History and Publications
FIGURE 3. Main scene of the 1773 copy of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 4. Édouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, 1868-69.
FIGURE 5. First Sala Mexicana of the Exposición Historico-Americana, Madrid, 1892-93.
FIGURE 6. Frontispiece, Homenaje á Cristóbal Colón, 1892.
FIGURE 7. Title Plate (left) and Plate 1 (right) of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, from the Homenaje á Cristóbal Colón.
FIGURE 8. Comparison of a scene from the Texas Fragment with its cognate in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (cell 4).
FIGURE 9. Comparison of a scene from the Texas Fragment with its cognate in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (cell 5).
FIGURE 10. Comparison of drawing style in the Texas Fragment and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala: a Tlaxcalan lord (cell 4).
FIGURE 11. Comparison of drawing style in the Texas Fragment and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala: a mounted European (cell 10).
FIGURE 12. Comparison of cell 1 from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala with cognate scenes in the Historia de Tlaxcala and the 1773 copy.
The original Lienzo seems to have been painted around 1552, commissioned by Tlaxcala’s (indigenous) city council. The surviving council minutes for 17 June 1552 record plans to send a delegation across the Atlantic to meet with the Emperor, Charles V. As part of this delegation, a painting was to be prepared showing the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Tlaxcala and the subsequent conquest of the Aztec empire by Tlaxcalans allied with Spaniards.4 It is entirely possible that the Lienzo was actually taken to Europe on such a journey. At least six Tlaxcalan delegations traveled across the Atlantic to present petitions before the Crown, the earliest in 1527.5 Unfortunately, however, we have not found records that confirm the Lienzo’s transatlantic travels. The embassy to Europe first planned in 1552 took a number of years to prepare (feather capes for the ambassadors had been completed in 1556), and as far as we can tell it did not take place until 1562.6 We do not know if the ambassadors took the Lienzo with them.
When we next hear of the Lienzo, in the late eighteenth century, it is (back?) in Tlaxcala. A copy was painted in 1773, in an updated eighteenth-century style. Shading was used extensively in this copy to give bodies and draped clothing an appareance of three-dimensionality (Figure 3).
In 1787 municipal official Nicolás Faustino Mazihcatzin y Calmecahua wrote an image-by-image description of the cloth, and said that it had been created during the reign of Viceroy don Luis de Velasco (1550-1564). Mazihcatzin also claimed that three copies once existed: one created to be sent across the Atlantic to the Emperor, one created to be sent to the Viceroy in Mexico City, and one to be kept in Tlaxcala.7
The 1773 copy still survives, housed in storage at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. The fate of the original cotton cloth (or cloths, if three were painted) is unclear. One was still in Tlaxcala until the 1860s. Then, during the French occupation of Mexico (1862 – 1867), the sixteenth-century Lienzo was taken from Tlaxcala to Mexico City so that a copy could be made by the French Scientific Commission, when the Emperor Maximilian was executed (Figure 4),
And the French driven out, Tlaxcalan authorities tried to recover their stolen document. But it could not be found, and remains lost.8
Fortunately, a copy on paper was executed. By the mid-1880s this copy was owned by the Mexican historian Alfred Chavero. It consisted of two parts: “tracings which were taken directly from the original,” along with “a very exact copy, carefully drawn, and for which colors were made to perfectly match the original.”9 In 1892 Chavero used his copy to commission a facsimile of the Lienzo for the Exposición Histórico-Americana, a World’s Fair held in Madrid to honor Christopher Columbus. Photographs of Mexico’s exhibit galleries show that plates from this facsimile were on display in the very first Sala Mexicana, along with plaster copies of Aztec monumental statuary and mannequins dressed in prehispanic attire (Figure 5).
The plates of this facsimile could also be purchased (along with reproductions of other prehispanic and colonial documents) in a lavish publication entitled the Homenaje á Cristóbal Colón: Antigüedades mexicanas (Homage to Christopher Columbus: Mexican Antiquities)(Figure 6).
The tracings that Chavero used to commission the Homenaje are now also lost, and so the 1892 lithographs are our primary source of information on what the sixteenth-century Lienzo looked like.10 There is a problem with these 1892 lithographs, however. They—like the tracings they were based upon—each reproduce a single scene taken from the Lienzo and then surrounded by blank paper (Figure 7).
Ever since the Homenaje was published, scholars who have studied the Lienzo have treated it as a series of separate vignettes. The fact that all of these vignettes were once closely packed together in a seven-by-thirteen grid, below a massive scene of the kingdom of Tlaxcala, is ignored. The presentation of the Lienzo in Mesolore brings these separated scenes together again, to show what the document once looked like. By rejoining the Lienzo’s pieces, we can see how its creators used the seven-by-thirteen grid to create complex visual connections between different scenes. The Lienzo is one of the masterpieces of colonial Mexican art, but it could not be appreciated as such so long as it was seen only in fragments.
How can we be sure that the 1892 lithographs accurately capture what the sixteenth-century original looked like? Mesolore’s recreation of the Lienzo is made from digital scans of lithographs based on tracings taken from a cloth original. Are these copies of copies at all faithful to their sixteenth-century source? Fortunately, there are a number of ways to evaluate the quality and authenticity of the 1892 lithographs.
In the sixteenth century, the Tlaxcalans were very interested in their own past, above all because their early alliance with the Spaniards gave them leverage with the Crown. They produced a number of pictorial histories about the conquest, and two of these versions survive apart from the Lienzo.11 The first is now housed in the Benson Latin American Collection in Austin, Texas. This “Texas Fragment” was painted around 1540 on both sides of a sheet of bark paper. Each side depicts two scenes, and these four scenes are mirrored by the images in cells 4 to 7 of the Lienzo—that is, the last four images in the first row of cells. The close parallels between the Texas Fragment and the Lienzo,in which the same basic scenes presented in the same sequential order, makes clear that the Lienzo drew on—and chose from—prior accounts of Tlaxcala’s history (Figures 8 and 9).
In general, a comparison of details makes clear that the style of the 1892 lithograph corresponds reasonably well to the style of documents painted in Tlaxcala in the mid-sixteenth century, as represented by the Texas Fragment (Figures 10 and 11).
The other visualization of Tlaxcala’s history is a manuscript now in the University of Glasgow. The first part is an alphabetic Historia de Tlaxcala completed by Diego Muñoz Camargo in 1585. The second part consists of 156 ink drawings (black in on white paper, with occasional washes) apparently created before Muñoz Camargo wrote his text (and with a complex relationship to it). Many of these scenes were copied from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. In terms of what is represented, the scenes in the 1892 lithograph and their cognates in the Historia correspond very closely. In terms of how these scenes are drawn, however, the style of the Muñoz Camargo drawings is far more influenced by European conventions than is either the Texas Fragment or the 1892 lithograph. A comparison of the first small scene in the Lienzo with the equivalent scene in Muñoz Camargo (Figure 12) makes this clear.
Finally, as we mentioned above, a copy of the Lienzo was painted in Tlaxcala in 1773. Although the style of this copy is very much influenced by eighteenth-century aesthetics (Figure 12), the basic content and composition of the individual scenes matches the 1892 lithographs, (lithographs based on a copy of the lost sixteenth-century original). Since the 1773 copy retains the seven-by-thirteen grid, we can be confident that the position of scenes within the cells of Mesolore’s reconstruction is accurate.
All this is not to say that the 1892 lithographs—and the tracings and drawings on which they are based—are perfectly faithful to the lost cloth document. By comparing these lithographs with the Muñoz Camargo 1585 manuscript and with the 1773 copy, it is clear that the 1892 copy is incomplete. Two of the four battle standards in the top scene have been left out of the 1892 version, as have all seven cells in the final, thirteenth row (Figure 3). (Mesolore’s digital recreation of the Lienzo restores these missing parts, marking them as restorations). But whatever its visual flaws and errors, the 1892 images of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala have clear affinities with surviving documents from sixteenth-century Tlaxcala, and are far closer to those aesthetics than are, say, the images of the 1773 copy.
As we have already mentioned, the lithographs included in the 1892 Homenaje á Cristóbal Colón form the basis for all other editions of the Lienzo. Another edition was published in 1939 by G. M. Echaniz, and another in 1983 by Cartín y Papel de México. In the same year, Cartón y Papel de México also printed a poster of the 1773 cloth copy.
4 Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986, 51.
5 Gibson 1952, 164-170.
6 Gibson 1952, 165-168.
7 Mazihcatzin  1927.
8 The story of the nineteenth-century fortunes of the Lienzo is told in Chavero 1892, iv-v.
9 “Quedó, pues, perdido el lienzo; pero por fortuna yo tengo copia exatísima, dibujada con toda escrupulosidad, y para la cual se hicieron colores enteramente iguales á los del original. Como también tengo los calcos que del mismo original se sacaron, hoy puede hacerce una reproducción fidelísima del lienzo perdido.” Chavero 1892, v.
10 On the loss of the traced copy, see Glass 1964, 92.
11 Travis Barton Kranz has written the fundamental work about the writing of history in sixteenth-century Tlaxcala; see Kranz 2001; Kranz 2007.