Michael Schreffler



“Threads of Many Colors”: Islam, America, and the Visual Culture of Conquest

Recent scholarship has explored a range of motifs and techniques in colonial Latin American architecture whose history can be traced to the Islamic world. They include the use of colorful tiles, decorative wooden ceilings, and the ornamentation of doorways and windows. These forms were produced throughout colonial Mexico and Peru through the transference of designs and construction practices that were widespread in Andalucía both before and after the “reconquest” of 1492. This paper examines a different and relatively unexplored aspect of the relationship between the visual culture of the Islamic world and that of colonial Latin America. It surveys a corpus of early modern Spanish texts and images in which people, places, and things in the Americas are compared or conflated with their counterparts in the Islamic world. These rhetorical dynamics are particularly widespread in textual and visual representations of the Conquest of Aztec Mexico and Inca Peru. Indeed, in one of his letters to the king of Spain, the conquistador Hernán Cortés lauded the Aztecs’ marketplace, noting that “they sell cotton threads of so many colors that it seems like the silk market of Granada.” My analysis of these texts and images centers on the visual components of their comparisons and conflations. It considers the ways in which the evocation of color and colorful objects intervened in this comparative rhetoric and examines the ideological work in which it was engaged. As such, it contributes to knowledge about perceptions of Islamic art and culture in early modern Europe and the Americas.

MICHAEL SCHREFFLER’s research examines the agency of visual culture in political theory and governance in early modern Latin America. He is an associate professor in the Department of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has taught since 2000. He is currently in residence as an Ailsa Bruce Mellon Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, a research institute at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., where he is at work on a book about colonial architecture in Cuzco, Peru. He is the author of The Art of Allegiance: Visual Culture and Imperial Power in Baroque New Spain (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007). His publications include “Vespucci Rediscovers America and the Pictorial Rhetoric of Cannibalism,” Art History (June 2005), and “Representing the Conquest of Mexico in the Seventeenth-Century Empire of the Spanish Hapsburgs,” Invasion and Transformation: Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico (University Press of Colorado, 2007). His article entitled “’Their Cortés and Our Cortés:’ Spanish Colonialism and Aztec Representation” appeared in the Art Bulletin in December 2009.

Download the audio only here