Second Letter of Hernán Cortés


Between July 1519 and September 1526, Hernán Cortés (1485‒1547), the soldier and adventurer who in 1519‒21 conquered for Spain what is now central and southern Mexico, sent five extended letters to Emperor Charles V in which he described his exploits and placed himself and his actions in a favorable light. This book contains the first Latin edition of Cortés’s second letter. In it, Cortés gives an account of his first meeting with the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II (whom he calls Moctezuma), and describes the vast extent and richness of his empire. Dated October 30, 1520, the letter was translated from Spanish into Latin by Petrus Savorgnanus and printed in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1524. This printing also contains the first published plan of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City, labeled Temixtitan on the map), which Cortés and his army attacked and destroyed in May 1521. Cortés had made an earlier attempt to capture the city but retreated in July 1520, defeated by the Aztecs, and the plan depicts the city in that year. Tenochtitlán was founded in the 14th century on an island in the salt lake of Texcoco. Upon occupying the city, the Spanish pulled down its central parts and replaced the Aztec temples with buildings constructed in the Spanish style, but they left the street layout virtually intact. The plan is oriented with west at the top. The square at the center is a ritual area and shows a stepped pyramid temple with the sun showing between the two towers, marked as Templum ubi Sacrificant (Temple of Sacrifice). Also shown are Moctezuma’s palace (south of center, identified as Domus Don Muteczuma [House of Don Moctezuma]) and two racks of severed heads. Wide causeways connect the island city to the shores of the lake. Alongside the street plan of the city in the fold-out woodcut is a map of the Caribbean basin. This copy, from the Edward E. Ayer Manuscript Collection in the Newberry Library, Chicago, contains a hand-colored version of the city plan and map. The Cortés letters lauded Charles V as a latter-day Caesar, whose territories were vastly expanded by his empire in the New World. In the letters Cortés clearly hoped to consolidate his own authority by underlining his services to the emperor.

Last updated: July 31, 2017