Graduate Seminar: Beyond El Dorado: Materials, Values, and Aesthetics in Pre-Columbian Art History
Tuesday | 9:00 - 12:00pm
Legends of indigenous American gold seduced European voyagers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spanish conquistadors and others including Sir Walter Raleigh were taken in by tales of cities of gold and other stories, for example of a king called El Dorado (“the Golden One”) in Colombia who would cover himself entirely in gold dust. There was truth to many of the stories. The last Inca king Atahualpa ordered a room filled with gold objects, and then filled again twice with silver, to pay his own royal ransom to Pizarro. In Mexico, Cortés and his allies melted Aztec gold ornaments down into bullion to be remitted to Spain. But some goldworks survived the conquerors’ hungry crucibles and entered European collections intact. Upon seeing some of the first Aztec goldworks brought to Europe, the artist Albrecht Dürer marveled at their artistry and “the subtle ingenuity of men in foreign lands.” Other objects have been recovered from Caribbean shipwrecks and from archaeological excavations in places like Mexico City, Yucatán, and Panama. Still today, the allure of Pre-Columbian gold resounds in popular culture, literature, and film.
But not all that was of great material value was gold in the Americas. In this seminar, we will explore indigenous art, materials, and aesthetic qualities, including many that were often valued far more than gold and silver. We will investigate how greenstone, colorful shells, and fine textiles often had greater economic and cultural value in ancient societies of Mexico, Central America, and Andean South America. In addition to studying the histories of ancient objects, we will engage with the latter-day histories of collecting, reception, and display that have come to color contemporary understandings of Pre-Columbian art.
This seminar is designed to correspond to the international exhibition Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, on view through January 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. Grant-funded travel to Los Angeles (by air or ground) in January 2018 will be a required component of this course.
Enrollment is by instructor approval only. Priority will be given to advanced undergraduates and graduate students in History of Art, followed by advanced students in allied fields such as Anthropology, History, Spanish & Portuguese, and Ethnic Studies. Spanish reading ability preferred. Interested students should add themselves to the course waitlist and send a statement of interest to Ltrever@berkeley.edu.