Moctezuma at the British Museum

    It’s like being invited to the Playboy mansion to meet Hugh Hefner and getting a Harvard course on the history of the nude

    One way to understand the fine series of exhibitions about great rulers that the British Museum has been staging for us — The First Emperor, Hadrian, Nebuchadnezzar, Shah Abbas and now Moctezuma — is to see them as cunning bits of smuggling. Using the lure of the renowned leader as bait, the shows themselves have actually been packed to the ziggurat with huge amounts of carefully selected cultural information. It’s like being invited to the Playboy mansion to meet Hugh Hefner and encountering a Harvard study course on the history of the nude.

    Another way to understand these shows is as timely efforts of contemporary revisionism. Not one of the great leaders examined so far has turned out how we usually imagine them. History writes a mean fantasy, particularly when the victors are the ones with the pens. Moctezuma’s show kicks off its revision before we even enter the building. Those of us who grew up calling him Montezuma are lectured briskly by the exhibition title. Another slap on the wrist awaits on an urgent information board that insists he was not an Aztec. Because there were no Aztecs. The name was invented in the 19th century by the German naturalist Humboldt. The proper name for the people ruled by Moctezuma was the Mexica, pronounced “Mehika”.

    They, of course, gave their name to a great city and a great nation, so the name change has a purpose. I am less convinced by the need to turn Montezuma into Moctezuma. In the sprinkling of documents encountered at the show, he appears also as Muteczuma, Motzume, Moteuczoma; his own people called him Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. So there are no true rights and wrongs at stake here, only trends and agendas.

    The display meanders through his life with a sure step. Moctezuma was the final and most powerful ruler of the Mexica before the arrival of those barbaric Spaniards yanked the history of the Americas out the hands of its natives. His fate, a terrible one, is to be remembered best as the emperor who cowered before Cortez and handed Mexico over to its invaders. History has marked him as a tragic loser. The arrival of the Spaniards is saved here for the final moments of the show, leaving the rest of the event free to flesh out Moctezuma’s long and complex rule. Warrior, builder, instigator, earthly divinity, he was a figure of remarkable magnificence and power. The stunning temple complex he built in what is now the centre of Mexico City, the Plaza Mayor, has been reimagined for us with one of those helpful BM mega-models. Even from this balsa-wood re-enactment, it is clear that Moctezuma’s great pyramid of extra-steep stairs, topped with blocky sacrificial slabs, had an unusually direct relationship with the sun rising behind it.

    As it seeks to turn the Aztecs into the Mexica, the BM goes out of its way to avoid mentioning human sacrifices and the ruthless ripping out of hearts. But it cannot resist adding a trickle of blood to the vertiginous stairs leading up to Moctezuma’s giant temple. No doubt there will be those who resent even this tiny leftover of the old Aztec image, but irrefutable evidence that the Mexica were never quite the placid, organised, civilising nation imagined for us now is supplied at regular intervals by the show’s sculpture.

    These events overflow with precious stuffs — jewellery, tableware, manuscripts, headgear. Gawping at the gold is part of the pleasure. But the BM has learnt to control its greed for treasures and to present instead telling arrays of relevant objects. Every vase, casket, nose stud, lip plate and drinking vessel has been chosen to progress Moctezuma’s story to the next chapter. And had we been dealing with lesser creators than the Aztecs, sorry, I mean the Mexica, the BM’s diligence might have resulted in an exhibition that was informative rather than thrilling. But the Aztecs were creators of rare brilliance, particularly when they turned their wild-eyed and bloody understanding of the cosmos into anthropomorphic stone carving.

    This show offers knuckle-crunching sculptural spectacle at every turn. The sense of power exuded by the car-sized stone eagle at the first corner would shame a tank. Here’s a sculpture that entirely ignores the eagle’s ability to fly in order to capture fully its mountainous symbolic weight. They could do extreme delicacy, too. Who wouldn’t wish to be buried inside the white travertine funeral urn with the black obsidian lid that glows so gorgeously in the show’s first case? Shaped like the seated god of death, this black-and-white essay in Aztec minimalism could pass for an exquisite piece of art deco. So, too, could the celebrated turquoise masks, which the BM is so fortunate to possess. Apparently, the turquoise was chosen for its symbolic value because its varied blues were thought to mirror the life-giving shimmer of water.

    Along a route lined with such irresistible sights, Moctezuma’s story is told carefully and skilfully. The show succeeds fully in its ambition to redraw him as a potent and complex Mexica ruler. So by the time the Spaniards appear, I was more than ready for a complete rewrite of his ending, too, and fully expected to be told that the usual image we have of him as a betrayer and a collaborator, dispatched angrily by his own people, was a grotesque colonial fib.

    Alas, no proof of an alternative story line has survived, and the show can do nothing else but end on an array of Spanish baroque paintings that colourfully propagate the Moctezuma-as-traitor myth. I found myself preferring to trust the evidence of the rest of the display. The great ruler envisaged here is simply not traitor material.