The Spanish–born conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and his troop of soldiers were the first Europeans to see the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. His eyewitness account of the city is one of the few ever written. It comes from a letter that Cortés wrote to his emperor, Charles V, recounting his journey through Aztec Mexico. Cortés's regard for the city, its commerce and citizens was both frankly admiring and politically astute. For Cortés's military conquest was only quasi–legal, and he needed to hold out the promise of a spectacular booty—like Tenochtitlan—to ensure the king's support.

European readers became well acquainted with this vision of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century—the letter was first published in Spanish in 1522 and then in a Latin translation in Nuremberg in 1524. It quickly became a best seller, with other editions published in Italian and French. The map that accompanied it was likewise revised and reissued and can be seen in the Vistas gallery; it is entitled "Map of Tenochtitlan from Cortés' Second Letter."
Visual Culture
Hernán Cortés's letter offers a sense of what inhabitants of Tenochtitlan could encounter as they walked its streets. The enormous markets held everything from produce to pottery, and Cortés describes both the wide range of goods for sale and those who oversaw such selling. He also invokes Spanish practices and cities as points of comparison, evoking for his European readers places they might know (or could more easily imagine).

By 1521, however, Tenochtitlan and its markets were razed, rebuilt and renamed. Spain's on–going effort to limit access to pre–Hispanic and Conquest era history—including a ban on republication of this letter by Cortés—induced a kind of historical amnesia in the colonies. After the widespread destruction of the Conquest, and the demographic collapse of native peoples, 17th–century residents of Mexico City had only limited understanding of the pre–Hispanic period and its practices. It was only in the 19th century, after Independence, that this letter was published in Mexico and local knowledge of pre–Hispanic Tenochtitlan became more accessible.

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