29 JANUARY 1965, Page 22

Before Cortez

ALTHOUGH nearly half a millennium has passed since Columbus, looking for India, found America, there are still few Europeans who have any clear knowledge of the civilisations of ancient America. To them, civilisation means Greece and Rome, and, before that, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. When the conquistadores dealt ruthlessly with Middle America and Peru they Virtually destroyed three civilisations—the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Honduras, and the Incas of Peru. At the time hardly anyone realised what they were doing, and no one thought that an ancient art was also being de- stroyed. Apart from gold and silver which could be reduced to bullion, the Spaniards found little use for American art. The loot of Mexico, of which we have detailed accounts, aroused little interest in Spain—the objects were distributed as curios, chiefly to friends of Charles V and Cortez. Two great Europeans, however—namely, Albrecht Diirer and Br nvenuto Cellini—admired the beauty of the Aztec artists.

It is only archeology in the last fifty years which has made the old pre-Columbian American civilisations live, and shown us the fine crafts- manship and esthetic inspiration of their artists. This expensive, lavish, beautifully produced and beautifully illustrated book brings before us the outstanding examples of the arts and crafts of aboriginal America. It is built around the 145 illustrations, of which eighty-five are in colour —the colour for the most part very good. The author, one of the most distinguished and know- ledgeable workers in the field of American archaeology, has written a short but extremely in- teresting text around the illustrations. He calls his study a form of "'archeological autopsy" buttressed by a few eye-witness accounts of the sixteenth century'; and reminds us that our appreciation and understanding of New World art is limited by the fact that we do not know the name of a single artist in any of the regions studied from Central Mexico to Bolivia and Peru.

Some of the art portrayed, indeed most of it, is specialised and unfamiliar; but much—the onyx marble mask from Teotihuacan, the red grasshopper from Chapultec, the jade death-mask from Palenque, the poncho with feather decora- tion of birds, pumas and fish in Chimu style, to mention a few things—is for all people at all times. The fascination of this book is its demon- stration at the same time of the universality of art, and of the highly specialised conventions of art achieved by civilisations independent of, but parallel in growth with, the ancient civilisations of the Old World. One wonders what the'future held for the Aztec and Inca, the major American political powers of the sixteenth century, had not the armies of Spain dominated them. The bright pages of this fine book bring alive the remarkable artistic achievements of these dead American civilisations.