Bernal 3784. Biblotheca Mejicana 934. JCB III (2, 1772-1800) #3535. Brunet VII, col. 834. Catalogue Heredía 7835n. “One of the great early figures in the history of Mexican archaeology, Antonio de León [1735-1802] produced some of the first modern illustrations of Aztec monuments. His detailed and careful studies of archaeological remains contributed to a growing sense of Mexican national identity in the late eighteenth century. He is best known for Descripción histórica y cronológica de dos Piedras.... León y Gama’s emphasis on the need to ‘preserve the remains of the antiquity of our patria’ shows the key role Pre-Columbian ancestry and the achievements of indigenous cultures played in the formation of a modern Mexican identity.” Field 908. Goupil 122. Jones, Adventures in Americana 627. Leclerc, Bibliotheca Americana (1867) 875; (1878) 1177. Medina, México 8204. Palau 135587. Pilling 2257. Sabin 40059: “This work is accompanied by an essay upon the astronomical system of the ancient Mexicans.” Squier Library 658. Stevens, Historical Nuggets, p. 463. See also Juan Pimentel, “Stars and Stones: Astronomy and Archaeology in the works of the Mexican Polymath Antonio León y Gama, 1735-1802” in Itinerario, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2009), pp. 61-67.

     Ignacio Bernal, A History of Mexican Archaeology (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980), p. 81:

The sculptures of the title are two famous monoliths, the statue of Coatlicue, the mother goddess, and the Stone of the Sun, often and inaccurately called the Aztec calendar. They are now the showpieces in the Mexica room of the Museo de Antropología. They were found by accident beneath the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City in 1790, during the course of drainage and reconstruction work. The viceroy the Count of Revillagigedo ordered them to be kept intact, not destroyed as they would have been only a few years before. This change in approach shows the influence of Charles III and a few of his advisers.

     Barbara Mundy & Dana Leibsohn, “Of Copies, Casts, and Codices: Mexico on Display in 1892” in Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 29/30, The Pre-Columbian (Spring-Autumn, 1996), p. 338:

In the sixteenth century, the potency of the Aztec monoliths was so great that the dramatic iconography of the Coatlicue, the Tizoc Stone, and Coyolxauhqui’s head evoking pre-Columbian cults of empire and blood sacrifice that the stones were hastily interred, most of them intact, while countless others were hacked into pieces and used as paving stones. For nearly sixteen decades these sculptures remained buried. This hiatus drained much of the statues’ cultic power, as if cooling them off. Yet the burial, oblivion, and resurrection of these images allowed the artifacts to take on fresh meanings and identities forged by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators, like Antonio León y Gama, who saw the Coatlicue emerge from the earth and then returned home to write about the statue’s significance and value.

     From the beginning, attempted interpretations of the gigantic female figure of Coatlicue have varied from León y Gama’s theory that she was a composite of the hieroglyphic attributes of at least seven Mesoamerican deities, to subsequent hypotheses that she is the Aztec goddess symbolizing earth as creator and destroyer. For yet another, more recent, interpretation, see Cecilia F. Klein, “A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, ‘Snakes-Her-Skirt’” in Ethnohistory, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring 2008), pp. 229-250.

     The three handsome and detailed engravings are the work of Francisco Agüera Bustamante, who both drew and engraved the images. Mathes (Ilustración en Mexico colonial) comments on the engraver’s work: “Although other engravers produced fine plates in the City of Mexico in the late eighteenth century, none achieved the precision, quality, and output of the last of the great self-trained artists, Francisco Agüera Bustamante.”

     Antonio de León y Gama (1735-1802) was a polymathic Mexican scholar who explored many scientific areas, including astronomy, medicine, and antiquities. He is considered one of the most steadfast representatives of the Enlightenment in New Spain. He is reputed to be the first Native Mexican archaeologist, who produced significant work in that discipline. León y Gama’s description of the discovery of the “two stones” emphasizes the sophistication and high scientific and artistic achievements of the Aztecs.


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